FHSA-L ArchivesArchiver > FHSA > 2004-11 > 1100447211
From: "Sally Rolls Pavia" <>
Subject: Fragments of a war History Forgot by Torcuil Crichton
Date: Sun, 14 Nov 2004 08:46:51 -0700
Fragments of a war History Forgot
Locals on Raasay in the Hebrides risked their lives to aid suffering German
POWs held in their midst. So why is their struggle barely remembered?
By Torcuil Crichton
In a shallow valley, in the middle of a dense English forest, they lie
beneath neat rows of blue granite headstones, 5000 dead from two world wars.
Colin Lee has been tending the lines of heather-fringed gravestones for the
past 20 years. People living less than five miles away don't know this is
here, says Lee, drawing on a quiet afternoon cigar and scanning the rows
stretching up either side of the slope. It should be no surprise then that
few have heard of the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof, the German war cemetery,
at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire. Shrouded in birch, pine and larch, the
remains of the German dead from both wars were collected from churchyards
throughout Britain and re-buried in the purpose-built cemetery in the 1960s.
Each stone marks four graves, with two names on either side. There are no
regimental markings to distinguish or disgrace the dead.
Many of the names are the common Saxon surnames of Britain and Germany, such
as Brown (Braun) and Miller (Muller). Most of these were internees, innocent
Germans who lived in Britain and were locked up on the outbreak of
hostilities. The internierter inscription on their graves lends a guilty
air to the woodland clearing.
After conferring with his gothic-scripted ledger, Lee walks through the
grass avenues to plot number 457. The shared headstone bears the names of
Georg Kagerer and Paul Sosinka. The sight of those inscribed names closes a
circle that has run from Staffordshire to Bavaria and to the Inner Hebrides.
The names that share the Cannock grave are also carved on a headstone on
Raasay, where these first world war German prisoners spent their last days.
Raasay, a long sliver of an island in the lee of the Isle of Skye, was the
location of one of the most unlikely prisoner of war camps ever and the
setting for a remarkable story of how, away from the slaughter of the
trenches, the spirit of human kindness triumphed over enmity.
High above the village of Inverarish, the only settlement of any size on
Raasay, and tucked behind another copse of trees, is the cemetery. There are
few visitors to the massive carved boulder that bears the names of the two
German soldiers, but there are plenty of other reminders of the presence of
almost 300 of their wartime comrades on the island.
The iron ore deposits on the island of Raasay were first identified just
before the outbreaks of hostilities in 1914, and William Baird, the iron and
mining company, opened a site, complete with a railway, a crusher, firing
kilns and a huge pier.
With war came massive demand for shells and the iron ore to produce them,
and, of course, a lack of civilian manpower to work the Raasay mines. In
1916, Baird arranged for the operation to be run under the ministry of
munitions with the labour of German prisoners. This contravened the Hague
Conventions, a shameful act which the British government later attempted to
cover up by destroying most of the records in 1920.
It was only when the wage differential between island workers in the mines
and the imported mainland labour led to a strike, that the illegal use of
German POWs as strike-breakers became an issue. The story was taken up in
the national press and raised in the House of Commons. A young Winston
Churchill, minister for munitions, had to respond with embarrassing
Hidden by the British government, mentioned in passing by most chronicles of
the Hebrides and confined to the past with the last generation, the history
of the Raasay POWs is fragmented. The enormous concrete supports for the
railway viaduct that carried ore from the mines to the pier head remain.
They will last forever, but the story behind them has almost slipped through
the fingers of time.
John Ferguson sits in his front room, wedged in between an upright piano and
the welcoming fireplace. In his hands he is tumbling what looks like an aged
white porcelain tube. Hollow, about six inches tall, it has an intricate
raised rose stem crafted on one side. Only the splayed base reveals that
this vase is made not from fine clay but beef bone, carved by one of the
German prisoners whose name appears in raised letters on the reverse. It is
an amazing piece of work, grotesque and beautiful at the same time, and
Ferguson rolls it through his hands over and over again, summoning up the
You see, they were very skilled craftsmen, the Germans, he says, sifting
through his memory for stories his father told him. They were chosen for
the work because of their trades. They could make anything from a needle to
an anchor, and I've seen both on this island. They also, he continues, made
exquisite lacquered woo den jewel boxes. And they made the jewellery to go
inside them. From a sovereign they could make a ring that would fit your
Fergusons house and mind are a treasure trove of artefacts and island
stories. His late father, John Archie Ferguson, worked with the German POWs
as a 14-year-old mining apprentice.
All that generation worked with the Germans, says John Ferguson. My
father got on with them very well and he could speak German until his dying
day. I think he looked on them as elder brothers.
There was a reason that the apprentice Ferguson and the prisoners developed
a symbiotic attachment. One of his brothers was also a POW, in Germany, and
because of that his mother was determined to keep the Germans boys on her
doorstep, starving on half rations, alive.
Jessie Ferguson (née MacDonald) from Applecross must have been some woman. A
widow with seven children, she had lost a young daughter to appendicitis
when her two eldest sons went to war in 1914. Kenneth and Fergie were with
the Broadford and Raasay B company of the Camerons infantry regiment. Fergie
who lied about his age to join up with his brother, was captured fighting
in a rearguard action in France. He was the only survivor dragged out of a
group of 30 dead and wounded soldiers by a German officer, his nephew
For three years Fergie Ferguson languished in a German prison camp, during
which time his mother on Raasay made a deal with herself to feed the German
prisoners in the hope that someone would deliver the same providence to her
Everyone was living with the stress of waiting for a telegram coming
through the door, says John Ferguson. She got sneers that she was feeding
these dirty Germans and she put up with a lot, but she always used to say
these are some mothers children, and so I hope that someone will be
looking after mine.
More than 280 German prisoners worked the Raasay mine for a two-year period.
There is one contemporaneous account by a rather stunned Australian
serviceman, on leave in the land of his forefathers, coming across German
uniforms he had last encountered on the Western Front, but the people who
rescued the history were two oceanographers who stumbled across the disused
Raasay mine workings in the 1980s.
Focusing on the technical challenge of the mine workings, Laurence and
Pamela Draper managed to gather enough material for a slim but timely book
on the subject in 1990. They collected first-hand accounts from islanders
who are now dead, archive photos and superb surveys of the extensive mine
Architecturally, Inverarish is a Highland village. Two rows of miners
cottages, built by Baird, are now occupied by most of the 200 or so
inhabitants of the island. During the first world war half of it was a
prison camp surrounded by barbed wire. In the top section were the Germans,
and in the bottom their military guard and British mine workers.
IN each corner there was a watchtower, just like you see in the films, says
John Ferguson, and everyone was searched coming in and going out. And, just
like the films, Fergusons father had long sausage-shaped sacks, sewn from
flour bags, suspended inside his baggy trousers to smuggle oatmeal and flour
into the camp for the Germans.
Separated from a military supply chain by miles of sea and rail, the Germans
survived, barely, on half rations which arrived on a steam packet every
three days. Life was not all bad, though. One photo depicts the Germans in
celebratory mood in leder hosen and hunting caps, with costumes and
instruments they must have made on the island. Apart from what they
fashioned for sale, the Germans traded the contents of their Red Cross
parcels. Prison tobacco and small luxuries became valuable commodities on an
island suffering the privations of war.
As far as I can gather there was very little animosity towards the Germans
says Norrie Gillies, whose house is a stones throw from the site of the
former prison camp hall, now the island fire station. I suppose that was
the case wherever people got to see prisoners as human beings, but life must
have been pretty miserable for them.
Escape attempts ended in farce. Half a dozen prisoners rowed out to a
fishing boat, but were unable to start the engine. Seasick and disgusted,
they returned ashore and were captured cooking a rabbit not far from the
camp. Others hid out until they were recaptured. Im sure they hadn't
realised that they were on an island, says Gillies.
Death was another escape. Georg Kag erer was killed by a roof-fall in the
mines in May 1917; Paul Sosinka died of unknown causes the previous
Christmas. Early in 1919, before the prisoners could be returned home,
another dozen succumbed to the fatal influenza epidemic that swept through
Europe and the world that winter.
They couldnt have been very robust by then, says Gillies. Its quite
tragic, because the war was over. While Kagerer and Sosinka were accorded a
headstone, the dozen others were given flat grave slabs.
Not long before the second world war began, recalls Gillies, the German
graves were desecrated. It was in 1936 or 1937, some people from one of the
universities came to the island for the day. There was a lot of anti-German
feeling at the time, and somehow these people found themselves in the
graveyard and they destroyed the German graves, smashed them completely.
People on the island only found out weeks later when they had a funeral.
The team that came for the remains of the POWs in 1967 showed similar
disdain for the burial ground. The two-ton carved boulder in memory of
Sosinka and Kagerer was cast aside carelessly and only put back upright many
years later by the islanders.
None of the former prisoners retained contact with the island, although they
left behind clues to their identities. There is a postcard of one of the
Germans in a tunic which John Ferguson has unearthed. Many more photos may
exist. There was a Jewish hawker who used to come round the islands, and he
would take photos with a camera he had,he explains. German prisoner records
were destroyed by Allied bombing in the second world war. In the upheaval of
a twice-defeated and then divided nation, there is no trace of the
prisoners side of the story.
The obelisk war memorial in Inverarish, meanwhile, is witness to the 22 men
from the island who died in the first world war. Two out of three who
volunteered never returned. It was an enormous loss for a small island.
Given Raasays Free Presbyterian leanings, there is not usually an Armistice
ceremony at the memorial. But the islanders will remember their dead, and
some will still spare a moment for the Germans whose names are carved on the
boulder high on the hill, the enemies who became their wartime friends.
The Raasay Iron Mine by Laurence and Pamela Draper is available from Raasay
Stores, Isle of Raasay.
Today: Pat Barker discusses her first world war trilogy, Regeneration, on
Radio 4s Bookclub. Thursday, Armistice Day: Eorpa goes in search of
Raasays German POWs, BBC2 at 7.30pm; The Nation Remembers: The Queen At The
Field Of Remembrance, BBC1 at 10.45am; BBC2 and Radio 4 mark a two-minute
silence at 11am.
07 November 2004
Sally Rolls Pavia
We have not inherited the world from our forefathers, we have borrowed it
from our children.
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|Fragments of a war History Forgot by Torcuil Crichton by "Sally Rolls Pavia" <>|