When a small team of archaeologists went looking for prehistoric remains near Hickleton Hall in South Yorkshire, what they found took them totally by surprise: instead of an ancient site, they unearthed a previously unknown Prisoner of War camp. But the surprise didn’t end there.
What was life like for the prisoners? What was their fate? And how did they interact with the local population? With help from the community, Alex Sotheran of Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd., made some remarkable discoveries. We spoke to Alex to find out what it was like to uncover the story of Yorkshire’s prisoners of war.
During the Second World War, millions of soldiers, sailors, airmen and even civilians found themselves behind barbed wire. In fact, more people were interned than in any other conflict. But while many famous films focus on daring escapes, for most POWs their experiences were much more mundane.
From hunger, boredom, comradeship and compassion, to deprivation, cruelty and neglect, their fate usually depended on where and when they were captured, and often simply their race or nationality. So what of the prisoners who were interned here in Britain?
Hi Alex. You’ve been digging with volunteers at the recently discovered Hickleton Hall Prisoner of War camp. How did you discover the site?
We actually discovered the Prisoner of War camp by accident! We were looking for prehistoric features near Hickleton Hall, but what we found were large, rectangular concrete bases. We soon realised that what we were actually dealing with was some form of military camp.
When did you realise you were digging such an important piece of Yorkshire history?
Even the farmer who now owns the land hadn’t realised there was an entire camp just below the surface. But we did a bit of archive work and found that Hickleton Hall had been used as an HQ by I Corps after the retreat at Dunkirk in 1940. The site was then added to and used as a Prisoner of War camp, firstly housing Germans, then Italians and finally displaced persons from Poland and Ukraine until it closed in 1948. Very little was known about this site, and even less so about the lives of the prisoners, how they were treated and their relations with the local population.
What was the most surprising thing you unearthed?
Amazingly, as well as discovering these buildings in the first place, we found that some of them had small gardens built around the entrances. One even had a pile of sandstone, like a rockery! This is where archaeology starts to come in – you don’t find this kind of thing in official papers – but it gives us an incredibly touching insight into the prisoners as people, passing the time, relieving their boredom and trying to improve their conditions.
You also collected oral histories from people who knew the POWs. What else did you learn?
Loads of people came forward to tell their stories. The prisoners were put to work as land labourers, but we heard many stories that they’d visit the local villages. One lady told us that when she was a little girl, two Italian prisoners became very good family friends and would visit her parents’ house on a Sunday for afternoon tea!
Another lady, who used to live above the village pub, said that the prisoners would come and help out if they finished on the land early. And we heard that in some places, the prisoners were not housed in concrete blocks under lock and key, but in tents!
Obviously there were cases of abuse from the British towards their prisoners, but what we’re learning at this particular site in Yorkshire is a very human picture of how people felt about the prisoners and the impact they had on village life. Some people who were interned stayed and became a part of the community. It’s an incredible story to tell.
Why is it so important to dig up such recent history?
Even if it seems like there is already a wealth of information about the war, there’s a lot missing; maps can be wrong, official documents certainly won’t cover certain aspects and even personal letters and diaries leave a lot out.
This project is helping to uncover the unofficial, uncensored, social history of war. What was life like for the prisoners? How did they pass the time? How did they interact with the local population?
It’s also really important for our collective memory to record sites like this as archaeological monuments to what happened not so very long ago – it’s so easy to overlook and forget that this stuff was happening in Britain.
What are your views on involving members of the public in archaeological excavations?
A lot of the volunteers said they’d never been involved in archaeology before, and many were unaware of the amount of archaeology in their local area and wanted to do more and they’ve had so much to add to the story. It’s a great way for people of all generations to engage in our shared history – we had a huge range of people attending; the oldest was in their seventies and the youngest was six!
Thanks Alex. We’re looking forward to your final report and more surprising details about the lives of Yorkshire’s WWII prisoners. You can find out more about the project on Alex’s daily blog, read more of the oral histories or email email@example.com if you’re interested in getting involved.
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