AS the British film 1917 basks in the glory of success at the very recent British Academy Film Awards, Alan Roberts takes himself off to watch the movie which has links to Skipton’s Raikeswood Prisoner of War Camp.

He writes: In 1917 at the height of the First World War two young British soldiers are entrusted with a dangerous mission which involves crossing no man’s land to deliver a warning to another unit that a planned attack would end in disaster.

Our two heroes gain access to some abandoned German trenches and are astonished at the strength of the German defences and the apparently lavish rations left behind by the departing German Army.

The Germans on the Western Front had been largely content to hold on to the territory that they had already gained. Part of that mindset was to invest in extremely strong defences involving very deep dugouts to provide shelter for their troops. As for the rations – it would not do to spoil the film, but it should be said that the film was based on the wartime experiences of Mendes’s own grandfather who was a messenger with the British Army.

Later in 1917 a young German officer would be captured by British troops at the Battle of Cambrai and imprisoned at Raikeswood Camp in Skipton. He too would be surprised at what he saw behind the opposing front line. Second Lieutenant Bernhard Hegermann had been stationed in a small French village on the Hindenburg Line. To his left was a Highland Division, to his right was 62nd West Riding Division including members of 2/6th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment which had trained at the drill halls in Skipton and Barnoldswick. The Germans called this section of the front the Flanders Sanatorium as although life in the trenches was physically and mentally tough there was no chance of a British attack – or so they thought.

Hegermann had recently returned from a training course learning about what we would call commando tactics. Keen to use his new-found skills, he almost immediately launched a night-time raid on the British trenches. Amidst the chaos and confusion of the battle, his men were seen bundling a small number of British prisoners towards the British lines. Hegermann had the presence of mind to check his compass and point his troops in the right direction.

The prisoners revealed that a major British attack was imminent, but could not provide exact details of where and when. In the event the British had managed to gather the necessary men and materials over several weeks under the cover of darkness. Even inquisitive German planes had not spotted anything amiss. Incredibly a total of 476 British tanks had been prepared for the battle, more than the entire British army possessed in 2018.

The first day of the battle was almost a complete success. With little time to prepare for the onslaught, and a lack of armour-piercing ammunition the defending Germans were routed. The British Army advanced for up to four and a half miles – a record at that stage of the war. Troops from the Skipton area were in the thick of the advance. No fewer than 73 German officers and men were captured who would later be imprisoned at Raikeswood Camp, more than on any day of the war. It is quite possible local men were involved in their capture.

On the day of the attack Hegermann and his men could make little impact as the massed tanks closed in on their positions, lumbering along at a speed of just 3.7 miles an hour in ideal conditions. Hegermann and his men were soon surrounded and making preparations for surrender.

Although the U-boat war was restricting supplies of food and materials to Britain, the situation in Germany was far worse due to a blockade of German ports by the Royal Navy. Hegermann reported seeing well-fed horses and men making their way forwards to the front. All the weapons and equipment appeared to him to be brand new. The motor vehicles were fitted with rubber tyres, and these included fully-equipped ambulances rather than the bone-shaking lorries which the Germans used for their own wounded. British Tommies occasionally passed the prisoners biscuits to eat. Hegermann spent a cold and miserable night with thousands of others in a field surrounded by barbed wire.

Two months later Hegermann would arrive in Skipton. Cambrai was not the great victory that was heralded at the time, but it showed how victory could be achieved. And the two British soldiers on their desperate mission across no man’s land? You will have to watch the film 1917 to find out.