Volunteer Excursion to the Leeds Pals Memorial

One volunteer project currently underway at Leeds Museums & Galleries is looking at histories of soldiers in Leeds Museums collections, in partnership with the HLF-funded project Remembering the First World War in Nidderdale.

The two projects have teamed up because of a shared interest in the history of the 15th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, known as the Leeds Pals. Recruited from within the city, they trained up at a camp in Nidderdale. By working in partnership we are able to pool our resources and some of our Leeds volunteers visited the memorial whilst archaeological work was taking place. Together they have put together this blog post.

Some of the Leeds Pals Volunteers (l-r
Amanda, Izzy, Josh, Tom, John, Majid)

Amanda Peacock, Project Officer for Remembering the First World War in Nidderdale, will introduce the site:

 “Breary Banks in Colsterdale is a windswept, northfacing slope 750 feet above sea level on the valley side of Colsterdale, a remote valley on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, and justifiably part of the area designated Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

“Hard to imagine now, but for over 20 years there was a planned village here, comprised of rows of wooden huts and an itinerant navvy population. For five of those years, 1914-19, Breary Banks played an important part in the First World War: as a training camp, most memorably for the Leeds Pals, and later as a bleak Prisoner of War outpost for captured German Army Officers.”

Terraced land at Colsterdale

Izzy, one of the volunteers had this to say: 

“When I found out we were going to see the Leeds Pals camp I was filled with excitement and intrigue. The landscape was so breathtaking and it really hit home how cut off from society the Pals would have been. Based the in the heart of Colsterdale, you can imagine what the arrival of the post must have meant to them. 

“Probably the only way to keep in touch with family members and loved ones as telephones were just being introduced. It was also apparent that some of the local farmers, when talking to some of the Pals, had no idea that the war was even on. Realizing how cut off the Pals where made me question why they chose this particular place for the camp. With it being so far from Leeds why didn’t they decide on somewhere closer? Perhaps to eliminate distractions from friends and loved ones?”

John S saw poetry in the landscape:

 “Arrived to the chorus sounds of the wild, lapwings and curlews crying over the fells, very atmospheric, our first view of the memorial, which stands so proudly, plainly distinctive within the landscape, an obelisk, a little worse for weather wear …
 The area was previously surveyed and planned for local authority reservoir works, and navvies drafted in pre war  and a shanty town developed with facilities,  including a chapel built 1911 , which is still in situ, well utilised by the  PALS, used as a sanctuary, a place of refuge away from military life, what an atmosphere the interior must convey …
​Many of their number would never have seen, nor experienced, such extensive countryside  witnessing what they may possibly have joked of as heaven, unfortunately for many and all too soon they would also witness the HELL of the Somme.

The monument bears a commemorative plaque in memory of the pals and at its base, smaller, now faded tributes, poppy crosses, and daffodils , it therefore seemed fitting to add our own tiny tribute this an individual poppy, I felt quite honoured, and humbled and privileged to be here.”

Majid was similarly impressed: 

“It was a nice exploration trip.  I got some interesting   archaeological and historical information about what happened at the Colsterdale area in the First World War. In addition to this, Tim had added another  pleasant aspect upon the location of events when he read  some pieces of the novel that related to the memories of  German prisoner. It was a fascinating and spectacular scene that one can be imagined.”

We were really lucky to have Jon Finch and Archaeology Students from York University working on site, who were able to interpret the ongoing excavations and landscape.

Tim found some excerpts from the diaries of prisoners of war who stayed at the Colsterdale camp:

 “I really enjoyed the trip up to Colsterdale, especially nice to meet with the archaeologists from York University and see the bits and pieces they’ve found.

 The account I read was from ‘Escapers All’ a collection of escape stories published by Bodley Head Ltd in 1931 and was by Heinz H.E. Justus, an Oberleutnant in 73 Regiment (Hanoverian Fusiliers) captured at Langemark on 31 July 1917:

‘The first English camp I was taken to as a German prisoner of war in July 1917 was Colsterdale, near Masham, up north in Yorkshire, and I hope it will be taken in good part when I say that I didn’t want to stay there. I tried several times to get through the barbed wire and I also took part in one of the tunnelling schemes which was, however, discovered by the British just before the tunnel was completed. Then one fine day I hit upon the idea of just walking out through the gate disguised as our English canteen manager, who was about my size and figure – his name was Mr Budd… 

‘So evening after evening I started observing closely his every movement on leaving the camp, and noticed to my satisfaction that the sentries never asked him for the password. Everybody knew Mr. Budd too well for that’. This was also, of course, rather a drawback; but my idea was to do the thing in the evening after dark. I’d been informed – I think quite wrongly – that every male passenger in those war days was supposed to produce a pass or other document when booking a railway ticket, particularly when travelling to London, and as I didn’t feel like walking the whole way there I decided to travel as a woman.'”

Tom’s reactions: 

“It is a very eerie place given not only its isolation but also combining that with the thoughts that many of the individuals that trained there may not have even survived the war. For many this may have been there one and only view of rural England as they all came from heavily polluted streets of Leeds. What was also amazing was when the site was used as a POW camp, why would any prisoner want to escape from there (even though the weather can be a bit harsh) to return to the mud, bullets and shelling of the battlefield.”

Josh found the archaeology really intriguing and also took some great photos: 

The Camp during WW1 and today

“Trips like this are imperative because they bring the history to life! I was particularly intrigued by when you look at the field you can see the layers cut back still there…if you didn’t know about the training camp you probably wouldn’t think too much of it but it’s actually really obvious it was man made and it helps you picture the place with the buildings there.”

And to end again, with words from Izzy:

 “Overall I had such a great day out and feel so much more educated on the lives of the Pals. Being at the camp where they called home for the duration of the war really hit home what their lives were like. For many boys, being forced to be men to grow up and be soldiers. Life for them would never be the same again. I feel so much more excited to further our research on the Leeds Pals and I can’t wait to get more stuck in.​”

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