Final POWs

If the prisoners in Handforth had expected to be released with the ending of hostilities, then they were to be sadly disappointed. The signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918 did little to alter the situation of the camp population. The prisoners that the British had captured during the course of the war still remained in captivity in camps scattered throughout the British Isles. Unlike the Germans who had had to release all prisoners under the terms of the armistice, Britain as the victorious power had no pressing need to release theirs. Instead, the decision was taken to keep all enemy prisoners in British hands until a peace treaty was formally signed. Life for the prisoners in Handforth, therefore, continued very much as it had done during the actual war years.

Handforth camp library in happier times (IWM, Q64619)

Yet despite all the open signs of continuity, something had changed in the camp. With the fighting at an end, all focus turned to the question of repatriation. The prisoners lost interest in the camp theatre, games and other activities. As one Swiss visitor observed, “the camp industries so flourishing at one time are slowly dying out. […] Musical instruments, games and books lent by the different charitable societies [are] no longer of interest”, he added. The prisoners “have only one thought to ‘pack up and go’.”


The peace treaty, which brought a formal end to the Great War, was finally signed at Versailles in late June 1919. But even this event had little immediate impact on Handforth. The camp population still remained well over 3,000. Any drop in prisoner numbers was soon filled by new arrivals. As camps elsewhere in Britain closed, such as the Leigh camp west of Manchester, prisoners were centralised in the larger Handforth camp.

Versailles treaty signing
Signing of the Versailles Treaty, June 1919. From: HW Wilson, The Great War (London, 1914-19).

It was only in October 1919 that plans started to be finalised for the closure of Handforth and the repatriation of its large population. The decision was eventually taken to send the prisoners by train to Newcastle where they would board ships bound for Germany. The first shipments of wounded and ill prisoners commenced in early November 1919. These small transports were followed by much larger trainloads of prisoners from 11 November 1919 onwards.


Train heading to Leeds, post-war


In Leeds, a journalist witnessed one of the trains making its journey to the North Sea port. “All [the prisoners] appeared pleased when the train moved away [from the station], bringing them one stage nearer home”, he reported. But for good measure, the journalist added: “The pleasure was shared by the ‘Tommies’ who freely expressed their anxiety to be rid of their charges”. Only 4 days after the first prisoners had departed Handforth, The Times reported that the camp was now empty. And with it, the history of the Handforth POW camp came to a sudden and abrupt end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s