The Great Escape – from Sutton Bonington!

The Centre’s Principal Investigator, Professor John Beckett, uncovers the story of a daring escape from Sutton Bonington, today one of the University of Nottingham’s UK campuses. 

Main Building, Sutton Bonington

During the centenary commemorations of the First World War, The Times is running a daily column reprinting a war-related activity first covered one hundred years ago. On 26 September 2017 it reproduced a story from 26 September 1917 headed ‘Escape of 23 War Prisoners’. It was about the escape of German officers from the internment camp at Sutton Bonington.

The Times reported the story with a certain sardonic humour. The German POWs had dug a tunnel and collected supplies ready for the break out, but having escaped they then struggled to put much distance between themselves and the camp. Six of them were caught near Nottingham, two were found asleep in a wood ‘worn out by their walk’, and three were arrested when they aroused suspicion by asking the way to the nearest railway station. Captain Muller was caught when schoolchildren found him blackberrying in Tollerton woods, six miles from the camp. Two more were found in East Leake ‘playing at cards while crouching beneath a hedge’.

These two men do not seem to have been trying all that hard to make their way back home, and apparently confessed the whole story. The escapees had tunnelled a distance of 50 yards over a three months period. Having escaped they divided into groups of four and started out on different routes towards the coast ‘where they hoped to get away by tramp steamers’.

Eighteen of those who escaped had been recaptured by 28 September 1917, and four more were taken at Chesterfield by Derby police on 30 September.

The story is, of course, well known. The Midland Agricultural College had been preparing to move from its premises in Kingston on Soar to the main building and men’s hostel newly built at Sutton Bonington. That building had a date stone of 1915. Before the move could take place the buildings were taken over to house German officers, who were generally well treated when they were captured as prisoners of war. In 1915 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle complained that they were quartered well away from ordinary soldiers, often in country houses or in the officers’ quarters of barracks. These were comfortably furnished, and servants were found for them from among the soldiers held as POWs. One of the prisoners, named in The Times, Captain Muller, had been in command of the Emden, a German raiding cruiser which had bombarded Madras in September 1914, and was subsequently sunk off the Cocos Islands on 9 November.


Photograph, 3 German Officer prisoners, Sutton Bonington campus, c.1917-1918

When the Sutton Bonington escape was reported, special constables were called out ‘and every measure was taken to apprehend the escaped prisoners’. With night patrols and road blocks, as well as special constables at strategic points, the prisoners were prevented from making much headway.

Lieutenants J. Stadelfaauer and P. Bastgem were recaptured in Derby after a week on the run – perhaps an inappropriate term since they had travelled just twelve miles from Sutton Bonington. Three men caught in West Bridgford on 25 September 1917 had among their possessions sardines, milk, bacon, ham, cheese, prunes, sausages, biscuits and dried toast. They might not have got far in their search for a packet boat to take them to Germany, but they were not going to starve. In fact, in the course of the First World War, only one German officer made it back home.

Germany, Britain and the First World War Event

King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II
King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Last week, the Centre held a discussion event about the relationship between Britain and Germany during and since the First World War. With the help of several invited speakers, we discussed the impact of war on the German community in Britain, the realities of internment and the changing patterns of Germanophobia and Germanophilia in the twentieth century.

British Anti-German poster c1919
British Anti-German poster c1919

Professor Panikos Panayi of De Montfort University presented some fascinating material on the changing attitudes to Germany on the part of the British people, including examples and commentary on phenomena such as the proliferation of anti-German invasion literature such as the Invasion of 1910 by William Le Quex, the use of stereotypes in propaganda as well as broadly positive stereotypes of Germans, such as a tendency to efficiency and skill in engineering.

Penny Walker from the Highfields Association of Residents and Tenants in Leicester, discussed her project How Saxby Street Got Its Name, which tells the story of how German-sounding streets in Leicester, including Hanover Street, Saxe-Coburg Street and Gotha Street were Anglicised during the war and are still known as Andover Street, Saxby Street and Gotham Street.

Louise Page, a playwright from Derbyshire, discussed her extensive interest in the topic, including her plans for projects that examine how the spread of anti-German feeling was experienced by members of the German diaspora in Britain. Her focus in on the personal, such as the sensitivity that people felt about their German names, and on the continuity of such attitudes towards other people today.

Dr Maggie Butt, of Middlesex University, gave a presentation of her work on the internment camp at Alexandra Palace. From 1915 to 1919 it was used as a camp for civilian internees, who were billeted according to class. Her project includes retellings of the first-hand stories of several specific internees, including the Old Harrovian R.H. Sauter and the anarchist intellectual Rudolf Rocker.

Andy Barrett of Excavate Community Theatre was accompanied by Heinke and Joyce from the Lutheran congregation in Aspley. They have access to a community of elders from the German community who have many stories to tell. They would like to record these stories and present them in a performative way.

Dr Claudia Sternberg from the University of Leeds told the story of Sophie Hellweg and Frank West, a British-German couple whose lives embodied some of the pressure that was felt by the people in mixed marriages during and after wartime.

The sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace internment camp
The sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace internment camp

Following these excellent presentations, we held a discussion about the topics and themes that had been raised. This included the relative strangeness of the British experience, with largely fixed borders, as compared to the more fluid nation-states of continental Europe, including Germany. This has contributed to a particular sense of the meaning of the First and Second World Wars that is not necessarily shared on the continent and which is having an impact on the progress of the Centenary of World War One. There is a great desire on the part of the public to learn more about the relationship between Britain and Germany (and between British and German people) that is shared by professional researchers. It is not necessarily shared by official bodies and some delegates reported difficulties in getting public authorities to support their work.

Nevertheless, we finished the discussions resolved to do more to explore this fascinating area of history. The event provided an excellent opportunity for delegates to share contact details and to make plans for collaboration. We are now planning to develop a pattern of projects that will explore and share these histories and ensure that the Centenary does not pass without addressing them.

If you’re interesting in developing a project about the German-British experience, or have a story to share, please get in touch.



Britain, Germany and the First World War Discussion Event

Here at the Centre for Hidden Histories we spend a lot of our time talking about the roles that different faiths, nationalities and groups played in the First World War. This, we believe, is a valuable endeavour, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story. Perhaps nothing ever will, but to even approach a comprehensive understanding of the war, there is another group to consider. The people of Germany.

 a British soldier offers a German prisoner a drink
a British soldier offers a German prisoner a drink

For reasons too obvious to list, the relationship between Britain and Germany was forever changed by the war. This had an impact at the state, community and individual levels and traces of this impact can still be felt today.

On the 23rd March we will be hosting a discussion event to explore these issues and to develop project ideas to investigate them further. We invite community groups to share project ideas for investigating this relationship and the different meanings that the war had, and continues to have, in the two countries.

Discussion topics are likely to include:

  • The impact of war on German communities in Britain
  • The history of prisoner of war camps
  • Attitudes to memorialisation in Britain and Germany
King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II
King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II

This is not an exhaustive list and we’d be delighted to consider any topic that falls within our theme  of the relationship between British and German people during and since the First World War.

The event is free, but places are limited. Tickets can be booked here.



Britain, Germany and the First World War Discussion Event

23rd March 2015 4pm-7pm

University of Nottingham