World War I Leeds Pals village and German POW camp rediscovered by archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 26 September 2014

Archaeologists in Yorkshire have found fragments of World War I and Prisoner of War communities, including reminders of the heroic Leeds Pals

A photo of various old bottles in a box
Bottles found at Colsterdale, in the Yorkshire Dales© Jonathan Finch
Poring over archive maps, surveying aerial photos and carrying out excavations along Breary Banks, in the Yorkshire countryside, the University of York team has found sauce, beer and medicine bottles, broken crockery and fragments of children’s toys pointing to a poignant story of a community more than 100 years ago.

The village was established in 1903 as a camp for itinerant workers constructing two reservoirs to support the region’s growing urban population, accommodating more than 700 families in rows of huts.

A photo of a farmhouse along a road in the countryside
Looking eastwards down a quiet lane towards the disused Methodist chapel at Breary Banks© Gordon Hatton,
“It was like a small piece of Leeds in the countryside,” Dr Jonathan Finch, who led the archaeology students’ project, told the university’s magazine.

“The camp had a mission hall which doubled as a school and modern facilities such as piped water, electricity and a narrow gauge railway for supplies.”

When the First World War broke out, young recruits from the new Leeds Pals battalions replaced the workers. Around 1,000 people spent six happy months in the village.

“The archaeology of the army occupation of the site is as much about their use of the surrounding landscape, where we can see evidence of practice trenches and shooting ranges,” said Dr Finch.

The Pals lost a third of their members after fighting at the Somme on July 1 1916. “It was an unimaginable human tragedy which, because of the nature of the Pals battalions, had a terrible impact not just on families, but on workplaces and entire communities.

“It meant that in cities such as Leeds whole neighbourhoods were engulfed in grief.”

A photo of a farmhouse on a green field in the countryside
This rough pastureland shows evidence of a World War I army camp which once stood here. Humps, bumps and level areas lie where huts once stood© Gordon Hatton,
The bodies were never repatriated from France.

“Breary Banks is important because it helped forge the identity of the Leeds Pals – indeed of Leeds as a modern city – and provides a focus and tangible link to terrible events which still resonate today.

“Our work at Breary Banks provides a focus within Yorkshire for an alternative story about the young men who went to war, as well as those who arrived from the front as prisoners of war.

“It connects the area to the First World War, whilst also giving an insight into the growth of Leeds as a major industrial centre.”

Bolt holes for a set of double prison security gates come from the Prisoner of War camps for German officers set up after the Pals left. A memorial cairn, built in 1935, is an important landmark used for memorial events.

“For archaeologists, this is relatively recent history,” reflected Dr Finch.

“But over a period of only 30 years or so we have a story about ordinary people caught up in global events, which makes it a site our students can really connect to.

“There’s a lot of local interest – we’ve had primary school visits and I have talked to local groups who have also come on site to get archaeological training.

“It’s an important piece of our regional and international history which highlights the impact of the First World War and industrial expansion on our rural landscape.”

  • Read Spotlight (opens in pdf, page 16) for more. Part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the First World War: Leeds Pals, POWs and the Home Front.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of people on an archaeological dig in the countryside
The project has been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund© Jonathan Finch
A photo of a stone war memorial with red flowers beneath it in the open countryside
The Leeds Pals Memorial on Breary Banks. The memorial is a tribute to more than 500 men from Leeds who died at the Battle of the Somme© David Johnston,
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We have information that my father`s cousin from Stornoway, Isle of Lewis came down to Leeds and was with `The Leeds Pals` and died in the battle of The Somme. He was Archibald Craig and was born 1897 in Stornoway. He was previously in the Rosshire Mountain battery as a trumpeter and was discharged 07/12/2014. It looks like he was declared unfit but came south and joined the Leeds Pals His service no. we have is:4320 but that may be with The Rosshire battery. He died age 19.
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