Shocking story of a 'living skeleton' POW

“A repulsive story of German cruelty” was how The Luton News (January 23, 1919) described the story of repatriated POW Sapper William Harold Woodford, of New Cottages, Aley Green. Mrs C. R. Green, also of Aley Green, wrote that William (“or rather what is left of him”) was in England and that she and his wife Lizzie had visited him at Lewisham Military Hospital.

Sapper Woodford, 524343, Royal Engineers, had been taken prisoner at Morchain in France on March 25th, 1918, and interned at Standal in Germany. Born at Chiltern Green on February 1st, 1895, he had married Lizzie Burgess on March 10th, 1917, and the couple had a baby son, Walter William.

Mrs Green's letter read: “I regret to say that through starvation and various other tortures he is a living skeleton. His thighs are no thicker than my arm, and before taken prisoner he was six feet in height and as fine a man as one could wish to meet.

“He was kept working behind the lines until June, when he collapsed, his legs being too thin and weak to support his body. By that time many of his pals had died. After various tortures to ascertain if he was shamming, he removed to a so-called hospital. Here he received practically no attention, lying between life and death.

“So he remained until November, when he was removed to another hospital where even the Hun doctor was shocked at his emaciated condition. His bones literally stuck through his skin, which was dry and yellow, like parchment.

“The doctors are now taking fluid from his lungs. He is so emaciated that he can scarcely turn in bed. It is only his wonderful spirit which has kept him alive.

“I think these cases of extreme cruelty cannot be too widely known, and the people of Britain must insist that the fiends responsible be punished severely. He had received no letters or parcels during the whole time of his captivity.”

William was repatriated and then discharged from the Army in April 1919, suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. He died in Aley Green on March 5th, 1921.