A German POW and Sacrilege 1917

Upper Elkstone Chapel, Staffs Moorlands

It reminded me of the scene in the film “ Whistle down the wind” when the escaped prisoner is found by the children in a remote barn in lonely countryside. The event that reminded me of the 1960 film happened 43 years before in February 1917 during the depths of winter in the remote Moorland village of Upper Elkstone. It certainly caused a commotion in Leek where crowds turned out to see the prisoner appear at the local court. It even made newspapers the other side of the world. Some months later the Wairarapa Daily Times in New Zealand reported that a German Naval Sub Lieutenant Emil Lehmann was arrested following his escape from Manchester and charged with sacrilege. It was alleged that he broke into a Methodist chapel and used bibles to make a fire. The account made it out to be a typical “Hunnish” trick

The chapel in question was a Primitive Methodist chapel at Upper Elkstones where Lehmann must have stayed some time before being discovered by a group of children who saw smoke coming out of the building. The leader of the children Sarah Ann Bricklebank of Royal Farm, Upper Elkstones was a chapel member and had keys to the building. The German officer was 24 and described in court as having dark hair and was wearing an overcoat with naval waistcoat and a grey soft cap. He had escaped from an escort at Central Railway station in Manchester while being transferred from Knockaloo Internment camp on Isle of Man to Kegworth in the East Midlands. He had somehow made his way on to the hills above Leek. The Imperial German Navy officer was courteous to the children, one of whom had the presence of mind to run to a local policeman. A chase ensued involving a number of police and locals who pursued Lehmann. He was caught and in a very British way was taken to Onecote Police Station and given a mug of tea and toast.

Lehmann was taken to Leek and charged with the unusual charge of sacrilege for burning bibles in the Primitive Methodist chapel stove (understandably as it was February). In court he spoke through an interpreter; he said that he did not know that the building was a chapel and that he had previously served on a battleship. The report tried to suggest that he attempted to entice the young girl which Lehmann denied. One gets the impression with Lehmann that he was someone who did not give in and some months later he and a number of other German Prisoners of War attempted a mass breakout from Sutton Bonington Prisoner of War camp in Nottinghamshire. He seems to have been a repeat offender as he also attempted another escape from Chelmsford prison.

Lehmann’s story is just of the hidden stories of the First World War in Leek as is the stories of the Belgian refugees in Bath Street, the raids on the Hippodrome for deserters, the parrot that helped the war effort, the young sailor who went down on the Hampshire with Lord Kitchener and the party for returned prisoners in the Red Lion in February 1919.


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