Yesterday BBC News Magazine carried a piece on the prisoners at Ruhleben, the ones unlucky enough to be caught visiting, passing through or living in Germany when Britain declared war in August 1914. Entitled ‘The Prisoners of War who made Little Britain in Berlin’, it paints the camp as a sort of cushy avoid-the-trenches holiday club - well, except for those unlucky enough to be ‘coloured’, Jewish or poor – with sports clubs, academic classes, entertainments, a government, postal service and a much-lauded affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society. It all sounds rather jolly- apart from a brief reference to escapes and suicides, and a rather ominous display of anti-Semitism where the Jewish inmates were briefly sent to a much harsher camp (don’t worry, they were saved by the American Ambassador to Germany and soon returned to Ruhleben). Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28420676.
It all sounds rather unbelievable when you consider that there was a war on, and that a large number of the inmates were of fighting age and would likely have endured the trenches if they hadn’t been stuck where they were. Certainly, the official publication entitled ‘The treatment of Prisoners of War in England and Germany during the First Eight Months of the War’, found among the Forces War Records Historic Documents, does not show the camp in quite such a rosy light. In the book a prisoner describes how the majority of inmates in the improvised camp, built on a racecourse near Berlin, slept on beds of damp, rotting straw on the concrete floors of lofts and stable boxes, six prisoners to a box.
There were apparently only two taps and one earthenware dish for 300-400 men to wash in, and the prisoners were screamed at and treated with great brutality by the guards. One man turning woke all the others, leading to broken sleep, and dust, cold, poor sanitation and poor quality food led to great hardship and sickness, particularly for the old.
Another source, ‘The Prisoners, 1914-18’ by Robert Jackson, describes rackets where criminals coaxed food supplies from unsuspecting old ladies back in Britain wanting to help the needy, then sold them to other prisoners at hugely inflated prices. It also describes a terrible outbreak of rats, one instance of half the camp contracting dysentery from a shipment of steak condemned as unfit for German consumption then delivered (whether accidentally or by design) to the prisoners, and mentions the curious kind of apartheid which robbed the black inmates of representation and caused them to be quartered all together, regardless of nationality and religion.
Still, if ‘The Prisoners’ is to be believed, the hardships of this camp did seem to be largely of the surmountable kind. When the food racketeering got out of hand, with some greedy souls receiving up to 30 parcels of food a day, a central parcels committee took control and made sure the food was distributed evenly. The food packages from home, indeed, were so plentiful that many of the men spurned the allocated German rations as ‘inadequate’, and only ate the potatoes and rice allotted to them, otherwise preferring to stick to the delivery food. The richer men of course got more, and alcohol was very hard to come by, but hunger seems only to have been an issue when the British navy did too good a job of disrupting the supply chain to Germany.
The rat outbreak was swiftly combated when one of the camp medics, a Dr Jephson, asked to guards to allow prisoners permission to keep dogs. Rat hunting became so much the fashion that, once the camp was completely cleared and disinfected, the inmates obtained a permit to hunt outside the grounds that was only cancelled when they started conducting extended visits, with equally enthusiastic guards in tow of course, to the neighbouring towns. They even bought dead rats to try to justify the expeditions!
The outbreak of disease, while not nice, was short-lived, and the book describes how the fitter inmates tenderly took care of their own, bathing their mates when they were too weak to wash themselves. The ‘coloured’ inmates, while not treated exactly as equals, were able to supplement their income and food supplies by doing menial jobs for the richer men. The lack of sanitation isn’t referred to, but the book does state that British reports that inmates were subjected to ‘horrors and tortures’ were “quite untrue” and largely the work of the government’s propaganda machine.
All sources, however, seem to agree that conditions were not at all good for the first few months, though they rapidly improved, and there was certainly some anti-Semitism, not just amongst the guards but the inmates too. However, the same US Ambassador who lobbied for the Jewish inmates seems to have been largely responsible for the improvement of conditions for the whole, campaigning tirelessly to be allowed by the German government to visit, then railing against the “inhuman conditions under which the prisoners were compelled to live”. Then men of Ruhleben were certainly fortunate to have so compassionate and tireless a guardian as James W. Gerard. Members of our site can browse his diary of ‘My Four Years in Germany’ during the Great War for free here in our historic documents library: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/library/search/?SearchQuery=my+four+years+in+germany. Even if you’re not a member, it’s available to purchase as an e-book and/or pdf.
So, it seems that, while the men of Ruhleben had a lot to endure, conditions there were certainly nothing to compare with the labour camps- and perhaps not even with life in the trenches! If you have relatives who were interned at Ruhleben, we’d love to receive copies of any original war diary they may have kept at Diaries@forces-war-records.co.uk, and we’ll offer you a year’s free subscription to our site as a thank you.