'Cabbage soup again' - the hardships & resilience of men held in Germany's Ruhleben prison camp

Posted on centenarynews.com on 10 February 2014
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Elgin Strub-Ronayne writes for Centenary News about the remarkable story of how more than 5,000 mainly British men spent the entire four years of the First World War held captive in the heart of Germany. 

The underground train network in Berlin has an East-West line, whose western terminal, Ruhleben, is an unremarkable suburb in the Charlottenburg district of the city.

It is situated very near Spandau, famous for its jail and the notorious Nazis who were imprisoned there after the Second World War.

But today no-one remembers that Ruhleben played a similar role in the First World War, although its captives had not been war criminals but mostly British civiIians.

In the prosperous Berlin of the early 1900’s Ruhleben was a well-known venue as a trotting horse-race course and included three grandstands, a restaurant, a club house which also served as a casino, as well as residential quarters and offices for various functionaries. 

It was enormously popular for an outing with the family, or for some serious betting and gambling.

When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, many foreigners, a considerable number of them British nationals employed in German businesses, missed the last opportunity to leave the country before the borders were closed.

Enemy Aliens

They had become Enemy Aliens’ overnight and the German military police set about making arrangements to round them up and find places where they could be detained for the duration.

In Berlin it was decided that the racecourse at Ruhleben could be suitably converted into a detention camp, after which it became known in Germany as ‘Ruhleben Gefangenen Lager für Engländer.’

Strictly speaking it was an Internment camp but the British internees always referred to it as a prison camp.

Very little information exists about this camp and most people in England as well as in Germany have never even heard of it.  Five books of memoirs, some photos and a few articles at the Imperial War Museum, and several boxes of letters and other memorabilia stored at Leeds and Harvard Universities, is all that remains as a record of this forgotten bit of history concerning the lives of 5,000 British civilians and members of the armed services.

November 6. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of this camp and the only reason I happen to know of it, is because I grew up living in the same house as someone who had been a prisoner there for the entire duration of the war; his name was Wyatt Rawson, my step-father.

From early October 1914, male civilians between the ages of 17 and 55 with foreign passports were being arrested in Germany. There were some exemptions; these included clergymen, doctors, bedridden invalids and the mentally ill. British Army and Naval officers whether active or retired, were arrested whatever their age. The majority of the prisoners who were to be sent to Ruhleben were British.

Horse dung on the floor

On November 6, when the first batch of prisoners arrived, very little had been done about their accommodation The 11 Stables were to serve as barracks.

Each stable contained 27 horse boxes measuring 11 foot square (roughly 3½ meters) and in this space were 6 field beds, three on top of each other on two sides of the box. Each bed had a straw-filled sack as mattress, a pillow and two blankets. It was all done in such haste that some of the boxes still had horse-dung on the floor. 

However, the number of prisoners arriving was so woefully underestimated, that there was not enough bedding to go round. Eventually 365 men were crammed into each so-called ‘barrack’ and the ones who couldn’t secure a bed in one of the horse-boxes, had to sleep in the hayloft.
 
There was no heating and very little lighting, Washing facilities in each barrack consisted of two stand-pipes and 15 bowls. Even so, every prisoner was expected to be washed and dressed and on parade by 6.30 am. 

A tin bowl was provided for food, but no cutlery or mugs for drinking. Certain items could be bought at the canteen, but many of the prisoners had arrived with little or no money.

Rats

For several weeks these men were forced to spend all day in the barracks. Inevitably, owing to overcrowding and an infestation of rats, hygiene became a huge problem. 

Military latrines had to be hastily installed and there were facilities outside the camp near the railway station, where prisoners could have a hot bath and delouse their underwear. 

However, owing to the vast numbers, these visits could only be very infrequent. There was a military hospital, also outside the camp, which was made available to anyone falling ill, but it was extremely basic and badly run. A field kitchen had been installed under one of the grandstands a quarter of a mile away and in order to get to it, the prisoners had to cross the stable yard, usually a quagmire due to lack of drainage.

Their daily exercise consisted of the three trips to the kitchen, to collect a meal that was wholly inadequate, which they had to bring back to the barracks to eat.

                                                      The "Line-up" at Cook House

Wyatt Rawson

My step-father Wyatt Rawson was a 20 year old Cambridge University student who had been spending his summer vacation in Weimar, a small town in Thuringia with a great reputation as a cultural centre. 

My maternal grandparents had a large house there and Rawson and another student friend were staying with them as paying guests. Many years later he became my stepfather and in all the years I knew him, he never spoke of his experiences in Ruhleben.

Only when he was over 80 years old, did he once admit to me that he still had nightmares about "that place." 

In the first days of a cold and bleak November in 1914, he was among some 4000 bewildered men milling about the ill-prepared camp at Ruhleben, clutching a small suitcase, being shouted at by  the military guards who were overwhelmed by the vast number of arrivals and unable to cope.

The chaos was indescribable, but a handful of men with courage and leadership qualities, set about bringing some semblance of order. First they got each of the 11 barracks to elect a captain who could speak fluent German. Then they arranged a meeting of the captains on November 13th, in order to discuss the most pressing problems. These included providing clothes for destitute prisoners and some sort of a relief fund for their benefit, as well as permission to get supplies brought into the camp from outside, particularly food. They also organised a barrack revenue to which each prisoner who was financially able was required to contribute.

The purpose of this fund was to pay volunteers to act as cleaners, particularly of the latrines and to buy the necessary brooms, pails, soap and disinfectant.

                                             A scene from inside the camp in  1918

Joseph Powell

During the following months postmen, firemen, cashiers and laundrymen were elected and finally a camp captain to be in overall charge and act as liaison officer with the German officials. 

The person the prisoners chose was Joseph Powell, a man with considerable organising skills and tenacity. Very little is known about him other than that he was European Manager of a film company called Eclair before his internment. That camp-life improved so dramatically in the first two years was largely due to his enormous energy and determination.

In 1916, an American visitor to Ruhleben complimented the Camp Commander, Graf von Schwerin, on the state of the camp, remarking on the many and varied activities that had been organised for the prisoners, to which Schwerin replied: “You mustn’t suppose that the camp was always like this.

"When the men were first brought here, the place wasn’t fit to keep pigs in. All that you have admired they created themselves!”

Powell’s autocratic behaviour and humourless personality eventually made him unpopular with the prisoners. But Powell remained Captain until the end. After the war he was awarded the OBE for his service to the camp, and remained in Berlin until his death in 1925.

Boulevard des Anglais

Although officially in charge, Graf von Schwerin left the actual running of the camp to Baron von Taube who had a reputation for being unpredictable and given to violent outbursts of temper.

On one occasion he overheard one of the prisoners referring to ‘the bloody Germans’, whereupon he ordered everyone to be lined up barrack by barrack and delivered one of his tirades ending by screaming “I throw the insult back in your teeth and call you bloody English!”  confining everyone to barracks until further notice.

The situation was eventually resolved by a small deputation, who walked the Baron up and down the ‘Boulevard des Anglais’ - the name the prisoners had given to the muddy promenade between the grandstands and the race course and the only place where they were allowed to exercise. 

Cabbage soup again

Joseph Powell persuaded the American ambassador to visit the camp on March 3 1915. He was horrified by the squalor he found. Extracts from the diary of a captive called Burton describe the bleak conditions.

Jan 8. - Received five marks from the King Edward VII Fund. First relief I have had. Raining and blowing hard, grounds in horrible condition.

Jan 9. -  Nine fresh arrivals in our loft from Saxony. White bread stopped at canteen.

Jan 10. - Small rolls doubled in price.  Evidently getting scarce.

Jan 16. - Weather still rotten

Jan 27. - Kaiser’s Birthday. Halyards on the flagstaff in the yard discovered to be cut. All post to be stopped until culprit is found.

Jan 28. -  Post restarted. Snowing, very cold.

Jan 29. -  Cabbage soup again, third time in seven days, Letters sent out with released prisoners discovered. Mail both in and out stopped for ten days.

Feb 1. -   Freezing. Loaf of bread has now to last us three days, price at canteen doubled.  Received news of arrival of son and heir.

Feb 2. -  28 fresh arrivals from Brussels and 40 from Berlin. New departure in the feeding, each man receiving a piece of meat.

Feb 3. - Lots of people on the sick list, supposed to be a kind of poisoning caused by the meat, being no longer used to it. Skilly  (a thin oat meal gruel) for tea again.

Feb 6. - 150 new arrivals from Hamburg.

Feb 8. - Man in Barrack 4 cut his throat this morning. However he didn’t make a good job of it and was able to walk to hospital. 24 fresh arrivals from Dresden.

Feb 9. - 16 fresh arrivals from Brussels. Mail recommenced, both in and out.

 Feb 21. - All bread stopped at canteen.

Feb. 28. - Snow again. Started today on new bread system, giving out one third of a loaf a day per man, pretty rotten stuff at that. Getting pretty  hungry.

At the end of February 1915 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, authorised a weekly payment of 4 Marks to each prisoner, which they would have to refund after the war was over.

The German authorities also gave permission for postal orders to be sent by relatives. Now at least it was possible to buy food, if available.

Another diarist called Abbot wrote:

Feb 13. I have now got into a set programme of language study, four hours of  Russian, one of German and one and a half of French. This fills up the day very well.

In fact a group of teachers and academics had already joined forces, founding the ‘Ruhleben Camp School’, A rigorous programme of hourly lectures, from 8.0 am until midday and again from 6-7 p.m seven days a week, was drawn up. The subjects included English, German and Italian literature, chemistry, biology, physics, mechanics and calculus, with one hour on Sundays for music.

Following the American Ambassador's visit there was a marked improvement. Permission was given to use the race course, which meant that the sports enthusiasts could organise games of football to relieve the depressing boredom.

Rugby and eventually cricket, tennis and golf were added to the pastimes.

                                                  A sketch of the interior of Barrack 12

The American Embassy gave 2,000 marks, which made it possible to improve buildings and even put up new ones. By the Spring of 1915 various committees in England had been alerted to the plight of the prisoners. Food parcels, medical supplies and clothing began to arrive, from the Red Cross; the Central Prisoners of War Committee; The Khaki Prisoners War Fund; Lady Dodd’s Prisoner of War Fund; Invalids Comfort Fund, as well as parcels from the prisoners' own families.

Apart from food and clothing these included requests, like tennis balls and rackets, cricket balls and pads, golf clubs and various other items of sporting equipment.

A library was started, initially through private donations but then the Board of Education sent several hundred books. By September 1915 the camp was virtually run by the prisoners themselves.

Some guards resented the prisoners and would smash up the tables and chairs they had made.

Pro-Germans

There was also considerable ill-feeling among the prisoners towards a particular group known as the ‘Pro Germans’. These were descendants of British citizens who had settled in Germany many years back and had continued to register their children and grandchildren as British, in order to avoid their male offspring being conscripted into the German armed forces.

Most of these young men could not even speak English and made it very plain that their loyalties were to Germany and the Kaiser. They enjoyed special privileges, lived in separate quarters in another part of the camp.

Camp Magazine

On June 6 1915, the first Camp Magazine was published. Somehow a printing works was set up at Grandstand 1 and all types of printing, duplicating and typing work was offered at cost price on a cyclo-duplicating machine. 

The magazine, called ‘In Ruhleben Camp’, is both informative and entertaining, though judging by the general tenor of the articles and illustrations one gets the impression the place was a holiday camp, rather than a prison camp.

The 31 pages contain reports on the football season and various athletic competitions; the debating society; theatrical performances; orchestral concerts; poems; cartoons as well as advertisements for a host of professional services.

In a camp of some 4,500 inmates, one could be sure of finding experts in every conceivable field.

Some of the adverts were serious and some facetious. In a later issue Wyatt Rawson placed one which was both…

                                           Camp Magazine with Rawson's advert

The magazine demonstrates the men's courage and optimism and their ingenuity in overcoming their conditions. A football match was the first item of entertainment. It took place on March 28, shortly after permission had been granted to use the race course. Two teams, Ruhleben versus The Rest, were chosen from a host of volunteers and Baron von Taube was invited to kick off. 

According to the report contributed by an English International Footballer F.B. Pentland, of Middlesborough FC  ‘the play was keen and clean, not a solitary foul was given’.

The Debating Society started in a small way in Loft B of Barrack 2. The subjects included among others, the pros and cons of: Trade Unionism; Corporal Punishment in Schools; Plural Voting; Divorce. 

These meetings became increasingly popular, until one of the loft occupants, who resented the invasion of his very small space remarked “This is getting a bit thick, and if that blighter stands on my bed again he’ll be able to give a talk on ‘Flying’ next week!’

Eventually the Society held its meetings in one of the grandstands, attracting an audience of anything up to 800.

                                                           Ruhleben auditorium

The entertainment committee converted a hall underneath another grandstand into a theatre and concert hall and the Ruhleben Dramatic Society put on Shaw’s ‘Captain Brassbound’s Conversion’, with Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’ and Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’ to be presented shortly.

A group of Irish players was also working on one of the plays by W.B.Yeats for future production. 

Orchestra

The forming of an orchestra was another great achievement. It started with a few professionals who had brought their own instruments, but by the time this magazine was printed almost every orchestral instrument was available and eventually even players to play them. 

The orchestra was conducted by a Mr Adler, who managed to rearrange the orchestration to make up for missing instruments or to accommodate instrumentalists who were not yet very advanced.

He provided incredibly varied programmes; as the report goes ‘Mr Adler has run the changes on Bach and Offenbach; in quick succession we have had Beethoven, Brahms, Balfe and Bellini; we have had extracts from ‘The Mastersingers’ ‘The Messiah’ ‘The Mikado’ and both kinds of Strauss.

The autumn season will begin with ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ - the score having been kindly presented by Novello &Co. of London - followed by Verdi’s Requiem for which Ricordi of Milan have sent the score’.

Edgar Bainton

There were two musicians of particular distinction among the prisoners. One was the Glasgow- born virtuoso pianist Frederic Lamond, a pupil of Franz Liszt, who was living and teaching in Berlin at the time. He was released after a few weeks owing to ill - health.

The other was Edgar Bainton, British composer, pianist and teacher, who had a distinguished career, eventually becoming Director of the State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, Australia in 1934. He remained in Ruhleben camp the entire four years and contributed greatly to the musical life there, providing compositions for all occasions, training the choir, conducting the orchestra, sometimes playing the solo part when a piano concerto was on the programme.

                Ruhleben Camp Choir. Middle row centre Wyatt Rawson (left) and Edgar Bainton

Trafalgar Square

Meanwhile new buildings were erected and improvements undertaken in order to make the camp seem more like home. Various areas were given London names, the main gate became Marble Arch and the largest open space Trafalgar Square, which was the hub of camp life. Instead of Nelson’s Column the square was dominated by the all important Boiler House.

At the outset there had been no facilities for hot water in the camp so, with the help of some of the funds provided by the American Embassy, the prisoners built themselves a boiler house.

Every day saw an endless queue of men armed with jugs and kettles, clutching hot water tickets, which were issued by the Canteen Committee at half a penny a litre. The notice board on the side of the boiler house, which was covered in messages, requests, offers and miscellaneous information was also a popular meeting place; but probably the most vital location was the Post and Parcels Office.

There was always a crowd congregated in this area as the men were desperately dependent on the daily delivery of letters and parcels from home.

The German officials were well aware of this and the stoppage of mail was the punishment most frequently inflicted for misdemeanours -  and the most keenly felt by their captives.

The Times

By 1916 Ruhleben camp had become officially self-governing. In spite of the war raging all around, this former race course in the middle of enemy country had virtually been turned into a small British Colony.

It was also possible to keep abreast of the progress of the war from the British perspective because, for some peculiar reason, the ‘Times’ newspaper continued to be sold at newsagents in Berlin throughout the greater part of the war.

One enterprising prisoner, who was always referred to as ‘Mr. W.H.Smith’, made a deal with one of these newsagents, who was only too happy to sell him his out-of-date copies at a vastly inflated price.

These were then sold on with further profit to the news-starved prisoners.

From now on there was altogether greater contact with the citizens of Berlin. The magazine ‘In Ruhleben camp’ was upgraded to a larger, more elaborate publication, which was printed by J.S. Preuss, Printer by Appointment to the Royal Court, Berlin 5, Dresdner-Strasse 43. It was renamed ‘The Ruhleben Camp Magazine’and cost 30 pfennigs.

                                                  A cartoon of the orchestra

A number of new clubs had sprung up, all contributing articles to the Magazine, which now averaged 65 pages.

One of these was the Nautical Circle for the benefit of the considerable number of merchant seamen who had been captured in Hamburg and other ports on the west coast of Germany.

In London, a committee had been formed by the Board of Trade to supply seamen interned abroad with text books to further their knowledge, particularly in marine engineering and to prepare them for the appropriate grade examinations as soon as they were released. 

Other new ventures included a thriving chess club and classes in Art and Handicrafts. Gardening was another new enterprise. Articles exhorting the prisoners to improve the look of the camp with flowerbeds became a regular feature and a seasonal competition was held for the most successful one.

There appear to have been only six issues of the Ruhleben Camp Magazine, the last one appearing in June 1917.

By this time the war was going badly for the Germans and all news going into the camp was strictly censored.
There were vague reports about a revolution in Russia and the German retreat may have decided the editors to abandon further publication.

                                                Cartoon of Ruhleben Patent Office

However, prisoners were still arriving in the camp. A group of Australians were captured while on a weekend fishing trip to off-shore Islands and eight Britons and one Egyptian, all managers of cotton mills in Russia, were caught trying to escape to Finland.

1917 was not without its incidents in the camp; a plague of locusts descended on it in early autumn, devouring every green thing in sight. Shortly after that, an enormous explosion occurred at the Spandau Munition Works and one prisoner reported having stood spellbound by No.2 Grandstand while a large slice of plate glass slid gently down at his feet!


Flu

During the winter months an unprecedented Flu epidemic ravaged the camp and anyone still able to stand on his feet was called upon to help at the Field Hospital. Everyone was either too ill or too exhausted to take much notice of the New Year. The early months of 1918 dragged on, its rumours and counter-rumours alternately elating or depressing the prisoners. 

The end came suddenly when, in late October, the sailors of the Imperial German Fleet in Kiel mutinied. Berlin was taken over by the Socialists on the same day when, four years previously, the first prisoners arrived in Ruhleben Camp.

Danger

Ironically, they now found themselves facing very real physical danger for the first time since their capture.The allied blockade had caused famine all over central Europe and the citizens of Berlin were starving. News of the legendary food stocks belonging to the British prisoners had got about and there was every chance that the camp would be invaded by armed marauders, looking not only for food but also for revenge for losing the war. 

The German camp guards were as nervous as their charges and decided to throw in their lot with the prisoners.They burnt their uniforms and joined the small army of former British soldiers, being trained by cadet officers in great secrecy to withstand any emergency.

Going home

As soon as the armistice had been signed the Camp Captain, Joseph Powell, began organising the repatriation of the prisoners. By November 21 passports had been handed out and on the next day the first contingent left for England; the rest followed on November 24.

According to one former prisoner, Eric Swale (ex-Barrack XI, Box 23), they travelled in dilapidated 3rd and 4th class carriages, via Ruegen to Copenhagen. Here they were transferred onto the pride of the Danish fleet, SS Frederick VIII, bound for Hull.

The journey in the mine-infested waters took three days. On their arrival, they were greeted with loud hoots from the steamers in dock. The Lord Mayor of Hull, in full regalia, was standing on the quay and delivered a message of welcome from King George V.

Accused of sedition

From there the men were sent to Ripon Camp for a three day ‘mental decontamination programme’.
This was because a printed sheet of paper, including the words ‘Peace and Reconciliation, Forgive and Forget’ had been handed to each prisoner on leaving Ruhleben, which the Foreign Office officials regarded as holding the elements of sedition.

Only after lengthy questioning were the weary ex-prisoners of war allowed to proceed on the next leg of the journey by train to London Kings Cross.

Reunion

Many of its former inmates wanted to keep in touch and so the Ruhleben Association was formed. No records exist of the first four reunions, but the fifth was held on November 1st 1932 at the Stadium Club, Upper Holborn.

104 members were present and 60 sent greetings and regrets for not being able to come. The meetings continued to take place annually and after the destruction of the Stadium Club by fire, convened at the English Speaking Union near Berkeley Square. 

At the fiftieth Anniversary the reunion was held on the actual date of the arrival of the first prisoners in Ruhleben, November 6th  but in spite  of a ‘Sustentation Fund’ , which had been set up to help the less affluent members pay the train fares to London, only 51 members attended and 38 sent messages. 

By 1973 the total membership had dwindled to 56 and at the last reunion three years later, only six were present.

Sewage works

After the war, Ruhleben Camp returned to its former function as a race course or to be more precise, a trotting course. However, it was no longer as popular as it had been before the war and barely managed to survive through the 20’s and early 30’s.

In the early 1960’s the race course was demolished and the site redeveloped as a sewage-disposal farm and refuse dump. It is still fulfilling this function today.

Bibliography

The History of Ruhleben                       by J.Powell and F.Gribble
(pub. Collins 1919)

Ruhleben - a Prison Camp Society        by J. Davidson Ketcham
(pub. O.U.P 1965)

Two Magazines: ‘In Ruhleben Camp’ & ‘The Ruhleben Camp Magazine’

Photographs of Ruhleben Camp from the Imperial War Museum.

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