Text Box: August 2015


BRITISH CIVILIAN INTERNEES AT RUHLEBEN.

There was consternation at the start of the new term in Aberystwyth County School (Ardwyn) in September 1914. The Latin Master, Mr Latham, was married during the summer holidays and decided to honeymoon in Germany. Perhaps like a female Concert Troupe ‘ The Royal Brewster’s’ he had heard rumours of possible conflict, but had decided to make light of the prospect. The five girl troupe of vocalists, banjoists and dancers found that war had been declared and were unable to fulfil any of their engagements. They were only able to make their escape from Germany when the American Consul in Hamburg made them honorary American citizens and provided them with a document which enabled them to travel by rail back to England. At a time when the number of pupils in Ardwyn had reached record level, the Latin Master was interned in Germany.

The Germans were retaliating for the internment of German nationals by the Allies and the imposition of the economic blockade. British residents in Germany were initially only obliged to obey a curfew and report once a week to their local police station. Women, children, and men over military age were usually allowed to leave Germany after initial mobilization was complete. Mrs Latham was allowed to return home.

By the end of November 1914 most of the British male internees had been moved to Ruhleben, a civilian camp situated on a former racecourse, six miles from Berlin. At first there were over 4,000 men between the ages of 17 and 45 held there. They were quartered in former stables, horseboxes, lofts, and other former racecourse buildings.

A British Red Cross report indicated that the internees included, ‘ An Earl, a Baronet, artists studying or exhibiting their work in Germany, lecturers, young men sent to Germany to learn the language, engineers, commercial travellers, acrobats, waiters and an ever increasing number of sailors’. The latter included the crews of captured merchant ships, and any British passengers on board. Sailors in ships in ports such as Hamburg were initially kept in ‘hulks’ on the Elbe, but they were also moved to Ruhleben in November 1914.There were also singers and musicians from the Bayreuth Festival, British football players and Irish jockeys.

There were German guards but they remained on the perimeter, allowing prisoners the responsibility for what went on inside the Camp. Captains were selected for each block, and a Captains Committee ran the Camp. In the spring of 1915 engineers at the camp built drains and raised pathways and by June 1915 a new toilet and shower block was built. A cold shower was available at all times, a warm shower, once a week.

Black sailors captured on British ships were not allowed to have a black leader of their group – it had to be a ‘white captain’.  In this way the camp reflected all the class distinction and racial prejudices of the time.  On November 12th 1914 Israel Cohen describes how he and other Jews were marched out of the camp to jeers from the German guards and what he described as ‘un-english,  Englishmen. They were returned after the intervention of the American Ambassador. There was even a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ where other internees served the gentlemen tea.

The civilians interned at Ruhleben were not expected to work, and had much time to develop a whole range of activities. A number of businesses were established including a print shop, where a newspaper, camp magazine and postcards were published. They also designed several Christmas Cards.  There was a Camp Canteen where food could be purchased and in a roadway of shops christened ‘Bond Street’ there was a cobbler, tailors, watchmaker, hosier and a booking office for the Camp Theatre. In 1915 a Camp Post Office was established, with stamps, letter cards and postal stationary run by internees. There was also an internal police service set up.

There was a five hole golf course, as well as boxing, hockey, rugby, tennis, and cricket clubs. The 200 teachers interned provided a variety of classes and there was a library with over 200 books. The Camp Orchestra gave its first concert in December 1914.

A recent BBC film featured the Horticultural Society at Ruhleben which was affiliated to the RHS. In the early days they concentrated on growing flowers to cover the barbed wire surrounding the camp. The RHS sent out an appeal to Nurseries who sent seeds and bulbs in Red Cross parcels. They grew 83 varieties of sweet pea dahlias, chrysanthemums as well as lettuce and radish. From 1917 they were growing vegetables and by the end of the war it was not just hobby gardening, but large scale horticulture. It is important to note that from the outset many internees had money with which to buy food and there were Red Cross parcels and parcels from friends and relatives.

Charles Latham never returned to Aberystwyth, but he survived internment at Ruhleben and records indicate he took up a teaching post in London.

References                                                                                                      

Brown, Malcolm (1991). Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War

Spencer Lloyd, Huw. The History of Aberystwyth County School (Ardwyn) 1896-1973

 

Richard Lloyd

 @LlanbadarnsRL


DO WE LEARN?

At first sight there is no similarity between the Gallipoli Landings and the Arnhem airborne operation except that they were both gallant failures redeemed, if at all, by the gallantry of those taking part in them.   Quite apart from the broader context in which they took place, the means were vastly different—rowing boats and parachutes and gliders.   If we think about it, however, we can see that they had certain factors in common.

Both were conceived and pushed forward by one man—Churchill in the case of Gallipoli and Montgomery in the case of Arnhem.

Both landings were strategic moves.   Churchill believed the landings would lead to knocking Turkey and possibly Austria out of the war first and make the final defeat of Germany easier.  Monty believed that establishing a bridgehead over the Rhine at Arnhem would not only outflank the formidable Siegfried Line but also enable his armoured divisions to cut off the industrial Ruhr from the rest of Germany and even threaten Berlin.

 The landings were opposed by Churchill’s principal adviser and professional head of the Royal Navy, Jackie Fisher.   Monty’s principal adviser, his Chief of Staff General de Guingand, did not believe that the ‘Northern thrust’ was sustainable.

The planning for both was hurried and inefficient.   In 1915 artillery batteries were arriving in the Mediterranean with their guns in one ship, their horses in another and their ammunition in yet another.   Arnhem was planned and mounted within a week or so and planning suffered, for example the lightly equipped airborne troops were landed six miles away from their objective and the intervening ground was either wooded or built up, guaranteed to slow down any advance.

In both cases there were allegations of lack of urgency.   Some claim that if reinforcements had been sent to Gallipoli earlier they might have proved decisive while others say that the lack of initiative in the Suvla landings threw away the chances of success.    Many assert that there was a lack of drive in the British armoured column attempting to link up with the airborne.   It is only fair to say, however, that these opinions both as regards Gallipoli and Arnhem have been disputed.

Both operations were subsequently the subject of considerable dispute and still are.   Some claim that they should never have taken place. At least one distinguished historian has written that that the Gallipoli landings were the only true strategic move of the war while others believe that even if they had been successful they would not have affected the eventual outcome of the war.   Since World War 2 critics have said that even if a bridgehead had been secured over the Rhine at Arnhem, it could not have been exploited in the way that Monty had hoped.  On the other hand outflanking the Siegfried Line made as much sense as butting one’s head against it as the US First Army found to its cost.

A final thought—isn’t it nice to be clever after poring over dozens of books?

Bob Butcher

Oval: HOME
Text Box: The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA
February 2015
Compiled by Richard Lloyd