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Remembered Today:

Ruhleben Internment Camp


Ghazala
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Ben Macintyre in The Times today.....

The internment camp at Ruhleben turned a few thousand Britons in 1914 into a remarkable social experiment

At the outbreak of the First World War, five thousand British men, trapped in enemy territory, took a corner of a foreign field and turned it into something that was, if not for ever England, then at least temporarily so.

The story of Ruhleben internment camp is one of the forgotten tales of the Great War, a counterpoint to the familiar saga of mud and carnage and a poignant reminder of the extraordinary British intellectual and artistic vitality that preceded the conflict, and was destroyed by it.

In August 1914 thousands of Britons living, working or visiting Germany, were taken completely by surprise as hostilities erupted. British women were ordered to leave the country, but men of fighting age were interned in a civilian detention camp at Ruhleben, a former racetrack some six miles west of Berlin.

The population of Ruhleben camp contained a remarkable cross-section of British society: businessmen, scientists, musicians, sportsmen, academics, merchant seamen, artists, tourists and tramps.

Notable inmates included the conductor Ernest MacMillan, the actor George Merritt, and Steve Bloomer, the most famous footballer of his day, who had scored a record 28 goals in 23 appearances for England between 1895 and 1907.

There were also a few disgruntled newly married men, who had chosen exactly the wrong place to go on honeymoon.

Over the next four years the inmates of Ruhleben, with little food, few resources and no female company, set about creating a Little Britain in a muddy compound surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by German soldiers. The camp became a bizarre microcosm of British society, with clubs, shops, a theatre, sports leagues, a casino and a laboratory.

While old Britain was blasted to smithereens on the Western Front, in Ruhleben it was preserved and cherished with the help of Red Cross parcels.

The British internees built an outpost of empire, smack in the middle of Germany. Even the streets of Ruhleben echoed home: Trafalgar Square, Bond Street, Fleet Street.

The camp had a civil service, a postal system (with its own stamps and postmen), a hospital, an 80-piece symphony orchestra, competing newspapers and a police force, headed by a golf professional. In four years the camp put on 128 different theatrical productions, ranging from Shakespeare to music hall. There were clubs for debating, chess, cricket, gardening and football.

Some of the less admirable features of British life came too: former public schoolboys created their own clubs, from which the lower orders were excluded, except to serve drinks.

Education was paramount. Ruhleben school had 200 teachers, 1,400 students and courses in everything from higher mathematics to watch-making. It set its own exams. The library contained 5,000 books. The scientist James Chadwick, the future Nobel prize-winner and discoverer of the neutron, gave lectures on radioactivity; the art expert Matthew Prichard explained Byzantine art; the historian John Masterman, a mastermind of MI5 deception in the next war, gave classes in history, while learning German, Dutch and Italian.

It was in fact a great social experiment, the building of a civilised and active society, Masterman wrote.

As soldiers entrenched to the west, the inmates of Ruhleben were also digging in. The camps horticultural society blossomed, aided by donations of seeds from Britain. The sailors of Barrack VIII planted a superb rose garden. Later this year the Royal Horticultural Society will mount an exhibition dedicated to the gardeners behind the wire.

The confinement of so many gifted and varied people, with so much time on their hands, produced a remarkable outpouring of creativity. The horticulturalists raised 52 varieties of sweet pea. Bloomer, along with three other England and Scotland football internationals, experimented with tactics while league football was abandoned for the duration of the war in Britain; football ideas pioneered at Ruhleben are said to have affected the future development of the game.

The inmates founded political parties and held a hard-fought election in 1915. The Suffragette candidate, deliberately missing the point, ran on a campaign to import women into the camp. He won.

Numerous escapes were attempted, and all but a handful failed. The Germans largely left the camp to run itself and could not resist a sneaking admiration for the sheer resourcefulness and energy of their captives: You English seem to set to work as if you were founding a new colony, remarked one guard.

After the war Ruhleben and its achievements were all but forgotten. Life was far from pleasant, but compared with fighting on the front, it was a holiday camp. Former inmates felt an enduring guilt, illogical but understandable.

A century later, we can see Ruhleben for what it was: an accidental crucible of British talent, expertise and civilised values, an artificial but successful social experiment, and a strange blooming of imperial gumption in isolation and adversity.

But there is tragedy here too. The thousands who perished on the Western Front were the lost generation, men equal to those who, by a quirk of fate, survived in Ruhleben. Had the inmates been able to get back to Britain, they would have faced the same appalling odds on dying as other men.

Ruhleben was a fragment of the past, a tiny glimpse of what Britain was and what it might have remained if the devastation of war had blown that world away for ever.

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I wonder if any photographs exist from the time? I was posted to Berlin from 1990-92. Ruhleben was used by us as a range complex and for FIBUA (Fighting In Built Up Area) training, I believe that ammunition was stored there too.

In 1945 it was the location of one of the few successful German counter attacks which drove the Russians back into the 1936 Olympic Games complex, I recall seeing the wreck of a T34 in situ near the ammo bunkers.

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Ghazala,

Thanks for posting this. Apart from the great Steve Bloomer four former Everton players were interned; I'm sure that two were in Ruhleben and I think the other two were too. John Brearley, John Cameron and Sam Wolstenholme were coaching German clubs when the war broke out, and Walter Campbell had the misfortune to be aboard the Zealand in Hamburg harbour at the outbreak of war. One of his shipmates was my great uncle Herbert Jones who was interned with him until November 1917 when he was repatriated presumably via the Netherlands, but who died in January 1918. He is buried in the family plot in Bootle cemetery. Walter Campbell survived the war and is buried in my local churchyard. Berlin is high on my list of places to visit and I'd quite like to get out to the site.

Pete.

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Remepete, I just googled ruhleben camp and quite a lot of images came up: football team, cover of camp magazine etc.

Angela

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Its a subject our Museum Service is covering later this year in an exhibition at Goole Museum - there were a number of Goole seamen interned at Ruhleben. We do have some images and information, but if anyone has anything they could contribute, we'd be glad to hear from you.

thanks

David

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Thanks Angela, I checked out the maps, our ranges etc were on the south side of Charlottenburger Chaussee as opposed to the north side where the old racetrack used to be. Looks like they're still there behind what was, and maybe still is an old barracks used by the Berlin Police.

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Hi David (Doctor 84). I have 5 copies of the 'In Ruhleben Camp Magazine', numbers 5,6,7 & 8 from August to September 1915 and the Christmas 1916 edition. You are are very welcome to borrow and copy them if they are of interest to you and your project. They are packed with drawings, adverts, etc, and lots of names. There is an excellent drawing of a sea Captain Charles Browne - one from Goole perhaps? Best wishes, Jim K

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Hi David (Doctor 84). I have 5 copies of the 'In Ruhleben Camp Magazine', numbers 5,6,7 & 8 from August to September 1915 and the Christmas 1916 edition. You are are very welcome to borrow and copy them if they are of interest to you and your project. They are packed with drawings, adverts, etc, and lots of names. There is an excellent drawing of a sea Captain Charles Browne - one from Goole perhaps? Best wishes, Jim K

Hello JIm

Gosh yes, that would be really good! How could you get them to us?

David

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  • 2 months later...

This from Die Woche no.46, w/e 14 Nov. 1914, p.1871:

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post-69449-0-09276200-1406643686_thumb.j

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One of the less reputable points about Ruhleben is that most of the inmates were very sniffy about those who tried to escape (I don't think any got back to Britain). The attitude seems to have been that intellectuals did not go running about the countryside trying to outwit the German army or police.

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Thanks all

Some great resources there!

David

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