In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. Around the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story.
Today I would like to pause our investigations into In Ruhleben Camp to commemorate the beginning of civilian internment at Ruhleben. Most of the 4,000-some British civilian internees arrived at the camp 101 years ago today, on November 6, 1914.
Four years and two days later, on November 8, 1918, the German guards signed a declaration of brotherhood with the internees at Ruhleben, and hoisted a red flag over the camp before releasing their prisoners (Stibbe, p. 16).
To honor the civilians who arrived at Ruhleben 101 years ago, I would like to share the Ruhleben Alphabet, a song written between Christmas 1914 and the opening of the playing field in March 1915 (as the internee J.D. Ketchum deduces) (Ketchum, p. 99). This span of time was a low point in the experience of internees, and although conditions eventually improved, and fatality at Ruhleben was low overall, these men had to muster great courage and fortitude to keep their spirits up. The strain and their plucky response both show in the Ruhleben chant: “Are we downhearted? No!”
A is for all of us locked up in here,
B is for the Bastards who won’t give us beer,
C is for the Canteen you never get near,
D for the dust-heaps—they don’t smell, no fear!
E for Exchange* that you hear of each day
F for the Football they won’t let us play,
G for “Gott mit uns,” at least so they say,
H for the Hope that we’ll get out some day.
I for the Ikeys, all Englishmen true,
J for the Jails that the British go to;
K for the Kaiser and all of his set,
L for the Licking we hope they will get,
M for the March, and it is a damned bore,
N for the News we don’t get of the war;
O for the Odours that come from the bogs*
P for the Pork in the soup, fit for hogs,
Q for the Queues in the mud and the cold,
R for the Rumours a hundred times told.
S for the Skilly they feed us again,*
T for the Trucks that we look for in vain;
U stands for Eunuchs we might as well be,
V the vexation on tasting the tea.
W the Wash in the morning so cold,
X for the Xmas well spent, we are told;
Y is an Englishman kept like a dog?
Z is the shape you assume on the bog.
This is the end of the Ruhleben song;
We’ll sing it in England before very long.
* Exchange refers to the hoped-for exchange of prisoners with Germany, which Britain decided was not in its interest, given that it had detained over five times as many enemy civilians as Germany. Around 20,000 people were held at Knockaloe in the Isle of Man alone.
* The bog refers to a latrine; the two latrines were on either side of the camp and were the only things in the camp named after Berlin geography: they were called Charlottenburg and Spandau.
* Skilly is a kind of thin soup or gruel. In late November of 1914, a “Skilly Riot” broke out when a group of sailors staged a spontaneous demonstration against the poor quality of the soup fed them by the corrupt kitchen manager. The authorities ended the riot “by the simple method of sounding “Fire,” and once we were in our places we were kept there” (a diary entry by one Henley, quoted in Ketchum, p. 19).
Bibliography & Further Reading
Ketchum, J. Davidson. Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. With a Foreword and Postscript by Robert B. MacLeod. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Foreword (Ithaca, NY, April 1964)
Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.
Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.