In Ruhleben Camp: Arrival in Ruhleben

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. On 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. 

1914-1915 Ruhleben Camp, Postcard by W. Powell. VIA record number olvwork417893
1914-1915 Ruhleben Camp, Postcard by W. Powell. VIA record number olvwork417893

Welcome to Ruhleben Camp, Engländerlager für Zivilgefangene: Camp for English Civilian Prisoners.

How can one be a civilian and a prisoner of war? For many at the turn of the 20th century, it was a contradiction in terms. Say you are a British citizen who happens to be in Germany in the summer of 1914, perhaps as a long-time resident, perhaps on holiday. You might be a sailor docked at the bustling port of Hamburg to offload cargo, or a music student holding your breath at Wagner’s hallowed opera house in Bayreuth. Whatever brings you to Germany, you hardly imagine that the conflagration about to engulf Europe will come to your doorstep.

On November 6, 1914, you hear a sharp knock at the door. A German officer, looking embarrassed, politely requests that you make yourself known to the local police station the next morning. You’ve had to report there before as a resident alien, but now you’re told you will be taken to a camp called Ruhleben. Why? For what? What should I bring? you ask. Because you are British, might come the apologetic response. Pack as if you are going on holiday.

What purpose can my imprisonment possibly serve? you demand. Or, if you belong to cosmopolitan circles, you wonder: What does the place of my birth have to do with who I am now, fluent in French, German and Italian, and more at ease in Munich or Milan than Manchester?

Dwelling on such frustrations, bemused and impatient, you set out the next morning in a light suit. At the station, you are trundled onto a train, and then tumbled out again hours later into a recently vacated horse racing track outside Berlin. This is Ruhleben, formerly a place of pleasure and entertainment, whose name sounds like the “quiet life” (ruhiges Leben). Here, in “enforced leisure,” you will be cooling your heels for the next four years.

The men herded into horse stalls in early November 1914 did not know how long the war would last, of course. Baffled by the manic excitement of some four thousand men hurled together, and flush with the early optimism infecting both sides, many assumed that internment was a practical joke. Like the war, they argued, it could not last more than a few weeks. Certainly they would be home by Christmas. Rumors—which one wit later styled “Ruhleben Gnats”—buzzed fast and furious through the horse boxes. (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 285)

Five months later, a Ruhleben prisoner wrote the American Ambassador requesting a set of false teeth. He had left his behind on the assumption that he would be away for less than a week. The camp magazine reported that “now the gentleman in question has one of the nicest sets of ivories in the Camp.” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 215)

The sheer diversity of the population contributed to the initial disorientation, as the men were stripped of markers of class or economic privilege and assigned at random to “boxes” of six men each. Hierarchy, etiquette, the customary rigidities of English society were scuttled.

One former internee, John Davidson Ketchum, abandoned his musical studies to become a respected social psychologist after experiencing life in Ruhleben. In his 1964 study of the camp, A Prison Camp Society, he describes the prisoners as “almost a cross-section of British society, from the manor house to the slum; scarcely a trade or profession was unrepresented. All were jammed together in a small stableyard—company directors and seamen, concert musicians and factory workers, science professors and jockeys. Few had ever met previously; their only common bond was their British citizenship” (Ketchum, p. 2).

They discovered another common bond, though, which became increasingly crucial as the flood of private parcels in the summer of 1915 reintroduced visible markers of social status, including blazer, tie, and hat. As former internee A.M.D. Hughes explains in Cornhill Magazine, writing in November 1915 after his early release, “We were a medley of people passing the time together, so that good humour was a common advantage and a common need and the only business of the day” (qtd. in Ketchum, p. 26).

This “good humour” became a prime raison d’etre for many Ruhleben organizations, especially the feisty, often satirical, wickedly funny magazine In Ruhleben Camp, to which we will turn for the remainder of this series.

Postscript: The experiences dramatized above accord in general outline with the recollections of various internees, including J. Davidson Ketchum and John Masterman. They were also mirrored strangely across the Channel: the cosmopolitan Paul Cohen-Portheim, a German citizen but long resident in France, gives a remarkably parallel account of his transport to Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man, where he arrived prepared for a holiday, “with plenty of white flannels, bathing things, evening dress, etc., but without a towel” (Cohen-Portheim, p. 21).

Bibliography & Further Reading

Cohen-Portheim, Paul. Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918. London: Duckworth, 1931.

Ketchum, J. Davidson. Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. With a Foreword and Postscript by Robert B. MacLeod. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965.

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 215

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 285

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.

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