In Ruhleben Camp: “Home Rule” for Ruhlebenites

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. 

Pondside Stores. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 3, July 1915. p. 5. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 246
Pondside Stores. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 3, July 1915, p. 5. Masterman, Box 2 Seq. 246

The story of the magazine In Ruhleben Camp begins in March 1915, when James Gerard, the American Ambassador in Berlin, first visited Ruhleben as a neutral observer. His appalled response prompted quick action by the German military authorities, who prepared to build new barracks to ease crowding, and immediately fired the corrupt kitchen manager. Food preparation was placed under prisoner control, and by the time General von Kessel, supreme commander in the marches, visited two weeks later, Ruhlebenites were running an efficient and clean kitchen.

During the bustling summer of 1915, the prisoners established a post service, police force, and financial chain of command, building an autonomous civil administration alongside the cultural institutions (including a school, theatre, orchestra, and debating league) that sprang up in the camp. In September of 1915, Ruhlebenites were granted “Home Rule,” and became responsible for virtually every aspect of camp business save guarding the barbed wire itself.

Three significant changes in 1915 made “Home Rule” successful: 1) a Relief Fund provided by Great Britain; 2) a Camp Fund to pay internees employed in the camp, also underwritten by the British government; and 3) lowered restrictions on parcel deliveries to internees.

Parliament and the folks back home were initially suspicious of these supposed expatriates fiddling while the Western Front burned. When the government relented and set up a Relief Fund for civilian prisoners, the disbursements were limited to 5 Marks per week and were given on loan, to be paid back when the war ended. This amount was a pittance, but it enabled the poorest recipients to purchase basic foodstuffs at the Camp Canteen (also run by Ruhlebenites).

The Canteen, in turn, was internally subsidized by the Captains’ Committee, the central administrative body of the camp. Subsidies were financed by profits from less essential services such as the boiler house (which dispensed hot water for tea) and were put towards items like milk or margarine, according to public statements by the Captains (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 416-7). The profits were available because the Camp didn’t pay its employees: Gerard had also arranged a Camp Fund, underwritten by the British government, to pay the wages of critical workers, including kitchen employees and those on fatigue duty. All of these employees were prisoners.

Finally, the spring of 1915 saw a surge in private relief flowing into the camp, as German authorities lifted restrictions on parcel deliveries. Here, negotiating pressure played a larger role. The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 provoked the large-scale internment of German citizens resident in Britain. These changed stakes made “both governments more willing to reach an agreement on a system of camp inspections and on the delivery of relief parcels from home,” which transformed conditions in Ruhleben, as historian Matthew Stibbe remarks (Stibbe, p. 111).

Ambassador Gerard also kicked off the keenest source of pride and internal organization in the camp, as we shall see: football.

Bibliography & Further Reading

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 246

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 416-417

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.

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