In Ruhleben Camp: No. 7, September 1915

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. 

The first five issues won’t be covered in proper sequence here, as they were printed from June through August 1915, and their anniversaries passed while I was abroad, searching for Ruhleben material at archives in London and at Leeds University.

“Ruhleben Bed Notice.” In Ruhleben Camp, No. 7, 12 Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 396.
“Ruhleben Bed Notice.” In Ruhleben Camp, No. 7, 12 Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 396.

The fall of 1915 was a bustling time in Ruhleben Camp, as the cogs and wheels of bureaucracy began, somewhat squeakily, to turn. The administrative, educational, and recreational committees established over the summer were suffering growing pangs, while inmates watched the war drag into its second year outside.

Frustration runs like a humming wire through the seventh number of In Ruhleben Camp, published on 12 September, 1915. This issue is one of the liveliest productions of the editorial staff under the direction of T. Arthur Barton, and its pages buzz with fiery debate and acerbic satire, including an open letter from the much-maligned Captain of the Camp, Joseph Powell, who testily asks that anyone with a complaint not hide behind a penname, but “come forward like a man” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 416).

The hottest debates came down to what exactly a civilian internment camp was. Without historical or legal precedent to govern their position, the internees recognized that their fate rested in the delicate scales of public opinion back home. Were they national heroes? A national embarrassment? Whose money should support the prisoners, and to whom did profits earned within the camp belong? Was it unethical for anyone in the camp to turn a profit? Could the Camp itself be a money-making operation? Would this affect the status of the Relief Fund? How democratic should its administration be? Were organizations justified in going on strike, or was that shirking their duty to the camp?

Events over the summer hardened many of these questions into concrete problems. Unbeknownst to the Camp Captains, a group of internees wrote to the British Foreign Office asking that a Ruhleben “Medal” be stamped in honor of their sacrifice. A chilly response was sent directly to the Captains, who quickly distanced themselves from the request. To smooth out the camp’s image, a general “Anti-Medal Meeting” was called, at which internees overwhelmingly voted against the “childish” idea of “souvenir badges” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 310). Typed and signed statements condemning the request are still held among the private papers of former internees in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University.

To further rehabilitate the name of Ruhleben, prisoners wrote to the magazine’s editors suggesting that the camp endow a “Ruhleben Bed” at a Red Cross Hospital, to help British soldiers. The editors took the idea up with gusto, and the inside cover of the September 12 issue bears a forcefully-worded announcement advising readers that “as a Britisher You are expected to make some sacrifice for this object not merely to give of your superfluity” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 396). As will emerge in the following issue, however, this charitable scheme itself met with vigorous criticism.

Nor did the drama stop there. Where resources were scarce, money became an especially ripe apple of discord, and in August 1915 some of the camp’s most profitable organizations—its entertainers—went on strike. In the next post, we will turn the spotlight on this fracas.

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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