In Ruhleben Camp: a winter of discontent

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.

Drawing of Ruhleben Camp in snow. VIA record number olvwork427988
Drawing of Ruhleben Camp in snow. VIA record number olvwork427988

After two spirited and quarrelsome issues of In Ruhleben Camp in September, and one in October, the magazine did not appear again until Christmas of 1915. During this November hiatus, prisoners grimly marked the start of a second year in Ruhleben Camp. As winter arrived, Ruhlebenites carried on working to make internment bearable—apart from the unlucky few who were ill enough to be declared “military unfit” and repatriated to begin healing their broken constitutions.

The few “military unfit” released in October and November left the camp with frost spidering around their boggy footprints. Behind the barbed wire, cold crept under overcoats and blankets, up from the muddy ground through poorly repaired boots, and into thin soup and weak tea. Cold drove internees indoors and hemmed them in.

Some accommodation for winter had been made since the previous year (for example, the latrines were no longer en plein air), but internees still lived in unheated horse stalls, with the overflow in lofts. As bitter weather set in, the six men randomly assigned to each box were together almost continuously, sharpening the claustrophobia of their lodgings. Prisoners would later describe the lack of privacy as one of the greatest mental and emotional trials of life behind barbed wire.

In “The Case for a Wholesale Exchange,” a letter published in The Times on 22 November 1916 by Sir Timothy Eden (after Lord Robert Cecil secured his early release as a favor to his mother, Lady Eden) (Stibbe, p. 126), the aristocratic former internee warns of “the serious mental condition of the civilian prisoners” who lack “the slightest privacy.” As he urges his government to accept Germany’s conditions and free British civilians at any cost, Sir Timothy exhorts his readers to imagine a life where “it is impossible to be alone. There are no past glories to dream about. No consolation in the remembrance of duty done. The men have nothing to think of save their ruined prospects and the hopelessness of their position” (Eden, pp. 22-23).

Paul Cohen-Portheim, a German civilian interned in similar circumstances at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man, echoes Sir Timothy’s view of internment. In his published memoir Time Stood Still, the cosmopolite Cohen-Portheim describes living in a hut of 6 x 4 feet where others “heard every word you spoke, every movement you made.” The buildings were so shoddily constructed that “whenever anyone walked in the hut or moved a chair it set up vibration right through the hut.”

Consequently, he continues, “no one could stand staying in the hut for long; one soon developed a habit of rushing out every ten minutes or so. That habit became so much of a second nature that I found it very difficult to get rid of again in later years. One rushed round, one walked…by way of change, and wherever you went there were people just in front of you, just behind you, just beside you or just coming towards you, and they were always the same people. You could not talk to a friend without being overheard, you could not make a movement that was not watched. The control exercised by the prisoners over each other was infinitely more irritating and galling than the superficial outside control” (Cohen-Portheim, pp. 85-86).

Such skittishness was by no means confined to upper class prisoners. Tellingly, it features prominently among symptoms of “barbed wire disease” as described by the famed Swiss physician Dr. Adolf Lukas Vischer in 1919. After the war, Dr. Vischer interviewed POWs released from camps in neutral Switzerland. Common behaviors he observed included “an increase of irritability,” suspicion, and “pathological fatigue” or “loss of concentration” that manifested most acutely as “difficulty in settling down.” Even when watching a “kinematograph performance,” Dr. Vischer and his colleague Dr. Bing explain in The Lancet, former POWs exhibit “growing restlessness, which finally arrives at such a point that they are obliged to leave the hall.” Vischer and Bing conclude that many former POWs suffer “a certain shyness, leading them to seek that solitude of which they have so long been deprived” (“Psychology of Internment,” p. 696-7).

The entertainments, activities, and institutions of Ruhleben offered a limited but vital lifeline within the camp’s physically and mentally stifling atmosphere. Yet these activities were also constrained by the cold weather, and even at their fullest, they were no substitute for life out from under the thumb of imprisonment. At one Ruhleben archive, a librarian told me that the descendent of a Ruhlebenite had recently come to look at the same collection. Internment had dramatically affected that researcher’s ancestor, making him taciturn and private. These qualities, the researcher told the librarian, had echoed down the generations, so that the stiff wind of Ruhleben winter still seemed to be blowing through the family tree.

Bibliography & Further Reading

In Ruhleben: Letters from a Prisoner to His Mother. Edited and with an introduction by Douglas Sladen. Including “Civilian Prisoners: the Case for a Wholesale Exchange” by Sir Timothy Eden. London: Hurst and Blackett, Ltd. Paternoster House, E.C., 1917.

Bing, M.D. and A.L. Vischer, M.D. “Some Remarks on the Psychology of Internment, Based on the Observation of Prisoners of War in Switzerland.” The Lancet. 26 April 1919. Pp. 696-7.

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

Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Vischer, Adolf Lucas. Barbed wire disease; a psychological study of the prisoner of war. Tr. from the German, with additions by the author. London: Bale & Danielsson, 1919.

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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