In Ruhleben Camp: A belated Merry Xmas and Happy 1916 from Ruhleben Camp

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.

Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 557.
Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 557.

He thought he saw the Lager “Rag” *
Appear when it was due.
He looked again, and saw it was,
Not a report, but true.
“Now, isn’t this top-hole” he said,
In time for Xmas too.”
(Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 580)

The final issue of In Ruhleben Camp for 1915 appeared around Christmas of that year, and it wears its holiday spirit with a difference. Peppered with humorously cynical cartoons depicting what might happen “If Santa Claus came to Ruhleben,” the Xmas Number also extends jovial greetings across the Channel to friend and foe alike. We will start with friends in this post, and look to foes in the next.

Having received special permission from the German censors to send the Christmas issue to Britain as a gift for loved ones, Ruhlebenites may have been both moved and amused by certain editorial choices. Between the handsomely printed covers, for instance, Ruhlebenites found a page thanking “the folks at home” for supporting “their Ruhlebenites,” as well as offering characteristically pragmatic advice: send butter, margarine, or dripping, please! (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 603) Meanwhile, the stiff back cover doubled as a pre-formatted card that could be filled out, detached, and sent separately, perhaps for those without the means to send the whole thing.

Cartoon. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 592.
Cartoon. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 592.

The editors may have had a bit of fun with their extended readership as well. In particular, a comic piece titled “The Ruhlebenite at Home” seems teasingly calculated to evoke the worst nightmare of a wife, mother, or sister who feared her Ruhlebenite would come home a changed man. The story is narrated by an internee who has been released early and has “arrived Home in time for Christmas” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 569). His convenient timing makes for a tongue-in-cheek homage to the disappointed hopes of the previous year, when men on both sides had assumed the war could only last a few months. A year later, it was harder to maintain that anyone would “be Home before Xmas” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 519) without being called a wishful thinker. By the end of 1915, no reader could avoid the cruel contrast between the narrator’s happy timing and the reality for most men, whether in camps or at the front.

Having finally arrived Home for Xmas—a year late and most likely declared “military unfit” for poor health—our Ruhlebenite soon finds himself in hot water with the women of the house. His crime? He does everything, including bathe himself, Ruhleben style. He bewilders his sister and her housemaid by complaining that “nothing is ever where it ought to be,” and is in turn baffled to discover that wash basins are not kept under the bed, but on the washstand, and that it would be more appropriate to bathe in his own room (and with less swearing) than out in the hall (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 569). At each turn, the story seems to guffaw: you can take an internee out of the camp, but you can’t take Ruhleben out of a Ruhlebenite.

The humor is darkened when one recalls the increased rate at which internees were hospitalized for mental breakdowns as the years dragged on, a danger which Ellis Loring Dresel of the U.S. embassy would observe in July of 1916 (Stibbe, p. 73). Has our protagonist been declared “military unfit” not due to physical illness, but because he has truly lost his “mental perspective” at Ruhleben? (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 513)

Still the story keeps a light tone, even as our hero’s Ruhleben habits enact a complete cultural inversion. The manners and customs of this respectable middle-class household are alien and barbarous to him, and he insists on “proper” behavior that only a Ruhlebenite would understand. Such a reversal of values offers the perfect formula for social satire, but the author doesn’t rise to the bait. There is no room for cultural relativism here: lampooning the sister’s shock would doubtless have struck too close to home. Instead, the jokes rely on the fact (or hope) that Ruhlebenite readers can still tell a hawk from a handsaw when in the presence of a lady, or at least know better than to toss bathwater down the corridor or to call one’s sister a “lazy beggar” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 570).

It is no accident that the author’s satire is entirely directed against the hapless Ruhlebenite. If the story plays on the apprehensions of womenfolk at home, it more pointedly reflects anxieties plaguing Ruhlebenites themselves. After so much time in a camp of 4,000 men, roughly a quarter of whom were sailors, many internees worried that they would never scrub the blue streak from their language, or remember how to comport themselves in mixed society. The Swiss physician Dr. Vischer’s research into “barbed wire disease” after the war suggests that these concerns were not unfounded, either.

As a kind of verbalized anxiety dream, then, waking up from this story may have been reassuring. After all, if readers laughed at its humor, understood that a free man need not carry around wire and nails for emergencies, and knew enough to reverse the protagonist’s complaint that his sister had “changed tremendously” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 572) during his internment, then hope was not lost.

What readers at Home thought—well, that too may have been part of the joke.


Portable Xmas Tree. N.D. VIA record number olvwork430260
Portable Xmas Tree owned by a Ruhleben internee. N.D. VIA record number olvwork430260

* Lager is the German word for “camp,” and was adopted by Ruhleben internees. Rag is English slang for a magazine or periodical.

Bibliography & Further Reading

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.

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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