In Ruhleben Camp: with goodwill for friend and foe alike

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.

Detail of Xmas tree. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 596.
Detail of Xmas tree. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 596.

In December of 1915, Ruhleben held its own Christmas truce. As we saw in the previous post, the German authorities gave internees special permission to send copies of In Ruhleben Camp’s “Xmas Number” back Home, where family and friends would find a full-page note of thanks and holiday greetings.

Peace on earth seemed years away, but the editors wished to extend goodwill towards men in the enemy’s camp. They had come into possession of the September issue of a “bright little four page journal” created by German civilians interned at Stobs, a camp in Scotland with roughly 4,500 German civilian internees. Moved by the good humor and fortitude beneath its wry tone, IRC’s editors opened the Xmas Number by translating long passages from the newsletter for the benefit of their readers in Ruhleben and beyond (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 559). (The original newsletter can be viewed online, courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.)

Stobsiade plays on the title of an 18th century mock epic poem The Jobsiade by German physician Carl Arnold Kortum. This satirical poem relates the antics of Hieronymus Jobs, a “Bummelstudent” (“strolling-student”) who remains at university as long as possible not because he takes his studies seriously but because he takes his leisure seriously.

If the editors of IRC caught the joke, they would have enjoyed it. Ruhlebenites often complained of being treated like schoolboys with curfew, roll call, and rules abounding, and no doubt the internees at Stobs resented similar encroachments on their adult autonomy. Moreover, while non-commissioned military POWs could be forced to do labor under the 1907 Geneva Convention, civilians were generally exempt. And if Stobs was anything like Ruhleben, then internees on both sides used this “enforced leisure” (as the British Camps Library committee called it (qtd. in King, p. 256)) to become students once again, attend public lectures or take classes in the camp, and “swot”* languages.” In many cases, they did so not because they took their studies seriously, but because they took their distractions seriously.

The editors of IRC don’t mention the allusion, but their comparisons of the mud, snoring, and lousy conditions at the two camps place a seal of barbed wire brotherhood on the Stobsians. As the highest honor of all, the editors quote the Ruhleben “motto” when they remark approvingly that Stobsiade is “redolent of the “Are-we-downhearted? No!” spirit” and makes it “very apparent that life in a “Prisoner of War Camp” is very much like the life in a “Civil-Gefangenlager.””**

This was probably true, but it flatly contradicted the jingoistic British press, and it is curious to speculate how readers back Home responded. The popular press on both sides exaggerated the miseries of its own imprisoned civilians, while rebuking the home government for (fictional) indulgences lavished on interned enemies (e.g. Stibbe, pp. 83-84). Paul Cohen-Portheim, a German civilian interned in the “gentleman’s camp” at Wakefield, near Leeds, blamed the media titan Lord Northcliffe for propagating absurd reports that the “pampered Huns” at Wakefield supped at fabulous feasts, played on “golf courses that never existed,” and enjoyed “liaisons with women that would have been impossible” (Cohen-Portheim, p. 74). As Cohen-Portheim mused bitterly, “the real truth” was that “what happened to the prisoners on one side happened to those on the other,” based on “a system of mutual reprisals from which the authorities dreamt as little of abstaining as…the flying forces refrained from ‘punitive expeditions’” (Cohen-Portheim, p. 75).

Even if IRC did not intend to discredit propaganda, it could nonetheless do some good for German internees. The historian Matthew Stibbe confirms Cohen-Portheim’s description of “reprisals,” but also observes the potential for “reprisals of good” advocated by the Bishop of Winchester in 1916. For example, when the Swiss Quaker and peace activist Elisabeth Rotten solicited scientific instruments from German firms and individuals (including her friend Albert Einstein) for Ruhlebenites, the Friends Emergency Committee in Britain responded with similar donations for interned Germans (Stibbe, p. 145). Such exchanges were more frequent later in the war, especially as Germany began to see defeat engraved in the trenches across France, but the editors of IRC may have picked up the principle early.

Of course, In Ruhleben Camp remains staunchly patriotic. The editors bridle at Stobsiade’s description of the Stobs camp commander as “half pug, half terrier with bulldog legs which are ever atremble with fright,” an indignity to which IRC would never subject the “Ruhleben Löwe.”*** And they answer cries of “God bless Germany! God bless the Kaiser!” with cheers of “God bless England! God bless Georgie!” before concluding: “And then, reaching hands across the sea to you, we will both cry together: ‘Damn that barbed wire!’” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560)

Detail. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560.
Detail. In Ruhleben Camp, Xmas 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 560.

Postscript: the end of In Ruhleben Camp

As yet another generous gesture, the Xmas Number announced that donations collected to endow a “Ruhleben Bed” at a Red Cross Hospital would be sent Home around Christmastime. This spirit of charity and goodwill turned out to be the high note on which In Ruhleben Camp folded its pages and bid goodbye. Its rambunctious items give no hint that this issue would be the last, nor is it clear why the offices at Fleet Street closed their doors for three months. But so it was. Apart from a literary journal called Prisoners’ Pie that rang in the New Year, there was no substantial Ruhleben publication until March 1916, when the “Camp Rag” returned with the slightly less catchy title of The Ruhleben Camp Magazine, under new editorial direction but up to the same old tricks.

* British slang for “to learn”
** A misprint for Civil-Gefangenenlager, meaning “Civilian Prison Camp”
*** “Ruhleben lion,” most likely Commandant Count Schwerin or his deputy Baron von Taube

Bibliography & Further Reading

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

King, Edmund (2013). ““Books are more to me than food”: British prisoners of war as readers, 1914-1918.” Book History 16. pp. 246-271.

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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