Prisoners of War 1914-1918 : Download original documents

Camp magazines and exchanged PoW's : Section 4


During their period of captivity a number of prisoners of war, civilian internees and soldiers held as detainees in neutral countries - such as Switzerland and Holland - produced a number of magazines, journals and newsletters which commented on camp life and life in general. The most prolific producers of this type of material were British civilians interned in Ruhleben in Spandau, Berlin. 


The Civilian Camp at Ruhleben

At the outset of the First World War, the first people to be take into captivity in Germany were alien civilians. British subjects were sent to Ruhleben, an improvised camp near Berlin.

The internees were quartered in the stables, horse-boxes, lofts and other buildings of this former racecourse. By the end of November 1914, most British males still in Germany between the ages of 17 and 45, had been rounded up and interned there.

A report by the British Red Cross revealed that many ranks and professions were incarcerated in Ruhleben, "An earl, a baronet, artists studying in Germany or exhibiting their works, lecturers, boys of eighteen years of age sent to Germany to learn the language, engineers, commercial travellers, jockeys, acrobats, negroes, waiters, and an ever increasing number of seamen, sometimes including entire crews as well as the passengers of the ships taken by the German raiders... according to the Ruhleben Directory, [in all] about 4,000 British male civilians." said the report. The Times stated, "Ruhleben, particularly in the early days, was a disgrace not only to the civilisation but to the humanity of Germany" but then conceded, "The greatest improvement of all however, was, the formation of a prisoners committee into whose hands a large part of the internal camp management was placed: life then became tolerable."

Percy Brown, a photographer, later admitted, "To me Ruhleben was  a rest cure [and] thanks to the British Government and relatives we were the best-fed prisoners; no matter how many ships were sunk, we got our parcels. It is true one sailor was shocked while slicing a loaf of mouldy bread; he cut through a nest of mice. But that was exceptional"

As it turned out, great things were accomplished in the camp. The internees started a number of 'businesses'  including a print shop where a daily newspaper and periodicals like In Ruhleben Camp and The Ruhleben Camp Magazine were published, and postcards, taken from paintings and drawings.                                                                                                            



Civilian internee Sidney Hall of number three barrack, Ruhleben, mailed this card from there in December 1917. There were several designs of Christmas postcards published by the Ruhleben Camp Magazine. On the back of this one was a 'FREIGEGEBEN/ RUHLEBEN/F.a.' censor mark and a 'London F.S./PAID/Jan 2 17' receiving mark. In peace time Sidney lived in the Old Kent Road, London. 


This picture titled "Troubles?" was by the Ruhleben camp artist P.P. Wood. The card was mailed from the "Englanderlager Ruhleben" by Willie Flagster to a relative in Brighton, England. On the back of it is a Ruhleben 'F.a' censor mark and a 'London F.S./PAID/Jan 4 18' receiving postmark. It would not seem unfair to suggest that Wood's picture was inspired by Sir John Miliais' "Bubbles".  


As already mentioned, after some months most of the internees settled into their new way of life and alongside the barracks, they erected booths where a number of 'businesses' were started. There was a canteen where bacon and eggs and bread and butter and tea or coffee could be bought. The shops there included a cobbler, a tailor, a watchmaker, a hosier, and an athletic outfitter; and also a booking-office for the 'theatre', a lost property office, a newspaper stall, and even a police-station manned by several internees.

The roadway in which these 'shops'; were situated was named "Bond Street" A street there known as "King William Street", hosted a library and a tobacco store. An inmate later said, "Here often would be seen a long queue of one or two hundred men waiting to be served with the fragrant and comforting weed.”

In July 1915, an Internal camp postal service was started, with stamps, letter cards and postal stationery. Run by the internees, the service was quite distinct from the official camp mail service, found here and at other PoW camps.

 A birds-eye view of Ruhleben Camp

The Grandstand - in which numerous classes and entertainments were held - is on the left of the picture. On the lower right are the stables which were converted into barracks for the British internees. Above the barracks is the guardroom and further up a row of buildings which housed the Anglo-German inmates. In the bottom right hand corner are the buildings that formed the camp hospital.  Running down the left side of the camp is the river Spree and next to it is the train route to Berlin. Running down the right side of the camp is the road to Spandau and next to it the railway line to Berlin.




The Ruhleben Camp Magazine No.6. This 70-page magazine was published in the camp in June 1917. Contents include - Numerous sketches and cartoons of camp life - Selection of camp limericks and poems - Specimens of camp craftmanship - Complaints about parcels from England - The Ruhleben orchestra - camp football match report - and much more.

Code: POW-020
Price £2.99



Camps in Switzerland 

Early in the war valuable work for wounded British prisoners was accomplished by James Gerard, the American Ambassador to Berlin. In February 1915, through his efforts, the German and British Governments reached agreement to repatriate limbless and hopelessly invalided PoW's.

Later, in May 1916, a further 350 or so wounded and disabled men were transferred from German camps to neutral Switzerland. The British Minister present at the exchange, Mr Grant Duff, said " is difficult to write calmly of it ... for the simple reason that I have never before in my life seen such a welcome accorded to anyone..." In the same way a reporter from The Times commented, "Our men were astounded at the welcome, many were crying like children, a few fainted with emotion. As one private said to the British Minister, "God bless you sir, it's like dropping right into 'even from 'ell..."



The contrast between these two postcard images vividly illustrates the conditions which many prisoners came from and went to - within just a few hours. No wonder then, that "many were crying like children [and] a few fainted with emotion" once they reached Switzerland.


Interned in  Switzerland

On 9th September 1916, an exchanged PoW - Pte. Fouracre - mailed this card from Switzerland to his daughter in Somerset, England. The card was stamped with an un-boxed cachet of the Murren internment camp and a normal civilian post office handstamp.

Throughout the ensuing months, more wounded PoW's were exchanged and interned in neutral Switzerland, mainly men from camps in southern and central Germany. There were 12 internment camps im Switzerland, the most important one was at Murren. 


This card - also from Private Fouracre - was sent on 5th May 1917 from Baden - which presumably was his new place of internment - to his wife in Somerset. A message on the back reads, "'My dear Wife - this is the hotel where I am staying. You will see the river that is at the back of it. It is a very nice place. I should like you to be here with me." Perhaps Private.Fouracre's wife later visited him through the Red Cross scheme. (See later)


Swiss Internment of Prisoners of War. This 63-page book published in November 1917, covers: the selection, supervision and transportation of interned prisoners - location and maintenance - educational facilities - civil rights - treatment in hospital - recreation and occupations - organisation and administration of Internment Services.

James Gerard said, "A great step forward was made when arrangements were entered into between Germany and Great Britain, whereby wounded and sick officers and men, when passed by the Swiss Commission, which visited both countries, were sent to Switzerland - sent still as prisoners of war - subject to return to Germany or Great Britain, respectively. But the opportunity afforded by change of food and scene, as well as reunion of families, saved many a life."

Code: POW-008

Price £3.99


Reunion in Switzerland

Mothers and Wives were allowed to visit their menfolk in Switzerland and every few weeks under the direction of the Red Cross, a party of women would leave London for the Swiss camps. A local photographer, Max Amstutz, was seemingly always on hand to take souvenir postcards of the visiting wives and their husbands.

This souvenir photo-card from 1916 was one of those by Max Amstutz. It shows a member of the Durham light Infantry. The soldier was interned in Murren. Private Joe Wardle and his wife were one of the 1,600 couples who enjoyed the free hospitality of the Red Cross in this way.



Camps in Holland

Wounded prisoners from camps in northern and eastern Germany were also exchanged and interned in neutral Holland. About 2,000 British war wounded were billeted in houses and hotels on the outskirts of the Hague and Scheveningen.

Postcards can sometimes be found from newly exchanged PoW's, and the relief they felt is often expressed in the message. For example, on 14th June 1918 a soldier of 'Eleven Group, Scheveningen', sent this message to his girl in York, "Dear Elsie, I have the pleasure to write & say I have been exchanged from that land of hell to Holland." 

Another internee in Scheveningen, Eric Johnson, wrote in May 1918, "After more than three and a half years in a prison camp in Germany, I arrived here a fortnight ago. All that time we were allowed scarcely any correspondence and now we can write as  much as we like."

Naval Internees in Holland

On 21st October 1914, The Daily Sketch carried the headline, "First photographs of our Naval Men in Holland." Both the front and back pages of the newspaper were filled with photos of smiling men, with captions like "Are any of your friends here? Men of the Naval Brigade confined in Holland envy their comrades at the Front."

The naval men had good reason to smile, for they had narrowly avoided being taken by the enemy. Just two weeks earlier, on 8th October, the Germans had attacked Antwerp where they overwhelmed the Belgian defenders and a small contingent of British Naval men. Rather than become stranded in Antwerp, the British force decided to withdraw.

The Royal Marines and the 2nd Naval Brigade got away safely, but the Ist Naval Brigade had more difficulty. Their guiding officer, Lt Col Ollivant was unfortunately, "...kicked by a horse and for a time rendered incapable of performing his duties." As only Ollivant knew the way, time was lost, then news arrived that "superior German forces were blocking their path of withdrawal." The Officer‑in‑Command, Commodore Henderson, decided he had no choice but to march his men the eight miles or so towards the Dutch border ‑ and into internment.


Interned in Holland in 1917, Sergeant Craven - 1st East Surrey Regiment - was also exchanged and sent to Scheveningen. On the first card he sent from there - to his wife in Liverpool - he simply gave her his new address.

Sgt. Craven's card was postmarked 'Scheveningen 31st December, 1917' and carried a London receiving machine cancel in red ink dated 16th January 1918. It also carried a n un-boxed Swiss cachet in purple ink 'SERVICE DES PRISONNIERS DE GUERRE' to enable free passage through the postal system.


The Camp Magazine, Number 26. (May 1917) This was a periodical produced for members of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade, who were interned in a camp at Groningen in Holland. It comprises of 21-pages. Contents include - A long editorial - History of Groningen - The Bread Fund - The Variety Company - R.N.B. Association  Football Club - Rugby - The Brass Band - Selection of poems - A day in the camp - In Memoriam

Code: POW-017 

Price £2.99

 "Interned - and very nice too"

Two weeks after The Sketch published its photographs of the naval men in Holland, Gale and Polden produced a coloured postcard which highlighted the 'advantages' of internment there.

The naval men who crossed into Holland were intemed in Groningen. A card mailed from there carried a Groningen postmark of December 1914 and a Dutch censor cachet.   The writer endorsed the card 'Interned in Holland'. and wrote, "Very pleased to receive the parcel quite safe, very pleased with the gloves they fit Al. Xmas soon be here, not much chance of getting home". Internment in Holland was still not freedom ‑ but was certainly better than being a PoW in a German camp.



The "South Holland Brewery"

To keep the men occupied in the Dutch camps, workshops were started. Subjects like carpentry, photography and motor mechanics were taught. However, surely one of the most agreeable pursuits which the internees encountered, was that recorded on another picture postcard.

This printed photographic postcard, dated 1918, shows a 'Visit of British Interned Soldiers to the Z.H.B. (South Holland Brewery). THE HAGUE.' There are many smiling faces!


Home for Christmas?

This card carries the civilian postmark of Enschede, dated 27th November 1918 (sixteen days after the Armistice was signed) and a Dutch cachet in purple ink - to allow it free passage through Holland and on to the addressee in England. It also carries a British receiving mark "DEC 4 18" and the sender has endorsed the card "Prisoner of War" in pencil. His message to Shropshire reads, "My Dear Dot, Just a few lines to let you know I arrived here yesterday in the best of health. Hoping to be with you all for Christmas. Fondest love to you all. From your loving brother Norman."



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