The prisoners of war who made Little Britain in Berlin
- 29 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
When thousands of British men were interned in Germany at the start of World War One, they rolled up their sleeves and made the best of it. In their prison camp on the River Spree in Berlin, they built a Little Britain - using the barbed wire as a trellis on which a thousand flowers bloomed.
More than 5,000 British civilians found themselves caught in Germany when war broke out.
They were rounded up and held captive for the duration of hostilities in sheds and stables on a racetrack at Ruhleben, on the western outskirts of Berlin.
Unlike prisoner of war camps, Ruhleben was not a labour camp. These were interned civilians and the over-riding obligation imposed was not to escape. There were 200 German guards but they stayed on the perimeter, allowing the prisoners "home rule".
Accordingly, the inmates selected "captains" for each block, with a "captains' committee" running the camp, and sub-committees organising everything from the camp's own postage stamps to a police service.
The result was a version of the homeland in the heart of enemy territory. Streets and squares in the camp were named Trafalgar Square, Bond Street and Marble Arch. But the captains also created a mini-British Colony, with all the class distinctions and racial prejudices of the era.
Black seamen caught on British ships at the start of the war were not allowed to have a black leader of their group - it had to be a white "captain".
At least one Jewish inmate said there was anti-Semitism. There were rich and poor within the camp. The toffs employed the proles to work.
A Jewish view
In 1917, inmate Israel Cohen wrote down his impressions of the camp in which he was interned: "On the seventh day of our internment (on Thursday morning, November 12th, 1914, to be exact) we were summoned by the alarm-bell, which was vigorously struck by one of the guards, to line up in front of our barracks, and we awaited impatiently the new order that was to be promulgated."
Jews were identified and then marched off to another, far worse, camp. As they marched out, German guards and what Israel describes as "un-English Englishmen" jeered at them. Eventually, they were allowed back into the main camp after the American ambassador to Germany intervened.
On the plus side, the inmates created the sporting and recreational associations you might find in any respectable Home Counties town. The inmates built a five-hole golf course and established an Association Football Club, a Cricket Association, a Rugby Football Club, a Lawn Tennis Association, a Hockey Club and a Boxing Club.
There were classes with 200 teachers drawn from among the internees and a library with 2,000 books. There was an orchestra of inmates which gave its first concert on 6 December 1914. It performed Gilbert and Sullivan and some demanding classics. On 2 May 1915, for example, a "Grand Concert" consisted of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor, soloist William Lindsay.
There was also a Ruhleben Song, sung heartily by the inmates:
"So line up boys and sing this chorus, shout this chorus all you can.
We want the people there, to hear in Leicester Square,
That we're the boys that never get downhearted.
Back, back, back again in England, then we'll fill the flowing cup,
And tell them clear and loud, of that Ruhleben crowd,
That always kept their pecker up."
There was also a Horticultural Association affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society in London, though the inmates did not do the sort of gardening you might expect in a place where food was scarce. In the bleak world of the war-time camp, the standard diet was no more than black bread and turnip soup - but, at least to begin with, the British gardeners opted for flowers to hide the barbed wire rather than vegetables to fill their stomachs.
The internees were a varied crowd, but not a cross-section of British society - they were men, aged from 17 to 55, who either lived and worked in Germany, or happened to have been there when war broke out. Many were seamen on ships caught in Hamburg but there were also musicians who played in the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. There were professional soccer players and British and Irish jockeys, all having to make a life together.
Initially, many were held near where they were captured so sailors in Hamburg were kept in floating hulks on the Elbe. But by November 1914, the old racetrack at Ruhleben on the banks of the Spree had been identified as a central internment camp.
Prisoners were held in the stables. Each block contained an average of 27 stalls designed for horses but now inhabited by men. Each was about 10 feet square, in which six men lived. But this was much better than the lofts above which housed 200 men per block. Privacy did not exist.
The accommodation was primitive but the internees improved it by building chairs and tables.
By spring 1915, at the end of the camp's first winter, the rains had turned much of it into a mud pool, so interned engineers built drains and elevated pathways over the mud between buildings. In June 1915, new latrines were built and showers constructed so that warm showers were available once a week and cold showers all the time.
Escape and suicide
"Several men gave up the struggle of trying to reconcile themselves to their lot: they attempted either to escape or to commit suicide, or they became victims of mental derangement. The number of attempts at escape was comparatively small, and the successes were fewer still.
"In July, 1915, Messrs. Edward Falk and Geoffrey Pyke escaped one night from the Camp. Two months later Mr. Alfred Delbosq, who had a week's furlough, escaped. And in April, 1916, Messrs. Gaunt and Colston also escaped.
"The first attempt at suicide was made early one morning in March, 1915, by a prisoner with a razor, who was not stopped until he had inflicted a gash in his throat; and one or two attempts were made in the following summer. Cases of mental derangement were unfortunately more frequent."
Israel Cohen - inmate
But it was the gardening that really stands out. Fiona Davison, head of Libraries and Exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society, says it started in a small way, with inmates growing flowers in biscuit tins.
"It gradually grew, and being proper English gentlemen, they decided that they should have a horticultural society, and they contacted us, the Royal Horticultural Society, to ask if they could become an affiliated society - which meant that we would send them instructions on how to run a flower show.
"The RHS got very excited about it and put out an appeal to nurseries across the country to provide seeds and bulbs and we sent them out in Red Cross parcels throughout the war on quite a large scale.
"We sent out boxes and boxes and at its peak the Ruhleben horticultural society was producing 33,000 lettuces, 18,000 bunches of radishes. They grew 83 varieties of sweet pea, dahlias, chrysanthemums. It was not just hobby gardening, it was large-scale horticulture with hot houses and nurseries… They used it to supplement their diet."
But that was by the end. Initially, the focus was on flowers. Nobody quite knows why but there is a theory - the captive gentlemen of leisure could afford to buy food, either from guards or from home as food parcels or other prisoners so they wanted flowers, particularly English climbing plants which would disguise the barbed wire.
Doreen Black's grandfather, David McKay Tulloch was at the camp for four years and four months. He was a Scottish merchant seaman who was trapped in Hamburg when war broke out, and he kept a diary which Doreen still has.
"There certainly was a Gentlemen's Club in the camp where other prisoners served the gentlemen tea," she says. "It may explain the contentious decision not to grow vegetables. It wasn't until 1917 that they grew vegetables, and they ended up selling their produce to Berlin, and the proceeds helped their destitute wives at home."
McKay Tulloch returned to Scotland at the end of the war and lived the rest of his life near Aberdeen, where he drew on his Ruhleben experience to teach Doreen gardening. When she picked strawberries he asked her to whistle, so that he could be sure she wasn't eating them.
In many ways, despite the scarcities and privations, the men of the camp were not badly off. The Little Britain they created was far from the trenches of Flanders or the gunsights of a U-boat on the high seas. And they were better fed than the people of Berlin who, because of the tight British naval blockade of Germany, often starved. While the inmates at Ruhleben rejoiced in the size of their marrows, the citizenry of the city around them were so hungry that if a horse dropped dead in the street, crowds scurried forward to butcher it.
There were certainly worse places to spend the Great War than in Little Britain by the Spree, particularly if you played football, golf, rugby, cricket or billiards. Or liked music or wanted to read and learn.
Or if you fancied a bit of gardening.
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The Royal Horticultural Society is planning an exhibition about Ruhleben this autumn and is very keen to hear from people whose relatives were there, particularly if they have diaries and photographs. Please email Fiona Davison at firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to Stephen Evans' full report on the World Tonight, on Tuesday 29 July on BBC Radio 4 at 22:00 BST or catch up on iPlayer.