Forgotten Prisoners of the Great War

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By Panikos Panayi | Published in History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 11 2012 

First World War Britain

Panikos Panayi explores attitudes to German prisoners interned during the First World War.

Knockaloe Internment Camp, on the Isle of Man, by George Kenner, 1918

Knockaloe Internment Camp, on the Isle of Man, by George Kenner, 1918

Close to the west coast of the Isle of Man, near the port of Peel, stands a plaque commemorating the presence of the Knockaloe Camp. This remains one of the few clues to the presence of thousands of prisoners, mostly Germans, who found themselves behind barbed wire in Britain during the First World War, reaching a peak of 115,950 in November 1918. In fact by the end of the conflict Britain held over half-a-million prisoners on a global scale, among the 8.7 million people who endured captivity during the Great War.
Those held in Britain (almost all males) fall into three categories. First, civilian internees from the German community established in Britain during the 19th century joined by those unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the country at the outbreak of war. Second, Germans seized in British and German colonies, as well as on ships on the high seas, and transported to camps around the world under a wide system of incarceration developed by the British Empire. The headquarters of this was at Knockaloe, which, at its height, held over 20,000 prisoners. Finally, military personnel also found themselves imprisoned on mainland Britain. While these included crews from Zeppelins which had fallen to earth and members of the German navy (some from U-Boats) the majority had faced capture on the Western Front and, from 1917, increasingly faced transfer to Britain, where they would help with the harvest.

During the Great War these internees certainly impinged on public consciousness. In Britain press and parliamentary opinion led a campaign to ensure that wholesale internment took place, a policy that became reality following the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915 and the anti-German riots in its aftermath. At the same time, some MPs and newspapers became fixated on the idea that German prisoners in Britain had a good time while the British in Germany, above all those held at the internment camp at Ruhleben, near Berlin, suffered brutal treatment. While Ruhleben became a site of terror in British minds, the officers’ camp in Donington Hall, a stately home in Derbyshire, came to symbolise the apparent luxury enjoyed by German prisoners in Britain, albeit inaccurately.

Perception in Germany of its citizens held captive in Britain clearly differed. In fact press opinion and Reichstag deputies focused upon the positive experiences of prisoners held in Germany and contrasted this with the plight of its own people imprisoned in the French, British and Russian empires. Relatives of Germans imprisoned in Britain and elsewhere ensured that the plight of their family members was not forgotten through the activities of a series of charities, above all the German Red Cross. Meanwhile, a stream of books and pamphlets emerged, which continued into the late 1930s, dwelling on the experiences of Germans held in Britain during the Great War. Some of these accounts, especially those issued by governmental and other official bodies, focused upon the mistreatment experienced by German prisoners in Britain and elsewhere. At the same time a series of adventure stories also appeared, most famously the aviator Gunther Plüschow’s 1916 Die Abenteuer des Fliegers von Tsingtau, which recounted the author’s journey from China to Britain and his spell in a series of internment camps, including Donington Hall, from where he became one of only three German prisoners during the Great War to escape from Britain and make it back home. Other accounts simply focused on the reality of everyday life in captivity. The most incisive of these, Time Stood Still, was actually written by the Austrian artist and writer, Paul Cohen-Portheim (1880-1932), who found himself painting in England in the summer of 1914. Unable to return he spent much of the war in an internment camp in Wakefield, where he remained until his release in February 1918.

In Germany the immediate postwar years also saw the establishment of a number of essentially paramilitary groups established by former prisoners, who had been held in Britain, France and Russia. The Reichsbund zum Schutze der deutschen Kriegs- und Ziviligefangenen was one such group formed largely out of concern for those prisoners who had not yet returned home. The largest veterans’ group consisted of the Reichsvereinigung ehemalige Kriegsgefangene, founded in December 1918, which in the early 1920s may have had as many as 400,000 members.

While former German prisoners held on to their memories after the war, Britons quickly forgot about them, focusing instead upon the former internees of Ruhleben and the other German camps. The popular Germanophobia of the Great War, which had resulted in mass deportation of German civilians at the end of the conflict, would survive well beyond 1918. One of the few Britons who tried to preserve the experiences of German internees was the Manx writer Hall Caine (1853-1931), who published The Woman of Knockaloe in 1923. The novel centred upon the relationship between Mona Craine, the daughter of the local farmer, and an internee brought there from the mainland, Oskar Heine, an engineer previously employed by an English firm on the Mersey. A tale of doomed love, the couple eventually throw themselves off a cliff on the Isle of Man because of the British and German hostility to their relationship. The novel was made into the Hollywood movie Barbed Wire in 1927, although the setting was changed from the Isle of Man to Normandy and the story given a happy ending when Mona’s blinded brother returns from the war and shames the local population with an impassioned plea for love and forgiveness. The anti-German reaction to the film in Britain incensed Caine, who wrote to the Sunday Times objecting to its ‘monstrous’ and ‘malicious’ misrepresentation by ‘certain sections of the press’, which described it as ‘pro-German’.

The Second World War resulted in the sympathetic depiction of a German prisoner from the 1914-18 conflict in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). It also produced countless stories of recent captivity. In Germany the focus turned to the millions of Germans who were imprisoned from the early 1940s, above all those held in the Soviet Union, some of whom remained there until 1955. They, along with the large numbers of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after the war, came to symbolise the suffering of ordinary Germans, further obscuring the memory of the prisoners of the First World War. In Britain slightly more attention has focused upon the First World War internees, often thanks to the efforts of local historians.

But quite astonishingly the story of the First World War prisoners of Britain has only just been written, almost a century after the conflict. Blink when walking past Knockaloe Farm and you will miss one of the only physical signs of this history. It seems high time that a more permanent memorial to these victims of the First World War now emerged in Britain.

Panikos Panayi is Professor of European History at De Montfort University, Leicester.

Forgotten Prisoners of the Great War | History Today

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