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Ruhleben Internment Camp

IWM Q 102953 Ruhleben

There were 175 prison camps in Germany during the First World War. Only one – Ruhleben – was built exclusively for civilian internees. The camp was located two miles west of Berlin and was an improvised camp built on a racecourse, it covered no more that ten acres and the prisoners could walk end to end in ten minutes. It was high profile because of its location and therefore came to symbolise German internment policy. The camp received visits from the protecting power, the USA until thy entered the war in 1917, and then the Netherlands took over. Ruhleben eventually became the main camp for all foreign nationals interned, British civilian internees, and merchant seaman internees of whom there were six thousand all males ages 17 to 55 most of whom had been rounded up and interned by November 1914. Many of the prisoners were also fluent German speakers who held British passports and had lived in Germany, in some cases, all their lives. Three of these internees were from Falkirk District. The camp inmates were a cross section of British society as well as from the then colonies of Ireland, Jamaica, West Africa, India, and others. A form of apartheid existed with the internees from Asia and Africa accommodated together in a large barrack set aside for them. The white prisoners paying these fellow prisoners to do their laundry and clean their barracks. The camp was guarded by a detachment of two hundred reservists who were commanded by Count Schwerin and his deputy Baron von Taube and they had a staff of officers. With the agreement of the British camp administration the Germans never actually entered the camp, only during morning roll call, they patrolled the permitter fence.


IWM A panoramic view of a prison camp that is housed within a horse racecourse. In the centre foreground is a stand that looks out onto the racecourse, which is on the right.

The camp consisted of eleven barracks, the stables had been converted, three grandstands, the Tea House was called a restaurant, and a boiler house. Later more barracks and a Y.M.C.A. hut were added. The prisoners created a civil administration each barrack had a ‘Captain’ with the whole camp, on the internee’s side, under the control of an internee identified as the ‘Captain of the Camp.’ There was a postal service, university, scientific laboratories, a garden were they grew their own vegetables, weekly theatrical productions, an orchestra, sporting leagues, and a colour illustrated magazine. The prisoners could also buy, via a friendly guard, meat, eggs, coffee, alcohol, although alcohol was forbidden, and even photographic equipment. The internees, as with the PoW camps, still relied on the food parcels from home as the principal supply of food. The camp had familiar street names such as Marble Arch, Bond Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and the prisoners named the toilet blocks, located at either end of the camp, Charlottenburg and Spandau.


Interned at the camp was Falkirk District Freemason James Richardson, he was a member of the Lodge Callendar No.588, and an engineer with the Glen Line shipping company he was detained in Hamburg in 1914. He was one of the Ruhleben prisoners to sign a message of greeting to Sir Edward Letchworth, Grand Secretary of English Freemasons, on 9 December 1914: ‘Worshipful Sir & Bro., We the undersigned brethren, at present interned with other British civilians at the concentration camp at Ruhleben - Spandau, Germany, send hearty good wishes to the Grand Master, officers and brethren in Great Britain, hoping that we may have the pleasure soon of greeting them personally.

Rats and other pests were a problem that was solved when the prisoners received permission to own dogs and so began rat hunts with these hunts even extending to the area outside the camp with permits being issued to the prisoners involved. Once these hunts began to reach Charlottenburg, one mile from the camp, the German camp authorities withdrew the permits.

A dysentery outbreak occurred in 1917 as a result of contaminated meat being issued to the camp. Prisoners who had serious illnesses were sent to a small hospital located in Barrack 19 this had been set up in 1915 by the internees and was under the guidance of Stanley Lambert. In ‘British civilian internees in Germany, The Ruhleben Camp, 1914-18’ Matthew Stibbe described how Lambert was assisted by a team of orderlies and cleaners and that Lambert was responsible for obtaining the bandages, blankets, medical supplies and other items through the Red Cross and other sources. Prisoners who had longer term illnesses where sent to private sanatorium operated by a Dr Weiler which was located at Nussbaumallee 38 in Charlottenburg. This had between 100 and 140 beds and had been allowed under a special arrangement with the US embassy. For those British prisoners who could afford the daily rate of 10 to 12 marks per day they could have a private room and those who could not had their fees of 7 to 8 marks per day paid by the British government and they were housed in a sparsely furnished dormitory that was shared with five others. Exchanged prisoners described Weiler as corrupt and that he was hoarding and stockpiling Red Cross parcels that had been sent to Ruhleben and using them for his personal use. Prisoners who required surgery were sent to a German military hospital in nearby Charlottenburg.    


IWM Q 109547 Internees mill around following their release from Ruhleben camp.

Poster that appeared in Ruhleben Camp Signed by the Soldiers Council. The Falkirk Herald

In early November 1918, the elected camp council began making arrangements for the dissolution of the camp in the event of the German guards simply disappearing. The arrangements included seizing all arms and ammunition and organizing a defensive force to defend the camp form the possibility of hungry residents from the nearby Spandau district looking for Red Cross parcels. Meanwhile, revolution had broken out in nearby Berlin and on 8 November the guards of Ruhleben formed a soldier’s council and raised the red flag. The soldier’s council also issued a proclamation, featured in the Falkirk Herald, declaring all Germans and Englishmen to be ‘brothers’ and that Germany was still a proud nation that ‘…would never beg; rather would it go to ruin.’ A British Red Cross team arrived in Berlin in mid-November and quickly organised the repatriation of the prisoners, negotiating with the new Social Democratic Mayor. The wives and children, who had been held in Berlin, joined their husbands in Ruhleben and from 22 to 24 November some 1,500 prisoners and their families were repatriated via Copenhagen to Hull or Leith.                                                                                  

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