A crowd of female protestors in Britain, bearing a placard which reads \'Help Our Prisoners in Germany\', circa 1914. They are protesting the internment of thousands of British civilians at Ruhleben (now a district of Berlin) at the start of World War I. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A crowd of female protestors in Britain, bearing a placard which reads 'Help Our Prisoners in Germany', circa 1914. They are protesting the internment of thousands of British civilians at Ruhleben (now a district of Berlin) at the start of World War I. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Getty

British citizens in Germany at the onset of WWI soon found themselves in the Ruhleben prison camp. Before long their genius for setting up rules for living and improving their circumstances proved nearly boundless.

It has been said that one Englishman, alone and without contact with another of his countrymen, will make the best of his lot, but will do little to brighten the world about him. But if two Englishmen are put together, before long, the fruits of their comradeship will come forth. Put a half-dozen, a hundred, or a thousand in the same confines, and their genius for setting up rules for living and improving their circumstances will know no bounds.

If this was not known to the German authorities at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, they were not long in learning it. So suddenly had war engulfed Europe, that no one was truly prepared for it. Some 30,000 Germans were caught on British soil, including businessmen, permanent residents, and even some who, though British born and never out of the United Kingdom, had preferred to maintain the German citizenship to which their parentage entitled them. As fast as they could be rounded up, they were interned.

Approximately 5,000 British subjects were living in Germany when war broke out. All were questioned and told that as long as they took no part in helping Britain, they only needed to report weekly to the police.

But when the Germans learned what had happened to their fellow citizens in Britain, they issued an ultimatum. Unless the British government released these civilians, the same treatment would be given to British subjects in Germany. The announced deadline of 15th November 1914, came without a response, and the Germans began the round-up. Those taken into custody included the crews of several merchant ships trapped in the harbours at Bremen and Hamburg, as well as that of a South African warship that had been visiting Germany.

On short notice, the German authorities made arrangements for housing more than 5,000 detainees. A racecourse at Ruhleben, in Spandau, a Berlin suburb, was pressed into service as a prisoner of war camp. Stables, or 'horseboxes', built to house 27 horses each, became living quarters for 365 men. Each horse stall accommodated six prisoners and had a cold water tap, but no heat whatsoever. The only light came from a single bulb hanging in the corridor. The prisoners received no blankets, no bed clothing, and no lockers to keep personal possessions.

During the German army's rush to capture Paris (within weeks of the war's outbreak the front had advanced to within a few miles of the city), it needed every soldier at the front and could spare none to guard the Ruhleben camp. The army, therefore, recalled retired officers, some in their 70s and 80s, to command the prisoners. Finding themselves largely ignored by the distracted German military, the British decided to govern themselves. The elderly guards, probably feeling no less inconvenienced by the situation than the prisoners, happily obliged.

The first major problem the prisoners addressed stemmed from some of the heaviest rains Europe had known in a generation, which turned the grounds of the racecourse into a sea of mud in the autumn of 1914. Prevailing on the Germans to supply lumber, they built wooden walkways between the latrines, the barracks, and the mess. They dubbed the centre of the camp Trafalgar Square. From there, Bond Street and King Edward Street led to King William Street, Regent Street, and Fleet Street.

Soon, the cold winter weather presented another problem. In the horseboxes, which were open to the weather, the water taps froze. When James W. Gerard, the United States Ambassador to Germany, visited the camp, he expressed his shock at the circumstances under which the prisoners lived. Through his intercession, the Germans delivered more lumber, and even windows and sashes, to the camp, and provided tools for the prisoners to enclose the horse boxes.

More and more, the prisoners took over their internal affairs, without any objection from their German superiors. Fortunately, the Germans strictly observed the Geneva Convention. They promptly delivered food supplied by the American and British Red Cross, as well as from the neutral Dutch. Letters from home, and even from other countries, reached their destinations. Books, sports equipment, craft material, and even printing presses were allowed to enter the camp.

Artists formed a group and sponsored an exhibition. A dramatic society put on plays by Shakespeare and modern dramatists. A number of men formed cricket teams, while others entered a boxing tournament. Seldom was it necessary for the Germans to enter the camp, but they followed the athletic competitions enthusiastically.

The Ruhleben racecourse was only 20 acres in size, but the mud restricted movement to the wooden 'pavements' and made communications between the prisoners difficult. Eventually, one of the prisoners, Albert Kamps, visited the Germans and sought permission to set up an internal postal system that would not only carry letters from one prisoner to another but also act as a medium whereby one prison activity might contact those interested in it. The Germans did not oppose the idea. After all, the British had been no care at all to them, and the freedom to govern themselves in all respects had worked very well.

Mr. Kamps obtained permission to visit downtown Berlin to purchase the items needed to operate an efficient post office. He purchased gummed paper from which to make the stamps, a perforating wheel, a set of rubber stamps, stationery, postcards, envelopes, and letter sheets.

Lumber post boxes were erected throughout the camp; each even had a neatly carved coat of arms, reminiscent of the sovereign's monogram on the mailboxes at home. The Ruhleben coat of arms showed two rats, a bowl, a sausage, a loaf of bread, a shoe, and a Latin inscription.

The newly created Ruhleben Express Delivery employed 30 prisoners, and the modest salary they received enabled them to purchase items from England that they might not have been able to obtain otherwise. With the British blockade of German ports tightening, the Germans were unwilling to share their limited goods with the prisoners.

The RXD, as it was called, was an immediate success. In its first month it delivered 5,151 pieces of mail. By 7th December of that year, the number had reached 7,488, comprised of 5,520 letters, 900 pieces of advertising mail, 687 newspapers, 180 special delivery letters (an extra fee was charged for this service), and 242 official cards or letters.

Soon after the service started, the RXD began to offer its customers additional options. Prisoners could send valuables by registered mail, money by means of a Money Order system, and even packages by parcel post. As the men made greater use of the RXD, it continued to more than pay for itself, and the compensation to its employees was raised. The postal agent in each of the barracks received special discounts; he was allowed to keep three shillings for each pound of stamps or stationery that he sold. The RXD also printed Christmas cards, which it sold to prisoners at a profit. Some of these were even posted to families and friends abroad; because of the Geneva Convention, no stamps were needed. The Germans were most careful to see that none of the RXD stamps was used on outgoing mail.

By the summer of 1915, living conditions had improved, thanks to the Red Cross and the intercession of the Americans and the Dutch. The Ruhleben library boasted 5,000 books. Since many of the prisoners were businessmen of considerable means and education, it was only natural that as time went on they would attempt to re-create normal civilian life as closely as possible. There were 37 Cambridge graduates at Ruhleben, and they soon formed their own group. Some of them organized the Ruhleben Camp School, with a faculty of 200 men and 1,400 students. The school offered 297 different courses of instruction, ranging from mathematics to the maritime sciences.

In addition to their studies, the prisoners also created performing arts groups. A photo of the Ruhleben Symphony shows more than 80 musicians, well supplied with all the needed instruments through the Red Cross. The only thing the Ruhleben Dramatic Society lacked was actresses to play female parts.

The Ruhleben Camp Magazine 

The prisoners had no shortage of locally produced reading material. In March 1916, the first issue of The Ruhleben Camp Magazine appeared. The high-grade paper on which it was printed (brought in by the Red Cross) must have been the envy of German printers who were denied any imports of quality paper by the British blockade. The magazine's first issue tried to correct abuses in camp life. Prisoners who used the sports ground for running complained that it was being monopolized by football players. Another article took the Germans to task for denying the prisoners hot water on the Lord's Day.

The magazine featured cartoons (some rather incomprehensible today), dramatic reviews, poetry, and even humorous advertisements. An insurance company sold policies protecting against accidents 'on land or mud or both.' Coverage while 'waiting for something to happen' was also provided. A weight reduction regimen was advertised for men who had put on too much weight from the camp's rich food. The 'Ruhleben Resort,' a renowned resort for a restful relaxation, offered a private golf course, an English chef, and no foreigners. A book on etiquette offered advice on 'what to do when you see a female for the first time.'

The 1916 Magazine was not the camp's first journalistic endeavour. On 6th June 1915, the first issue of In Ruhleben Camp appeared. Just why this publication ceased is not known today, but it set a standard that its successor never equalled. One issue contained a half-page advertisement for yet another publication, the Ruhleben Daily News, edited by L. Spicer. The advertisement stated that 'it contains translation of the official reports published, and other items interesting to us, appearing in the German papers, but no comments are permitted on our part. This little paper is provided especially for the benefit of those who are unable to read German, and will prove a valuable medium for disseminating war news, and it is hoped that many will avail themselves of the opportunity of purchasing a copy daily. The paper does not pretend to be one of literary merit, but it is our aim to get the news to the Camp as concisely and quickly as possible.'

Commerce in the camp

Money was not a great problem to the prisoners. While their own letters were censored and portions sometimes struck out, any money sent by family or friends did reach its destination. The prisoners themselves earned money by starting up various businesses. Several barbers and cobblers set up shop, as did many tailors. One man opened a pedicure in his barrack. The teachers at the school all received salaries. British industries even added to the money publications earned: one brand of coffee, Fazenda, advertised, suggesting to the men that when they wrote home asking for food, to request the Fazenda brand.

Mr. Spicer himself had another line. Since he owned a typewriter, he offered to type letters home and to render manuscripts into the form acceptable for publishing. The RXD even advertised its services. One enterprising individual ordered a quantity of 'thin toilet papers for laying on the seats of the new latrines,' and advertised it. A black resident of Barracks 12, probably one of the South Africans from one of the impounded ships, offered to cut black prisoners' hair.

A full-page advertisement in September 1915 sought contributions to be sent to England to endow a 'Ruhleben Bed' in one of the Red Cross hospitals at home. 'If you are "British",' the appeal read, 'you will make some sacrifice for those who are making far greater sacrifices than those you are privileged to make.'

Political parties

Before a year had passed, the internees had formed political parties, which took the names of parties back home. The prisoners set 3rd August 1915, as the date for an election. The Conservative candidate was Alexander Boss, a well-to-do prisoner from Surrey. The Liberal candidate was Israel Cohen, from Manchester. The Suffragette candidate, Reuben Castang (home unknown), entered the contest more in the spirit of a good-natured banter than anything else. His platform was a simple one. Since the Red Cross had been so efficient in bringing tinned goods to the camp, he stated, he would import 10,000 tinned girls. ('We want real girls!' the assemblage shouted.)

The camp buzzed with campaign activity. Candidates hung banners; one for Alexander Boss spanned the entire width of Bond Street West. (Not surprisingly, Boss spent the most money in the election.) The next issue of In Ruhleben was entirely devoted to the election, complete with advertisements and statements by the various campaign committees. Several gardeners from Boss' Surrey estate even took an advertisement. 'The British Wives and Sweetheart's League' in London, a mythical group, promised 'immediate divorce proceedings, no more food parcels nor pocket money' if the Suffragette candidate were elected.

One of Cohen's ads stated: 'If you vote for us you will not be BOSSED. The Conservatives will Boss you and the Suffragettes will Boss them. FOR COHEN. They have GEESE, but no PropaGANDA.'

Castang, the Suffragette candidate, appealed to the voters' love of home, stating that he represented 'England, Home, and Beauty. When voting, remember the dear girls who send the parcels; show them we still love and remember them by voting for Castang. No. 3 on the Ballot-Card.'

At a 15th July rally, nominations for additional candidates were made. The sailors nominated a Mr. Henriksen, who declined and asked his friends to vote for Mr. Cohen. Socialists in the Camp then named a Mr. Delbosq, who enthusiastically offered to share all he owned, food parcels, possessions, etc., if elected. Unfortunately, his candidacy died for lack of a second.

As the election date neared, the political meetings grew so loud and boisterous that the German guards protested that they were unable to sleep. Campaigning continued, but much more quietly. When the results were announced, they surprised the entire camp. Castang, the Suffragette candidate who had entered as a lark, was the winner with 1,200 votes. Cohen was second with 924, and Boss last with 471, despite the help that he had from the employees of his 12,000-acre Surrey estate. Altogether, 2,689 votes had been cast, representing two-thirds of the prisoners. Seventy-four had been spoiled and were not counted.

The German press reported the election, with a novel twist. The issue, one paper stated, was Britain's justification for entering the war, and Mr. Castang's victory was due to his view that Britain had been in the wrong in declaring the war. Nothing was said of his real platform, the importation of 'tinned girls' for the prisoners.

As life returned to 'normal', the Germans offered prisoners the opportunity to visit Berlin to purchase necessities. Usually, they were accompanied by a German soldier, although for short paroles that did not last longer than a few hours, prisoners were on their honor not to escape. The accompanied paroles often presented some interesting situations. In several instances where a prisoner and a guard ate lunch together while shopping, and the prisoner did not know German, they spoke English. On occasion, both German soldier in uniform and the British prisoner in 'civvies' were arrested as spies by overzealous Germans who did not realize that had they been spies, they would certainly not be speaking English.

As the British blockade tightened, the Germans suffered more and more from inadequate supplies of food. It did not help matters when their newspaper reported that enemy prisoners in Ruhleben were not only eating fairly well, but were suffering few privations other than the loss of liberty. Even the prison guards resented the well-stocked larders of the British, while they went without necessities Years later, one of the prisoners recalled, 'the German soldiers scurried through our garbage picking out odd pieces of bacon and fat. They were particularly fond of the fat in the corned beef tins, which they scraped out and ate with relish.'

Though illegal, the prisoners often sold food to the German guards, who then either re-sold it on the black market or used it themselves once it was out of the camp. It might be the only time in the history of warfare that food was smuggled out of a prison camp, rather than into one.

The monotony of prison life was broken one day when a fire broke out in the Ruhleben kitchen. It was of little consequence, and it was quickly extinguished, but the great amount of smoke did alarm the outside guards. Their help was not particularly needed, but their over-enthusiastic participation was explained when the prisoners began sorting through the smokey kitchen: much of the food that had been brought in by the American Embassy had disappeared.

The relatively comfortable life enjoyed by the British detainees at Ruhleben seemed almost too good to last. In the end, it was the Ruhleben postal system that began its undoing. For most of its existence, the German authorities had paid little attention to it, but then, a German guard thought it novel enough that he mentioned it to a professional philatelist. He asked the guard if he might obtain some of the stamps, to be sold to German collectors, and, seeing an opportunity to earn a few marks, he readily agreed. The dealer advertised them in a stamp magazine, and the German Post Office, which had abolished all private postal systems in 1900, was indignant. The Ruhleben Postmaster, Albert Kamps, was tried and found guilty of infringement of German law. He was sentenced to three weeks of solitary confinement. The RXD was abolished. Its stock of stamps, to the extent that any might be found, was destroyed.

But other forces were at work to end the Ruhleben Prison camp. Germans allowed the British prisoners to send petitions, explaining why they should be released to return to Britain. It was then that many realized for the first time that their letters had not only been censored, but notes made on their comments. Prisoners who expressed hopes for a British victory were the last to be granted their freedom; those who had seen merit in the German cause were among the first. The first release was in the form of exchange; sick and invalid civilians who had been interned in England were allowed to return to Germany by way of Holland, and selected Ruhleben prisoners returned home. By 1917, the only prisoners left in Ruhleben were military men, not only British, but French, Russian, and Canadians. They were dispersed to other prisoner-of-war camps, to await the end of the war in 1918, and repatriation.

* Originally published in Nov 1997, updated in 2023.