Wartime excesses of chauvinism, anger and hate became regarded with incredulous embarrassment and were then forgotten. Patience, tolerance and generosity returned. The forgetting of 'wartime excesses' also meant sweeping the victims of these excesses under the carpet, especially the German community in Britain. The prisoners remembered by British society were those held by the Germans, especially in Ruhleben. German accounts of First World War internment differ from British ones in several ways. In the first place, the most important period for remembering prisoners was the Great War and the interwar years, when numerous personal accounts appeared and when prisoner-of-war associations came into existence. Some general volumes have appeared in recent decades on the history of prisoners of war over a long time period for both an academic and a general market, probably those with an interest in all things military.
This chapter aims to outline the development of internment policy and its immediate impact for individuals. Internment and the capture of prisoners of war needs contextualization in the brutal and murderous consequences of the First World War, which, unlike many nineteenth-century conflicts, moved away from battles between armies to incorporate all civilians. Civilians faced arrest, or simply gave themselves up, while those conveyed to Britain upon ships essentially experienced transportation. Personal narratives, consisting of letters and subsequently published memoirs, provide an insight into the way in which German soldiers fell into British hands, which involved a combination of capture and surrender. The figures for those held in Britain remained fairly constant until about 1917, when increasing numbers of German soldiers became prisoners in France. The vast majority of military internees who found themselves in Britain originated in the deciding battles of the First World War, those from 1917 onwards.
The hundreds of thousands of German prisoners in Britain during the First World War needed a bureaucracy to control them. Any attempt to reconstruct the overall administration of the camp system reveals a series of layers of bureaucracy and concern, ranging from international to national and local. While prisoners of war in Britain may have had the common characteristic of spending time behind barbed wire deprived of their liberty, the types of camp in which they found themselves varied greatly. This chapter presents six categories of camps, essentially maintaining the distinction between civilian and military incarceration: the smaller establishments which held non-combatants, special camps, the Isle of Man camps, military camps, military hospitals and finally, working camps. Outside London, several civilian camps emerged in north-west England during the early stages of the war, reflecting the pre-war settlement of Germans in Manchester and Liverpool.
Paul Cohen-Portheim produced the most damning and incisive account of barbed wire disease. His narrative stresses the frustrations of a middle-class internee interned for years without trial in an all-male environment with little personal space. Military camps had a more structured routine, which helped to prevent the type of disillusionment, frustration and development of barbed wire disease described by Cohen-Portheim and Rudolf Rocker. Despite the depressing nature of internment and the evolution of the concept of barbed wire disease by the end of the First World War, statistics point to a generally sound mental and physical condition among the prisoners. Crime represented part of everyday life in an internment camp, especially in an artificial situation with numerous rules and regulations. Complaints about housing emerged in numerous other camps throughout the country during the course of the war as well as in official German publications at the end of the war.
Paul Cohen-Portheim claimed that 'religion played an astonishingly small part in the men's life' although he did point to the availability of services. Within the concentration camps the most obvious manifestation of religion, apart from the holding of services, consisted of the celebrations of the major religious festivals which remained the most important day in the calendar. Despite the development of barbed wire disease and the feelings of isolation which some internees felt, the vast majority participated in the educational, social and cultural activity which developed in the camps. This took a variety of forms, including religion; reading, writing and learning; high culture; and sport. In some camps the majority of prisoners found little useful employment, which meant that they had to develop other ways of passing their time. This led to the evolution of 'prison camp societies', to use John Davidson Ketchum's phrase.
The employment of combatant prisoners took off during the second half of the Great War with the increasing need for labour and the growing numbers of captives within the country. The Members of British Parliament began asking questions about the employment of both civilian and military internees at the end of 1915. Gerald Davis divided the employment carried out by prisoners into two categories, 'service work for the armed force detaining the prisoners' and 'contract employment in agriculture and industry'. First World War Britain utilized prisoners in both of these senses, although those working for the British forces laboured in the conflict zone in France rather than in mainland Britain. In December 1916, the Prisoners of War Employment Committee came into existence with the task of considering 'all applications for the employment of prisoners of war, and to decide whether they should be adopted'.
German public opinion focused upon almost the reverse of the issues which worried the British. British public and official opinion focused upon the Hun as the central image of Germans. In Germany, press and official opinion painted the reverse picture of the one which existed in Britain, focusing upon the mistreatment of the prisoners of war held by the enemy. The internment campaign in Britain had two key elements: the demand for wholesale incarceration; and the issue of the positive treatment of German prisoners, especially in contrast to Britons held in Germany. Similar to the British one, the German propaganda machine, backed up by official material, claimed that the British mistreated working prisoners, in this case behind the lines in France. This mistreatment of prisoners by the enemy offers one insight into the way in which public opinion in both Britain and Germany understood this issue.
German prisoners spent varying periods of time behind barbed wire in Britain. Despite the uncertainties which might face them outside, hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of German prisoners took the issue into their own hands by trying to escape. Some special groups of prisoners, agreed by the British and German governments and also stipulated by wider international agreements including the Hague Convention, found themselves released and returning home as the war progressed. The end of internment meant new challenges in view of the consequences of the First World War for both Britain and Germany. Soldiers who returned home found a transformed society and economy suffering from the consequences of four years of total war. In virtually all cases a return to pre-1914 lives proved impossible for either returning German soldiers or released civilians.
This chapter consists of an attempt to understand the meaning of internment in First World War Britain by placing it into a series of specific themes revolving around the conflict. First World War internment had the most meaning for those who experienced it. Beginning with the incarceration of soldiers, the scale of the conflict and the size of the armies involved meant that the issue of prisoners of war surfaced in a new manner. Britain essentially carried out ethnic cleansing during the First World War, and the incarceration of German males for years represented a transitionary stage. Ethnic cleansing became part of state policy during these years. Most scholars working on the plight of ethnic outsiders in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century accept the importance of war as the background for the most extreme acts which occurred.