[From St Stephen's House, 1920]
* Chapters IV., V., and VI. have been compiled by W. R. Hughes.
A LARGE number of the men who thronged our doors in the first days of the Committee soon began to be taken away into the internment camps, and this led to a new phase of the work. Appeals for assistance in all sorts of ways began to flow in from the various camps, and representatives were sent to visit the men and discuss their many troubles with them. At first these visits were not very difficult to arrange, as the camp Commandants had considerable liberty as to admitting visitors. Through the later years of the war, the Committee retained certain privileges of visiting camps as a recognised agency for helping the interned men and their families, when almost all other visitors were rigorously excluded.
The people of every country during the war were taught to believe that they were treating their prisoners of warwhether military or civilianwith the greatest humanity, while their enemies were using prisoners with the utmost cruelty. The purpose of such teaching was, of course, to arouse the fighting spirit. This reason is well illustrated by the story told us by an American Y.M.C.A. worker among prisoners. He had been in the camps of Russian prisoners in Germany, and after his investigations there he had prepared a booklet showing pictures of the brighter side of camp life, and of what the Y.M.C.A. was doing among the prisoners. After this he travelled to Russia, and, in an interview with the Russian Minister of War, showed him the booklet and asked leave to distribute it for the comfort of the Russian relatives of prisoners. " How many of these things have you got ? " said the general, " and where are they ? " " I have so many thousand at my hotel." The general rang for an orderly and gave him instructions. Then, turning to the American, he said " I will keep this copy ; I have just sent a man to destroy all the others; this is just the sort of information which we do not wish any of our people to obtain!"
To a modified extent this spirit prevailed in England also. From time to time the Committee sent to the British press authentic information as to favourable conditions in certain German camps. It was impossible, as a rule, to induce most of the papers to refer to such information. The Manchester Guardian and the Westminster Gazette may perhaps be named as exceptions to this rule. The general idea fostered by our press was that the Germans in English camps were living a lazy, luxurious life, while our men in Germany were all being deliberately starved and tortured.
It was from this point of view that the Evening News, in 1916, violently attacked the Emergency Committee and its work, giving us the nickname of " Hun-coddlers," and making the public believe that the chief part of our camp work was to supply food and luxuries to the interned prisonersa thing, which, of course, we were not permitted, and had never attempted, to do. The nickname stuck, and as is usual in such cases, became often a term of humorous affection among both coddlers and coddled.
It is true that our country has much to be proud of in its record of dealing with prisoners, which is cleaner, as far as we can judge, than that of any other European belligerent country. To the honourable and gentlemanly attitude of our authorities and officers, and their desire to play fair in this part of the game of war we can testify from intimate knowledge, and shall illustrate later. But the same desire to play fair makes us also bound to say at once that the same good spirit was shown, on the whole, in the administration of the German camp system. We have always been impressed by the similarity of the stories told by interned men on both sides as to their experiences and the history of their camp life. If the commandant of a camp chanced to be a hard and unsympathetic man, the life of the prisoners was made harder and more miserable than it would otherwise have been ; and the same is true of the influence of junior officers or sergeants of the guard. In time, any such unsatisfactory officer was almost certain to be superseded, partly because of the resulting unrest and indiscipline among the prisoners. The difference between the two countries in this respect was that the personal equation in England only meant harsh discipline and lack of privileges ; in Germany the brutal militarisation had produced men who went to far greater lengths of repression and cruelty. But it must always be remembered that the brutality was the exception and not the rule.
The other noticeable difference between the camps on the two sides was in the matter of food. The official supplies of food to prisoners in Germany were often only just sufficient to maintain physical lifethis being mainly due to the actual shortage of food in the country. We hardly realise yet what difficulties in feeding itself the German nation went through, particularly in1917; and we could hardly expect the people to consent to give prisoners more than they had themselves. The position of the British prisoners, as a whole, became easier as the war went on, owing to the great supplies of food sent in parcels from this country. The position of the Russian and Serbian prisoners, who received no such parcels, was far more pitiable. The question of food in relation to the prisoners in England will be dealt with in a later paragraph.
The general internment of enemy aliens residing in any country was a new feature of war. Apart from a small number of suspected spies, who were seized at the outbreak of war, the first considerable internment took place in England early in November, 1914. Germany protested, and later, as a " reprisal," interned all British civilians of military age in the race-course at Ruhleben, near Berlin. In Austria the British (save a few suspects) were not put behind barbed wire, but permitted to live together under observation in selected villages. The Austrians in our camps were never tired of asking visitors why they could not be allowed the same measure of freedom.
The reasons that led our authorities to adopt the policy of internment were of a mixed character. The main cause was an inability (in spite of more accurate knowledge) to resist the popular press-led clamour against the supposed army of spies and agents of destruction in our midst . We all remember the general credence given to such stories as that of the German governess with bombs in her bedroom. Like the Russian troops, she was known to have been discovered in almost every town in the country. Little attention was paid to official announcements as to the innocent character of the general alien population in this country. The other reasons for the internment were more generous ones. In the first place, there was pity for the crowds of waiters and other men who were left destitute by the loss of their work and who could most easily be kept and fed in numbers together ; and later there was the motive of protecting aliens from the attacks on their premises and persons, which took place after the sinking of the Lusitania, and at other times of popular excitement.
The task of the authorities who had to arrange for the intern-ment was an exceedingly difficult one. Men were seized in hundreds and sent to camp before any proper equipment was ready. The whole country was straining every resource to raise and train troops, and our own young men were suffering hardships in seas of mud in badly built and improperly provided camps. Naturally, then, the poor aliens could not expect easy conditions, nor did they get the choice of the best camps ! It is with no intention of blaming the Government that we must give here a few particulars of the hardships of these early days, but because it is said that our treatment of prisoners was perfect, and because we do not think it right to slur over any of the new forms of suffering which are inherent in the methods of modern warfare.
The places chosen for internment were often manifestly unsuitable and were later condemned and abandoned. For instance, at Lancaster, an old waggon factory was used. Its floor had been composed of wooden blocks but many of these had been displaced, and only dirt remained. In this one large room 700 civilians of all classes were herded together for months in the winter of1914-5 without heat or artificial light, and with no proper bedding or furniture of any kind. They had scarcely any plates or knives and forks, but ate from the vessels in which the food had been cooked . Sanitary arrangements were wretched, and water for washing was hard to obtain. In short, for several weeks conditions in this camp at Lancaster were, to say the least, deplorable.
At Newbury there was a camp established on the race course; the prisoners being housed (as at Ruhieben) in the horse boxes, in each of which from six to eight men lay side by side on straw. Here, too, there was neither heat nor light, the prisoners being locked up at sunset until next morning. There was much complaint at Newbury on account of the deep mud which prevailed throughout the camp. Of course the whole situation was miser-able and after some months this camp also was condemned and closed. So were the camps at York and Frimley as soon as the large camp in the Isle of Man was finished.
An English bishop, who visited one of these early camps was unable, several years later, to describe his visit without real emotion, recalling his breaking into tears at the sight of so much misery when he entered the camp. Some prisoners bore all through their internment traces of the first hardships they had to undergo, in the shape of rheumatic and other physical weaknesses.
The pressure on accommodation in camps led to the use of ships for internment, moored at Southend, Portsmouth, and elsewhere . The overcrowded, insanitary conditions in these boats were also thoroughly unsatisfactory and after some months their use was abandoned. Even of the camps that remained in use throughout the war, one or two, like those at Stratford, E., and Shrewsbury, were not suitable for the prolonged internment of men, owing to their situation and narrow limits.
Into these camps, then, more and more of the men of the families that the Emergency Committee was formed to help began to disappear. Torn suddenly from their homes and all their outside interests by a usually sympathetic, but sometimes blundering police, they were plunged into the miserable dullness of the barbed wire enclosures, with nothing to do but to brood over the unhappy condition of their families and themselves.
The first " Emergency " visitors to these camps had little difficulty, as already stated, in obtaining entry, and women visitors were not prohibited, as was later the case. The War Office and the Home Office divided the responsibility for the camps between them, in quite an illogical way. Both departments received deputations from the Committee to discuss our visitors reports of unsatisfactory conditions in various camps, and made genuine efforts to repair what was wrong. In these early days, in fact, our reports were welcomed as those of reliable independent observers. Later on, when the camp system was more fully organised and running normally, I am afraid the camp activities of the F.E.C. were not always so much encouraged in these official quarters. This was not because the chief officials did not desire them to continue, or recognise the real misery of so many of the interned, but because the departments were, as always, sensitive to criticism in the press or by questions in Parliament, and wished to preserve a strictly judicial attitude in matters relating to prisoners. It was perhaps natural that our camp visitors, who realised more acutely the sorrows of the aliens because of the personal contact with them, should get the reputation, at the Home Office, of always trying to stretch the regulations beyond their intended limits. Those who knew the care that was taken to observe rules, in order that the work might continue smoothly, will acquit us of any such intention. A certain Quaker-like persistence on the part of one or two of our camp visitors, when they had innocently offended, provided, I think, some amusement, as well as annoyance to certain of the officers concerned.
The special Camps Sub-committee of the Emergency Committee began its meetings in November, 1914. Already a Friend from British Columbia, Robert W. Clark, had come forward to offer his full-time services in this work. For over three years he travelled the country from end to end, visiting remote camps in all kinds of weather, and gathering to his heart the affection of numberless men whom he inspired with fresh hope and set into the paths of service to their fellows. During this time he held a general permit to visit all internment camps, a unique privilege, of which he made full use. He also acted as missionary to Friends meetings and other gatherings in many parts of the country, exhibiting interesting collections of articles made by the prisoners, and arousing many to give active help to all branches of the Committees work.
Inside the camps were herded men of all types and classes, destined in many cases to be comrades in misfortune for the next four years. To the more sensitive the total lack of privacy and of the ordinary comforts of a house was in itself a continual trial. The wealthier men were allowed to live together in a special camp at Lofthouse Park racecourse and in " privileged " sections of other camps. For this they paid the Government a weekly sum, and in addition they were able to add many improvements to the official quarters provided. Those without means-by far the larger number of coursehad to crowd together into huts, tents, or the great halls of the Alexandra Palace. This close comrade-shir by day and night, led to many personal friendships, and by degrees the men would sort themselves into congenial groups. But it also led to much friction and trouble, particularly when the pro-German and pro-British groups came into collision. The bulk of the men were quiet family men, of good character. Many of them had come to England (or their fathers had) to escape military service or the military atmosphere in Germany. They had looked upon England as a land of justice and freedom, and were genuinely puzzled and oppressed by the sense of the personal injustice that was now their lot. Some could look at the circumstances more impersonally and did not blame the authorities; but many were driven into an attitude of bitterness and anti-British feeling. The practical sympathy of our visitors to them-selves and their families was able sometimes to turn the scale the other way again. There were also in the civilian camps a large number of men and lads taken off ships, and of students, who chanced to be in England when war broke out.
Among the 30,000 internees, there were of course, the usual sprinkling of black sheep and of difficult cases. The variety of life histories was also extraordinary. There were men of no nationality, legally, and men who had no notion of what was their real country. A man, for example, who was born on board ship, of an Italian mother, and whose father was reputed to have been a Transylvanian born in Malta, provided a puzzle for the authorities. Anyhow, he bore an Austrian name, and for safetys sake he must go into camp. There even came into camp too, from time to time, men who had been fighting in the British army, and had not considered themselves of alien nationality. One delightful man had been the colonel of a camel corps in the British force in Egypt, and the camp was charmed when an inspecting General hit upon this man with the enquiry as to what his occupation had been before internment ! There was a clergy-man of the Church of England, who seemed always on the point of being liberated, but was not . A man crippled in both feet was one day brought into a civilian camp. He was a German officer who had been captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. He escaped into China, getting his feet frostbitten by night exposure. He was helped through China by German sympathisers, crossed the Pacific to the States, travelled across the continent, and sailed for Europe on a neutral ship. The usual British warship appeared as they neared Europe and the man was detected during the search and brought to England for internment. An Alsatian doctor, with a German name, was interned in the Isle of Man, though he had come over from America to help the cause of France. He was kept many months in camp while his papers were tossed about between representatives of France and our own country. Probably he would not have been released at all but for the intervention of a prominent French politician, who was his personal friend. This doctor, having tested the trials of internment, set up in Switzerland an organisation for helping the interned civilians in all countries. His Committee sent substantial help to our men in Ruhieben, as well as to his old comrades in mis-fortune in the Isle of Man.
Far more serious to our Camp friends than the physical discomforts already alluded to were the mental and nervous troubles that their position involved. Their first questions to any visitor were " How long are they going to keep us here ? Cant you get me out of this ? When shall I see my wife and children again ?
It was a good thing that they did not know how prolonged their time of waiting was to be. Each Christmas as it came round was celebrated as the " last Christmas in Camp." The time that passed over them was all empty, wasted, serving no purpose in their lives . While all the rest of the world was occupied in the most passionately active efforts, these men were swept aside into corners, unwanted and useless. They had not the sense of relief and of having " done their bit " which comforted the military prisoners.
And as the months went by the idleness of the long days produced its inevitable results. Some men became listless, apathetic, spending the hours stretched out on the ground or on their low beds. Others sought artificial excitements, particularly in gambling. In vain the officers of the camp sought to curb this evil. Among certain sections it went on all day and some-times all through the night as well. Although no man was supposed to keep more than ten shillings in his possession at one time, money appeared and winnings accumulated. Sometimes robbery followed, without redress, for no prisoner could appeal to the Camp authorities for the protection of a forbidden hoard.
The separation from wives and families brought many troubles in its train. It was aggravated by the fact that prisoners could only write a very limited number of very brief letters, and also by the strict censorship, which often meant that a letter took eight or ten days in transit . The men interned in the London camps could usually see their wives and children once a month, and to-wards the close of the war once a week, but those in the Isle of Man spent years without such an opportunity of meeting. The wife would write cheerfully, but the husband could detect, or suspect, hidden troubles, and the wife could read her husbands unhappiness in his letters. In many cases effortssometimes only too successfulwere made to seduce the wife from loyalty to her man, on the plea that he was a hated German. One Anti-German Society went so far as to circularise some of the wives with an offer of assistance to obtain divorces. Within the camps the unnatural close confinement of crowds of young men for years together, with little to do, produced its own sexual troubles. Fortunately the very publicity of the life together helped to keep these in check, but even our visitors could casually observe signs of abnormality, and were sometimes consulted about very painful cases.
In camp, as on board ship, meal time takes up an unnatural share of attention. For the first half of the war, in spite of initial difficulties, the food supplied was adequate, usually of good quality, and could be supplemented by purchases at the canteen or by parcels from friends outside. The comfort of all the in-terned, also, was greatly increased when they were given complete charge of their own kitchen. After the beginning of the sub-marine war, however, when the nation began to be rationed, the campmenu was rapidly and drasticallyreduced and additional food almost entirely prohibited, except that which came from abroad.
The camps were more affected by this change than by anything else, and many of the men really suffered severely. Almost all of them believed that they were purposely being starved. The gymnasts and those who were doing manual work found their strength no longer equal to their tasks. Continuous and desperate appeals for more food were made in all quarters. Visiting wives felt bound to try to smuggle in morsels of their own scantysupplies. Some adjustments were made in the dietary later, but many men, particularly those with delicate digestions, continued to suffer. The truth is that the men were far more strictly limited in food than the general population, and felt acutely, as I said, the sudden change in conditions. The food supplied was, medically, reckoned to be adequate in calories, but it was monotonous and ill-balanced, being very short on the side of fats and fresh vegetables. The necessary bulk was mostly supplied by potatoes, and meat was partially replaced by a good supply of excess catches of herrings, uncleaned and super-salted. At first these were rejected as uneatable, but means were finally devised for getting the salt out and preparing them for table. At Alexandra Palace camp the men were also indignant when horseflesh was substituted for beef as the fresh meat supply. For weeks they refused to accept the meat, in the hope of getting the order changed ; but hungerwon, andtheir cooks succeeded in disguising the "gee-gee" dish in palatable forms.
The barbed wire which enclosed the camps had a certain terrible fascination of its own. It typified and consummated all their troubles and anxieties. It was the circumscription of their life, and through barbed wire only could they see the active outer world. It was a pathetic sight to see almost a whole camp pressing up against the wire to watch the exit of a comrade who was gaining his liberty. The condition of mind resulting from long internment was a dangerous one, and many of the prisoners were in constant dread of losing their reason. A great many were removed to asylums, above the normal proportion, though not so many as our visitors had feared. At the approach of the third winter their reports were so serious that the Committee prepared a memorandum on the subject and submitted it to the Prime Minister, praying for some other method of dealing with alien enemies. Two factors saved the situation, the unsuspected powers of resistance of the human spirit, and the strenuous efforts made to find some occupation for a larger number of the men. Our representative in the Isle of Man called attention to the fact that not a single prisoner who was a regular handicraft worker, had been taken to the asylum.
But although the number of complete mental break-downs was less than had been feared, an abnormal condition of mind and of nerves was very prevalent. This condition has been labelled " barbed wire disease " by the medical men of Europe, and the term found its way into our official documents during the war. The men themselves often described the sufferer as attacked by the " Camp-Vogel." Dr. Vischer, a Swiss doctor, who worked officially both in German and British camps, has published a brochure on this subject, of which an English translation has appeared.* The first signs of the trouble would usually be some peculiarity of behaviour or temper. The man would lose his interests, become solitary and perhaps start muttering to himself or waving his fingers. Common symptoms were suspicion of comrades, delusions of persecution or disease, loss of memory and of power of attention. In bad cases the man would be subject to outbreaks of hysteria and raving. It is almost impossible to give statistics of the disease. In a camp with plenty of work for the prisoners it would be almost non-existent, but in a camp with little work perhaps ten per cent. of the men would become so affected. Of course if slighter abnormalities were included the percentage would be higher. Among the men with whom our visitors had to deal were many who were suffering in this way and with whom rational conversation about their troubles was almost impossible. The existence of a greater or less degree of " barbed wire disease " would also, it must be remembered, strongly influence the description of a mans experience in camp. For this reason it is never safe to judge a camp, in whatever country, by one mans account only, however honest his attempt at description. This fact was strongly brought home to me by successive conversations which I had with two of the German missionaries from India, who had to spend some weeks in our camps on their way home. Both gave a description of the camp at Ahmedabad, where they had suffered long internment. The first described the conditions as being quite as comfortable as could reasonably have been expected ; the second, with passion-ate earnestness, told a story of torture and misery. The chief difference between the men, I felt sure, was not in sensitiveness or in truthfulness, but lay in the fact that the second was a sufferer from barbed-wire disease, while the first had escaped it.
* Barbed-Wire Disease, by Dr. A. L. Vischer. (London : John Bale, Sons & Danielson. 1919.)
We have dwelt at some length on the evils of the internment system, not for the sake of distributing blame or recrimination, but in order to make our witness (based upon the closest knowledge of the facts) clear and positive on this pointthat the whole thing is an evil in itself, and is not good or bad, happy or wretched, according as it is well or badly administered. Men kept long in such camps suffer most of the troubles of innocent prisoners in gaols, and other discomforts as well. If any national or local emergency in the future should ever seem to make necessary the segregation of bodies of men (which God forbid ! ) we should demand first that they be not put into wired enclosures, but allowed to live with their families in some island or remote district; and secondly, that some occupation, or chance of it, should be provided for all of them.
Let us turn now to the brighter side of camp life, and tell how the men themselves set to work to make the best of their own conditions. The more energetic of them soon became busy in the organisation of their restricted opportunities of social life, recognising the urgency of the problem of keeping up the spirits of their comrades, and providing them with some interest or occupation. As the months wore on, numberless committees were formed and a skeleton social structure appeared, though unexpected drafting of men from camp to camp often interfered with its steady growth. Schools were founded and developed into little universities, in spite of the increasing difficulties which many students felt in concentrating on any steady work. There were many musicians among the interned, so that really fine orchestras were possible, and these, with the theatrical societies and choral unions, did much to enliven the evenings. Athletic clubs catered for the younger men. Kitchen committees, relief committees, workshop committees, Y.M.C.A. committees, were among the more prominent of the other activities. Camp journals appeared, where circumstances and the censor allowed, and the camp poets, artists, and entertainers were important citizens. From one of the Knock-aloe camps, where the organisation was more centralised than in many others, we received an elaborate illustrated survey of the camp activities, which showed that no less than 149 different committees were at work. It is clear that many of these efforts could not have been made without some assistance from the outside world in the supply of the various necessary material. But before proceeding to describe how this was obtained some reference should be made to another source of relief from the dullness of camp life, and a source of interest and amusement to the prisoners . This was the universally recognised institution of " Schiebung "one of the words most frequently heard in camp.
The best literal translation of the word seems to be " shoving," and some likeness can perhaps be traced to the curious English phrase of " duck-shoving." In camp it was applied to any transaction by which something was achieved outside the officially allowed methods. From one point of view the camp was like a great company of school-boys. Life was lived under strict rules, which the citizens had had no share in making, and which they felt challenged to break whenever it could safely be done. The more ingenious the method the more it was enjoyed. The psychology of officers and guard was most closely studied and every weakness taken advantage of, though kindness was rarely abused. Things that were specially forbidden, such as socialist newspapers, were among the most certain to appear. Alcohol was prohibited, but empty bottles continually turned up in deserted corners. A good example of the bluffing variety of " Schiebung" in a German camp will be found recounted on p. 8o. A less happy form of the practice was seen in its extension to methods by which individuals or groups in the camps would try to get the better of their fellow prisoners. The sense of bitter injustice had so soured some men that they were ready to hit out against friends and foes alike, and the mental deterioration we have described would often involve a moral deterioration also.
It was amusing for the F.E.C. workers, who usually had the confidence both of the officers and the prisoners, to watch the battle of wits that went on between them. It was necessary, also, to be careful on the one hand not to betray in conversation the confidences of the aliens, and on the other hand not to en-courage, or allow the Emergency Committee to be drawn into, any enterprises that had the " Schiebung " flavour.
As already shown, there was plenty of demand for legitimate forms of assistance. Requests flowed in for books, clothes, musical instruments and other things, and our Committee began to collect these from all sources. It was soon found impossible to continue to supply demands of individual men, owing to the lack of control of distribution and inability to compare the needs of individuals. More and more therefore we found it necessary to use the services of the prisoners own committees, and to insist on the formation of responsible committees where they were not already in existence. We found also that two other organisations were receiving the same requests and trying to meet similar needs. both in the civilian and the military camps. It was necessary, therefore, to come to some arrangement with these bodiesDr. Markels Prisoners of War Relief Agency and the American Y.M.C.A. Prisoners Aid Section. Towards the close of 191 an agreement between the three Committees was made, by which certain kinds of assistance to prisoners was definitely allocated to each. The division of work, as explained below, was adhered to through the remainder of the war, except where varied by mutual consent. Close co-operation among the three agencies was also ensured by the fact that the Y.M.C.A. secretary who was a member of our Camps Committee, while Dr. Markel received a standing invitation to attend the meetings of both Committees.
We should further mention here that Bishop Bury, whose diocese extended over Central Europe, was given, by the War Office, general charge over the spiritual interests of the prisoners. He not only visited some camps himself, but also provided a chaplain in the Isle of Man, and arranged for religious services in a number of camps . This was partly done in conjunction with the Y.M.C.A., and partly by means of the services of three German pastors who had not been interned. These services were, however, intermittent, as the permits of the pastors were some-times withdrawn as a " reprisal " for similar alleged action in Germany. There was also some amount of suspicion as to the possible abuse of pulpit privilege. An amusing story was told by one of the German pastors about the way in which he gained freedom of utterance. It seemed to show that even the Church did not reject the assistance of the more innocent form of " Schiebung." The pastor was first of all allowed to take one service a month in camp, on the understanding that it must be purely a read service, with no extempore praying and no sermon. The pastor accepted the conditions, but after a little while pleaded for the admission of one extempore prayer. This was granted, and it was not foreseen to what length the prayer might grows nor how much exhortation to the prisoners it might contain! The next step was to allow a short sermon, but only on condition that it was delivered in the presence of a censor. The preacher arrived with his sermon written out, and offered the manuscript to the censor in order to assist him in his duty. At the close of the service the censor somewhat ruefully complained that the pastor had by no means kept closely to his manuscript. " How could I ? " was the answer, " when you were holding my paper all the time ? " Thus was the history of religious toleration in war-time written.
In addition to these ministrations local Catholic priests were allowed to serve in the larger camps, and Captain Gauntlett, of the Salvation Army, performed a fine personal work on a roving commission during most of the war. In spite of all this, and of the assistance of interned pastors or students, several camps complained that for many months on end no form of religious service was possible.