[From St Stephen's House, 1920]

CHAPTER V.

THE INTERNMENT CAMPS (continued) THE P.O.W. RELIEF AGENCY.

ONE of the Committees to be found in every camp was the " Markel Committee" The use of the personal title was a fitting acknowledgment of the debt which all prisoners owed to Dr. K. E. Markel to whose energy, sympathy and organising ability the existence and success of this agency were almost wholly due. The duties of the Markel committee were to certify requests for assistance from prisoners, to obtain the signature of the commandant or his representative to such requests, to forward them to Dr. Markel, and to receive and be responsible for the proper care and use of the resulting supplies that were sent into camp in great abundance. The arrangement between the three committees referred to above left to Dr. Markel the task of supplying most of the personal needs of the men in camps, and equipment for their chief social requirements. Among the things he was allowed to supply we may mention especially books for camp libraries in great quantity, music and musical instruments, invalid foods and surgical instruments, clothes (subject to severe and increasing restrictions), monetary grants to poor men in certain cases, and various forms of equipment for sports clubs, skittle alleys, camp hospitals and dentists’ rooms and the like. Emergency help was given to military prisoners arriving in this country in a distressed and exhausted condition, and in cases of sudden need due to failures of Government stores, or other causes it was not uncommon for the officers of the camp, as well as the men, to apply to Dr. Markel for help, with an assurance that it would be forthcoming if humanly possible. The very large sums of money necessary for this work were privately collected, chiefly from Englishmen who had ties of affection or of blood with enemy countries. Dr. Markel was also the official representative in England of the German Red Cross Societies. Jn that capacity he was able, not only to ensure the efficient administration of the relief they sent over, but also to send definite and authentic denials to Germany of false stories which were being told there about our camps, spread either by unscrupulous pressmen, or mentally diseased repatriated prisoners.

THE AMERICAN Y.M.C.A.

The " War Prisoners’ Aid " work of the American Y.M.C.A. covered almost all the belligerent countries of Europe. Its English section, under the able direction of R. L. Ewing, brought much practical and spiritual help to the camps. Its share in our common work was to provide huts, halls or tents, in the camps, to equip them as centres of social, intellectual and religious life, and to run them, under the personal supervision of visiting workers, very much on the same principles as the Y.M. Army centres, with differences such as those due to the absence of the canteen side. These workers were chiefly keen young Americans and often made a deep impression by their talks and religious services. When the military prisoners began to be scattered over the country in scores of small working camps, the Y.M. visitors equipped themselves with Ford cars, portable cinematograph machines, and camp boxes containing a selection of books, games and a gramophone, and were the only visitors from outside who found their way into many of the remote camps. After the entry of the States into the war the position of the Y.M.C.A. became more difficult, their workers were reduced in numbers, and the Americans gradually replaced by neutrals and Englishmen.

THE VISITORS FROM ST. STEPHEN’S.

The share of our visitors in the work of this triple alliance was mainly confined to two departments. In the first place, we naturally concentrated our efforts chiefly on the civilian camps and were held responsible for answering the appeals of the interned for assistance in all matters that affected their families, and which needed the services of an outside visitor. A great deal of this work was done by correspondence between our " Camp Case Depart-ment " and the responsible relief or " Prisoners’ Aid " committees formed in the camps. We could thus get an independent opinion on the requests made, and the Camp committees were enabled to make use of the services of our army of home visitors and helpers. In cases of special difficulty or delicacy, our Camp visitors were asked to have a personal talk with the man and report to headquarters.

In addition to the general pass of our travelling visitor, local friends were given permits to spend (generally) one day a month in a particular camp or camps, and we usually had nine or ten visitors serving in this way at any one time. In the civilian camps even a few hours spent in discussing all sorts of difficulties and tragedies with a succession of anxious men, was an exhausting and depressing task. Another visitor to the same camp would be taken to see the kitchens, the orchestra at practice, the busy workshops, and the laughing actors and the energetic athletes, and might well come away thinking camp life quite enjoyable, and missing the fact that all the activity was a desperate attempt to stave off the inroads of misery and melancholia.

The requests made by the interned men to the friendly visitor dealt with every kind of domestic and business difficulty. Would we find out why the wife was not writing ; whether she was seriously ill or not ; could we help in the discipline of an unruly boy, or with the education of a brilliant one ; more common than all, could we not help with food or clothing or work to prevent the starvation or illness which inevitably descended on those homes where the slender Government grant was the only income; could we find missing luggage, wills or papers ; could we pay off landladies, collect debts, redeem pawned goods, trace relatives, send children to Germany, patent inventions, pay wife’s fare to camp, arrange a wedding or a funeral, with many another suggestion. And usually, to end with, there was a pathetic belief (no place like an internment camp for false beliefs or rumours) that we had only to interview the Home Secretary in order to get the man released or the whole internment system abolished.

RELEASES.

In the earlier days of the war it was not difficult to secure release from internment if the case was a pretty strong one, and if a special appeal were made to the Home Office, backed, if required, by personal guarantees. An example of a " strong case " would be that of a man of good character who had lived over thirty years in England and had one or more sons fighting in the British Army. But after the first year it became almost impossible to obtain release even for such cases. Nor was it advisable to try unless the man had an assurance of employment ; if he came out and found no work and the wife’s allowance ceased, it would simply mean re-internment or the workhouse.

When conscription had led to a shortage of civilian labour in the country, public opinion at last began to change a little with regard to internment, in so far as the question was commonly asked " Why not make some use of the labour of these thousands of men, whom we are feeding in idleness ? " The Government thereupon authorised employers to apply for suitable men for " work of national importance," which meant chiefly agricultural work. Many of the prisoners refused to apply for such work, on patriotic grounds, but some hundreds went out to work, chiefly Austrians, and Hungarians. When this scheme was announced the Emergency Committee set to work at once to find sympathetic employers who would apply for interned men as workers. We were quickly reprimanded by the authorities, and ordered to cease such efforts, on the ground that releases were not being granted to alleviate the conditions of the prisoners, but only to help the national production. This warning followed a press attack on the Committee, which, as usual, reacted on the Government depart-ments, making them more cautious than ever not to take the smallest step that might be mis-represented as " pro-German." One type of paper always delighted in printing suggestions that the Home Secretary, one of our most famous generals, the Prime Minister’s wife, some high official or other, were Germans at heart, spending half their time carousing in internment camps, or else blackmailed by a mysterious " hidden hand." Those who determined questions of administration of the camps had not an easy course to steer.

We may perhaps mention here that several of our most trusted camp visitors, after serving in this capacity for two or three years, found their passes suddenly withdrawn, and no reason given. It seems that in such cases a report on the visitor had been sub-mitted from the mysterious special enquiry department of the War Office, following the discovery by some officer, who did not know us, that the visitor was an avowed pacifist, and therefore a dangerous fellow. One trusted visitor, a retired schoolmaster, was even labelled as obviously mentally deranged, because of some remark of his made at a tribunal. The colonel who dealt with us at the War Office was very courteous and friendly, but could allow no appeal in such cases, though a new visitor might be nominated. William Whiting, of Leeds, was one who suffered such a sudden loss of permit. He was able, however, to add to the many services he had rendered the interned at Lofthouse Park Camp, by arranging for the storage, and subsequent transport to Germany, of enormous quantities of personal belongings which had to be left in England when the camp was closed.

THE CAMP WORKSHOPS.

The second method of helping prisoners, which was specially entrusted to the Emergency Committee, was the attempt to combat the evils of camp life by providing handicraft occupations. It should be understood, however, that in this, as in other depart-ments, there was a good deal of co-operation with Dr. Markel’s organisation, which provided a considerable amount of money for equipment, and in certain cases the Y.M.C.A. also helped.

A number of the interned men—particularly the sailors—-began to produce, on their own initiative, all sorts of curious and interesting models and ornaments, and many other men appealed for the chance of like occupation. R. W. Clark continually urged upon the committee that no greater service could be given to the camps than to answer such appeals as generously as possible. So, month by month, this side of the work grew, until it became a big business concern, with a department of its own . The development of the industrial department in Knockaloe camps will be described in the next chapter. Here we will just indicate the extent of the work done in all the camps where the F.E.C. was lending its aid, and the method of organisation.

In 1916 the Committee reported that about five thousand men were being provided with occupation in this way, and that a special fund of £4,000 had been raised for this side of the work. Before the camps closed over £20,000 worth of the men’s handicraft productions had been sold by the Emergency Committee. When it is remembered that most of the production was in the nature of small articles, sold from a penny upwards, that many of the makers were men quite unskilled, and that the ordinary trade markets were not open to most of these goods, it is remarkable to think how much was done in this way. It must also be remembered that very much was also produced in camp which did not pass through our hands for sale. Men sold their products to fellow-prisoners, and to the Camp officers ; they made gifts for their wives and children ; they improved the fittings of the camps, and prepared boxes in which to carry home their little belongings, and keepsakes for the future. Some camps developed special forms of work. The military prisoners at Leigh Camp produced a great quantity of most beautiful and delicate inlaid work in coloured woods ; a large amount of this was sold to the German officers in other internment camps, and the Leigh cigarette boxes, in particular, are now scattered all over the world. At Alexandra Palace the stand-by was children’s toys, for which there was a market, especially at Christmas time, among the large number of relatives visiting at that camp. In one or two camps, notably at Douglas in the Isle of Man, the Commandant and officers themselves developed the workshops and merely used the Emergency Committee to help in the sale of the resulting goods.

The regular method of organising such work was, however, directly through a responsible committee of the interned men, usually known as the camp workshop, or industrial, committee. The F.E.C. supplied to this committee an equipment of workshop tools and benches, and, in some cases, material with which the prisoners built a workshop hut. In addition, a standing credit was allowed to the workshop committee in the form of a supply of timber and other necessary material. The amount of this varied in accordance with the size and activity of the workshops, and would sometimes amount to over a thousand pounds in value. The individual worker, in turn, was advanced material by his Committee, for which he might pay casb, or be debited when he came to sell the finished article to the same Committee. In some schemes of joint production the men were paid a regular wage. One direct result of this form of employment, in the case of the interned civilians, was that men were able to earn sums which, though usually small, were a real help to their families in distress, as well as providing a little pocket-money for their own use.

The duties of the Camp industrial committees were to ensure the proper control and best use of the tools and equipment provided, to demand a proper standard of workmanship and design in the goods sent out for sale (a task in which they were assisted by our visitors), to keep proper accounts and make peribdic settlement with our London Office, to help the Camp Censorship to see that no secret messages were hidden in the goods, and to return the workshop equipment to our representatives upon demand, or at the closing of the camp. The chief workers on these committees had no easy task, and a hearty tribute of thanks is due to them for the service they gave so freely and willingly to their comrades. They had a reward in the fact that they were kept so busy that their own troubles were often forgotten or minimised.

At the time when this workshop activity was most rapidly expanding there was some fear among members of the Committee that its financial claims might interfere with more urgent direct relief work. This fear proved ultimately to be unfounded, for with the help of the special collection mentioned, the final balancing of the Camp workshop accounts showed that only two or three hundred pounds had been permanently drawn from the general funds of the Committee.

THE CAMP GARDENS.

Another very satisfactory form of assistance to the camps was the provision of tools, seeds and plants for gardening work. This not only provided healthy and happy occupation, but added a much needed touch of beauty to the camp, and meant also a very welcome addition to the green food of the men. A special fund was raised annually for this purpose by a member of the old York Scholars’ Association, by means of grants from that body, and contributions of friends. In camps and hospitals where gardening was impossible, bulbs for indoor growth were given, until these became too expensive to buy. Towards the end of the war a special scheme for growing potatoes and other vegetables at many camps was devised and financed by Dr. Markel, who also supplemented the special fund mentioned above.

THE MILITARY CAMPS.

Various references have already been made to the camps in which the German soldiers and sailors were interned. It was not a part of the original programme of the Committee to help these men ; they first of all came within its range owing to the fact that in some camps there were sections both for civilian and for military pisoners, and our visitors very naturally began to talk to both sets.’ It was soon found that they were as anxious for some work to do (after a preliminary time of rest and recuperation from the fatigues of the front lines) as were the civilians, and the organisation of workshops was extended to some military camps. It was observed by most visitors, however, that the troubles of the captured soldiers or sailors were not nearly so oppressive as those of the civil prisoners. It was " the fortune of war " in their case, and not a special injustice ; they were escaped from worse dangers ; they had played their part and were glad to be able to look forward to an assured, if distant home-coming. In the last two years of internment, also, most of the military prisoners were given work to do. They were scattered over the country in hundreds of " working camps," large and small, and occupied chiefly in farm work, forestry and quarrying. A number of these working camps were visited once or twice by our representatives, but the main or parent camps at Stobs (Scotland), Leigh, Hand-forth, Frongoch (Wales), Brocton, Catterick, Oswestry, Pattishall, Dorchester, Blandford, Feltham and Jersey, were the only ones to which were attached local visitors during part or the whole of their history.

There was a further difference between the two kinds of work due to the fact that we were not in direct touch with the families of military prisoners, so that one side of the work in civilian camps was lacking ; the language difficulty was also more serious. In spite of this, our men were able to find many ways of getting into sympathetic touch with our " enemies." Sometimes enquiries and messages were received from anxious relatives abroad ; these could be personally delivered, and expanded statements as to the health and well-being of individual prisoners sent back to supple-ment the brief official note of the Prisoners’ Information Bureau. Special attention was paid to the hospitals, where gifts of flowers, taken in by visitors, or sent regularly by some friend outside, brought the purest joy to many a broken and lonely man. And when death came to end an internment, it was sometimes possible to send a personal letter from the visitor to the wife or mother in Germany, telling of the care given during the last illness, or enclosing a photo of the grave in some lonely English churchyard.

CHRISTMAS IN CAMP.

As the first Christmas of the war approached, a great effort was made to prepare special tokens and messages of goodwill to the interned men. The various camps were " adopted " by societies or groups of individuals, and for each man there was provided a parcel containing some little gift and extra food.

The three main organisations interested in the prisoners’ welfare united each year to arrange for some common action to mark the festival, but each year less could be done, partly because of the growing number of prisoners, and partly because of the tightening of regulations, which forbade the introduction of food and other gifts. The Emergency Committee made it a strict rule, at all times, not to supply any food to the camps, in view of the greater needs of many of the families of the interned, and confined its share in these joint Christmas arrangements, to matters of administration and distribution and to giving a personal message to the men in the form of a calendar, with appropriate inscriptions ofhope and good-will. Some mention should also be made here of the generous action of a wealthy sympathiser who offered each year after the first, a sum of sixpence to a shilling per head to all prisoners and also to all members of their guard, in order to help them in their arrangements of Christmas cheer.


 

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