[from Peel City Guardian, 1 January 1916]


His Experiences in a German retention Camp.
A Prisoner of War for 17 Months

As recorded in our last issue. Mrs. Crellin, Mona Street, received a telegram on Wednesday of last week, conveying the welcome intelligence that her husband, Mr. Henry Crellin, had arrived in London, after seventeen months' detention in Germany. The news of his liberation quickly spread, and was received by everyone in Peel with the greatest satisfaction and pleasure. Mr. Crellin arrived in Peel on Christmas Eve, and, as may be supposed, has since his arrival had to submit to numerous enquiries and interviews. Mr Crellin, notwithstanding some periods of privation and some unpleasant experiences, looks well in health.

Mr Crellin related that his vessel was seized at Hamburg on the declaration of war, and how they were made prisoners of war on their own vessel. They were kept there until the 6th of October, when they were put in the hulks. After being imprisoned in the hulks for three weeks they were transferred on the 6th Nov. to the concentration camp at Ruhleben Racecourse, not far from Berlin. They started from Hamburg on a Friday at 8 o'clock in the morning, and did not receive any food from that time until they arrived at Ruhleben on the following evening. On arrival at the camp the men were lined up at a gallery, where coffee was served out; but as they had to wait until all was served before being taken to the place where bread was served out, the coffee served to the first lot of men became frozen before the last were served They were then taken to another store, where each man received a loaf of bread which in shape and consistency resembled a brick. He tried to cut the loaf, but it turned the edge of his pocket knife. He ate it, however, and found it sweet, because he was hungry. They were taken to their huts. These consisted of 26 stalls, which in ordinary times were used as loose boxes for racehorses. They were about half the size of a comparatively small room. Six men were alloted to each stall. At first they had to sleep on the cement floor covered with a sprinkling of straw. Afterwards wood flooring was provided and cots. They each received a towel, a bowl for their soup or tea, and a blanket or horse rug; also a sacking, into which they stuffed straw to make a mattrass. They were given no spoon, and had nothing to cut the food. Mr Crellin had to buy a spoon at the store in the camp, where such things were sold. When he went into the camp he had only 1s. 2d. in his possession. At that time there were five thousand men imprisoned at Ruhleben, but the number was afterwards reduced. The men in the stalls were provided with beds and a little table. At first it was very cold, but a means of heating the huts was afterwards supplied. The straw with which they had to stuff their mattresses was damp at first, but soon dried. For three weeks Mr Crellin had to put up with the meagre fare supplied by the Camp authorities. But obtaining a couple of marks per week he was able to supplement this with something more appetising.

They had three meals a day. In the morning dry bread and a cup of black coffee, which was very seldom flavoured with milk. It was black bread; not the real black bread, which was better than what they were given. Somebody told the story that a loaf of it got to London and it was analysed; and it was found to contain sand, sawdust, cut straw, a very little flour, and enough nutriment to keep a man alive-provided he had a liquid diet. That was going a bit too strong; but it would require a very nourishing liquid diet to keep a man going. At first they were allowed a loaf of this bread every other day; then it was reduced to a loaf every three days, and at last one-fifth of a loaf every day. For dinner there was sometimes soup made of sausage and vegetables, and sometimes fish. The war economy was very noticeable in this meal. Nothing was wasted. The water in which the vegetables were boiled was served up as a sauce, and when squares of turnip was floating in it they used to call it pineapple soup. The water the fish was boiled in was treated in the same way and if the fish was bad as it not infrequently was, this " soup " poured over the vegetables spoiled the whole meal. The system followed when they went there first was to line up at the galley, and a ladelful of stewed meat and soup would be poured into the bowls. The meat was pretty scarce, and sometimes one man wouldn't get a shred of it in his portion, while another man might get more than his share. They then passed on and a ladelful of potatoes or turnips would be put into the bowl. As they had to walk sometimes a quarter of a mile to the galley to get the food, it was generally quite cold before they got back to their huts. The Germans who cooked the food had different ideas of appetising dishes, and that accounts for the men often being served with food which they could not eat. For instance they were sometimes given raw salt herring, and they had practically no means of cooking it; but then, the Germans eat them raw. They had fish once a week, and often it was spoiled by the way it was cooked. Last spring, a camp committee of management was formed, and the cooking taken over by the prisoners themselves, and then the food was cooked in a way that was more to the prisoners' taste.

There was not nearly enough food, and he said he could say with a clear conscience that only for the parcels of food from home, half the prisoners in the camp would have died. On the average there were 24.000 parcels a month received from England, and one month 37,000 parcels were received. There were a great many things, however, which those with money could buy: and from the spring they each received 5 marks a week from the English Government. A mark was worth about a shilling in ordinary times, but now it is not worth more than 9d. or 10d. This money was paid through the American Embassy. In addition to that, the men who were taken off the boat he was on received 2½ marks a week from the shipping company. At Christmas the Relief gave out 10s. to each English prisoner, and after last Christmas they were fairly comfortable, between what they could buy with the money distributed by the Relief Committee and the parcels from home. At first, eggs and milk were plentiful, but they could not be got now. Last winter there was plenty of hot milk. It was served out twice a day at 6d. a pint. It was dear, but one did not mind paying the price so long as there was any money to buy it with.

After a while the prisoners themselves took over the organisation of the camp, and a committee of management became responsible for the cooking and serving of the food. A captain was appointed to a certain number of huts, and he in turn appointed sub-captains, and these were responsible for keeping order and proper control in the camp. When they were unable to do so they called in the soldiers who took charge of the offenders. Mr Crellin said he was not put in the cells once, though he had a narrow escape. They were not allowed to smoke in their huts, but one day when matches were scarce, four of them were in the loft trying to light their pipes with one match. He had just lit his pipe when he felt someone touched him on the shoulder. He looked up and saw the under officer. He asked them to come dowmstairs, and Mr Crellin explained that it was not in defiance of the rules that they were smoking in the huts, but simply to get a light before going out. The captain said the cells were all full, and they would have to wait three days before they would be ready to accommodate them. Later they were told that they were being let off, and that was the last they heard about the affair.

There were streets of shops, where all kinds of articles were sold; and they were given all sorts of names. There was Bond street. King Edward street, and so on. There was also a post office, and there were five collections and five deliveries in the camp each day. and goods could be ordered by post and would be sent up to the barracks. It was also arranged to have the food brought from the cooking galleys to the barracks by paying a small sum each week. This saved tramping a long distance and having to eat the food when it had gone cold.

When the rules were broken by any of the prisoners the whole camp had to suffer for it. For instance, gambling was strictly .prohibited, but some of the prisoners gambled, and card playing was prohibited altogether. Another time a wrong use was made of the post cards on which they were allowed to acknowledge parcels, some of the prisoners adding messages, and for that the whole camp was punished by the mail being held up for ten days. During that time they were neither allowed to write or receive a letter. Ordinarily four postcards and two letters a month were allowed to be sent. There were a few attempts to escape, and they were severely punished. Two actually escaped, but they had plenty of money, and managed to make arrangements for escaping. Two more got away, and got almost to the frontier. They saw a guard there, but mistook him for a Dutch soldier and attempted to pass him and were captured The sentence on them was stated to be solitary confinement until the end of the war.

Cleanliness was encouraged in the camp, and shower baths and plenty of facilities for washing was provided, but no soap was given to the prisoners. That they had to buy.

Recreations there were in plenty. Football and outdoor sports were encouraged. There were also four huge grandstands on the racecourse; one of them was used as a tea house, and during the summer months lectures were given in the others. In the winter the rooms underneath were used for the same purpose. There was a cinema and a theatre, and religious services were held every Sunday. In the morning there was a Roman Catholic service and in the evening a Church of England service. On Tuesdays there was a debate, and on Wednesday a lecture. The rest of the week was devoted chiefly to theatrical and cinematograph performances.

A fine spirit of comradeship prevailed amongst the prisoners, and those who had money did a great deal to alleviate the hardships of those who had not. Two thousand marks were collected for the camp funds, and out of this four marks a man was paid to those in need. There were some very wealthy men in the camp On one occasion a bottle of beer was put up for auction for the benefit of the camp funds. Bidding started at half a mark bids, and then increased by smaller bids until the sum of 275 marks was paid for the bottle, which was then re-sold.

The camp authorities took charge of the prisoners' money, and if they did not hand over the money it was liable to be taken from them. Sums of 10s. or £1 ,a week were paid to them by the authorities if the prisoners required advances out of money, but never more than £1 a week

There was an infirmary and dispensary in the camp, and the German doctors. Mr Crellin said, were thorough gentlemen. They could not be better. He had been under the care of the doctor from last March, and received very civility and the best of treatment. In the winter parts of the camp were flooded, but in the summer the sand was something that had to be contended with. Clouds of it blew everywhere and stuck to everything, and the prisoners had to set to work and spray water about to keep the sand from flying about.

News was also received in some mysterious way in the camp, and the news of the riot at Douglas Alien Camp was known in the camp at Ruhleben soon after it occurred.

All the odds and ends were carefully gathered, especially the tins. Most of the goods sent by relatives to the prisoners were packed in tins, and these as soon as they were done with, had to be placed in a certain spot. They were carefully collected from time to time and taken away from the camp. The string and the paper were also carefully collected. The tins being hoarded like gold.

One day the official list of all those who were to be sent home was posted up and the excitement was intense. The crowd was so great that he could not get near until a policeman came and shifted some of the men. He then found that he was amongst those on the list, and had only half-an-hour to pack his clothes and present himself in the square. When he got to the hut he found his official paper telling him what to do. There were 85 chosen to go home-all seamen, but no man who held a " ticket" as mate or skipper was allowed to go. The men were all either over 55 years of age or under 17. They were not allowed to take any new clothes or woollens; if they did they were liable to be taken from them. If they had any new blankets or other articles they could sell them or give them to other prisoners. Any garments, blankets or woollens that had been worn or in use were allowed to be taken.

They were not allowed to take any written or printed matter unless it was passed by the censor, and it would be sent on by post after they had left. No gold was allowed to be taken on any consideration, but silver and notes were given in exchange. Candles and soap were also prohibited for fear money might be concealed in them.

The men had to pay their own passage home. It cost 23 or 24 marks for their own fare, and with their luggage cost 27 to 30 marks each. They were taken to Berlin by the under-ground railway, and afterwards by rail over the frontier into Holland. The train that took them out brought the Germans for whom they were exchanged back into Germany. The prisoners declared that it was not until they were actually in Holland that they felt safe, and it was only then that they realised that they were really free.

The prisoners were given no food on their ten-hour journey from Ruhleben to Holland, but when the frontier was crossed five or six Red Cross nurses met them and handed out coffee and other drinks and also gave them tobacco, cigarettes, and pipes. They were given a substantial meal in the train when they were travelling through Holland.

Mr. Crellin gave a graphic description of what they saw from the windows of the train when they were travelling to the Dutch frontier. The work on the railway lines and in the fields was all being done by women. with a man here and there superintending. Children, he learnt were being employed in munition factories, and divided their time between a morning in the factories and going to school, while their earnings went to the war funds. Everybody was in the service of the Government, and all were under military authority. The richest man in the land couldn't obtain a loaf of bread unless he was able to produce his " bread ticket." Fats of all kinds, butter, and margarine, especially, were very scarce indeed. It was stated that the mortality amongst the young children was frightful. Evidences of the British blockade were noticeable at Ruhleben and elsewhere and all the bitterest cartoons in the papers were directed against Britain. But the most noticeable tiling was the prevailing look of sadness on the people's faces.

Mr. Crellin said he did not see a happy face in Germany. He saw a lot of women at Berlin, and on every face there was a look of sadness and misery. It was quite different when they got to London. In Berlin, there was a regiment of soldiers drawn up. They were going to Poland. It was said that the men had been taken from the factories and the coalmines, and the thoughts of putting such men into Poland in the depths of winter was enough to make the women look sad.

Mr. Crellin did not complain of his treatment at Ruhleben. Apart from the scarcity of food the prisoners were well treated, so long as they behaved themselves; but such treatment was not meted out elsewhere, and the reports of the treatment at the camps at Doboritz and Munster made them feel sorry for those imprisoned there. But at Ruhleben provided a man did not worry over his lot he was not likely to come to very much harm but the uncertainty of what might happen kept most of them in a state of apprehension that more or less affected the minds of several persons

During the time he was imprisoned, Mr Crellin received on average about two parcels a week from home, and Mrs Crellin was just about to post a Christmas parcel when she received the glad tidings of her husband's release.

Mr. Crelliin has had several narrow escapes during the past few years. He was a member of the Peel fishing boat Fear Not, which was wrecked in Port Erin Bay in August 1910, two lives being lost He was also a member of the crew of a vessel which was sunk in the Mersey about nine months prior to being interned in Germany. On that occasion one life was lost. He has come through these vicissitudes without a scratch however, and it is the wish of all those who know and respect Mr Crellin that he will soon recover from the effects of his trying experiences while a prisoner in Germany.

Mr Crellin actually died at Knockaloe in 1922 whilst working there during the dismantling of the camp.


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2019