6 things you may not know about POWs in England during the First World War

Britain held nearly 100,000 prisoners of war (POWs) by the Armistice, November 1918.

Almost all were German soldiers captured on the Western Front in the years since Britain declared war on Germany, August 1914.

Prisoners were interned in hundreds of locations across England, ranging from purpose-built camps holding thousands of men, to locations that held just a few individuals. Despite widespread British anti-German sentiment, POWs were generally correctly treated.

Here are six things you may not know about German POWs held in England:

1. Some camps were thought to be too luxurious

Exterior view of Donington Hall prisoner of war camp, Leicestershire
Donington Hall prisoner of war camp, Leicestershire. © ICRC.

Under the 1907 Hague Convention, captured servicemen were entitled to treatment in line with their rank and board, lodging and clothing comparable to that of their captors. Officers were not required to work. Donington Hall, an 18th century stately home set in parkland, was requisitioned to house captured German officers.

View of common room with multiple mismatched chairs and a table with a chess set on it
Donington Hall common room. © ICRC.

The camp attracted negative attention in the House of Commons and the British press because of its alleged luxury. It had a large dining room with tables laid out for silver service. There was a menu with a choice of dishes and a good wine list. New prisoner arrivals were welcomed with a POW guard of honour and every Friday the officers were lined up to be given a cash allowance, sent direct from Germany.

2. Only one German POW successfully escaped back home

A potrait image of Gunther Pluschow. © Public Domain.
Gunther Pluschow. © Public Domain.

Donington Hall POW camp was also notorious for being the scene of the only successful escape.

On 4 July 1915, 29 year old naval pilot Gunther Pluschow and a fellow officer (later recaptured) climbed two 9 foot barbed wire fences, evaded the searchlights and the guards in watch towers, and walked 15 miles to Derby where they caught a London train.

Men play football outside a large gothic style building
German officers playing football, Donington Hall. Note the high barbed wire. © BNPS.

Once in the city, Pluschow made his way to the docks.  He changed his appearance to a Thames dock worker by dirtying himself in coal dust and smearing his blonde hair with boot polish and vaseline.

Image of the ship Prinses Juliana
Prinses Juliana. © Public Domain.

He slept rough for three weeks, making several fruitless attempts to reach a Dutch ship moored in the Thames at Tilbury.  He finally managed to stow away on the lifeboat of the steamer SS Prinses Juliana bound for Flushing in neutral Holland.

Once there he caught a train and, despite having no identity papers and having to talk his way out of a tricky confrontation with a Dutch police officer, reached freedom in Germany where he became a national hero.  He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.

3. POWs and internees were well-fed

A list of Prisoners Daily Rations including bread, meat, tea, salt and sugar
Prisoners’ daily rations as listed in a 1915 study of the British Prisoners of War Information Bureau. Image courtesy of Tony Allen.

The British Prisoners of War Information Bureau compiled lists and information of all POWs and civilians interned across the British Empire. An in-depth study of its work in 1915 looked at how the Bureau functioned under international law and detailed how prisoners were treated.  A list of food rations confirmed their fair treatment, although some complained about the quality of English fare.

4. Pilates was invented by a German POW

Portrait image of Joseph Pilates
Joseph Pilates. © Public Domain.

German citizen Joseph Pilates, originally a gymnast and body-builder, moved to England in 1912 where he earned his living as a professional boxer and circus performer.

On the outbreak of war, he was interned as an Enemy Alien, first at Lancaster Castle where he taught wrestling and self-defence, before being moved to Knockaloe camp, Isle of Man.

A drawing of Knockaloe internment camp featuring hills, huts and people
Knockaloe civilian internment camp, Isle of Man, drawn by an internee. © ICRC.

He believed that a modern lifestyle, bad posture and inefficient breathing led to poor health. It was at the Knockaloe camp that he developed his concept of physical exercises that could be done with a minimal use of equipment, training his fellow internees and calling it ‘Contrology’, later known as Pilates.

5. Even children suffered from anti-German sentiment

Portrait of John Betjeman
John Betjeman. © Public Domain.

During the First World War, anti-German feeling penetrated all parts of British society.  It was intensified in May 1915 by the attack by a German U-boat on a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, en route from New York, resulting in 1,118 deaths.

John Betjeman – born in 1906 and later Poet Laureate – was an innocent victim of this hostility, suffering playground taunts as a child about his German-sounding name which was, in fact, of Dutch origin: ‘Betjeman’s a German spy, shoot him down and let him die…’

6. There is a bronze memorial of a British POW

Exeter memorial detail - a male figure in chains
Exeter memorial, Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, Devon (detail). 1923 with sculpture by John Angel. Listed Grade II*.   © Historic England DP172951.

This heroic male figure, vulnerably naked and heavily chained at the wrists, is a rare representation of a POW on an English war memorial. It symbolises the sending of food parcels to British prisoners held in Germany by a team of local people, led by Lady Owen, wife of the then mayor of Exeter.

 

Further reading: 

3 responses to 6 things you may not know about POWs in England during the First World War

  1. Nigel Robert Wilson says:

    My great grandmother Alice Chapman, formerly Bicknell, nee Spanswick sought to assist the families of interned German citizens largely because her own father, a master-baker with a bakery in Chelsea used to employ many Germans in the later decades of the nineteenth century. This was despite her husband, her brother and three out of four sons being in the British army. Her main focus was on getting money for their British born wives and children so that the rent could be paid and jobs found. In the early stages of the war before internment she also acted as a commission broker for German craftsmen anxious to feed their families but unable to trade openly due to xenophobia.

    I fear the photos you show are propaganda pictures produced by the government to show how humane conditions were. A good narrative as to how it really was can be found in Rudolf Rocker’s book `The London Years’. Rocker was an active German libertarian socialist, expelled by the Kaiser’s government and his German nationality revoked. Despite this and questions in the House of Commons from Labour MPs he as interned. He became a spokesman for some of the prisoners held at Alexandra Palace. I commend his narrative as it rings true to stories told to me by my grandfather who was the only one of my great-grandmother’s sons who did not serve in the army as he had been deaf as a post since birth.

    Like

  2. I recall producing a book about German POW’s when I worked for a local printer here in Gloucestershire, it has some fascinating images in it and the gentleman who wrote it was quite an authority on the subject. Wish I could recall the title and his name.I’ll try and find out. The camp he wrote about was in Leicestershire I think.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s