Ruhleben internment camp

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Panoramic view of Ruhleben internment camp by Nico Jungmann, one of the detainees
Bird's eye view of the camp

Ruhleben internment camp was a civilian detention camp in Germany during World War I. It was located in Ruhleben, a former Vorwerk manor 10 km (6.2 mi) to the west of Berlin, now split between the districts of Spandau and Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. The camp was originally a harness racing track laid out north of the Berlin-Hamburg Railway line in 1908.


Detainees queuing for Christmas dinner: painting by Nico Jungman

The camp detainees included male citizens of the Allied Powers living, studying, working or on holiday in Germany at the outbreak of World War I. They also included the crews of several civilian ships stranded in German harbours or captured at sea. There were in addition a number of fishermen captured from trawlers which were sunk in the North Sea in the first days of the war: these were mainly men from Hull, Grimsby and Boston. The camp varied between 4,000 and 5,500 prisoners, most of them British. Life in the camp was described in several books and essays subsequently written by detainees. These included To Ruhleben – And Back (1916) by Geoffrey Pyke,[1] who had successfully escaped from the camp in 1915, and Life in Ruhleben, 1914–1918 (1920) by Frederick Keel.[2] Quarters were cramped; the stable blocks averaged 27 stalls each housing six men; the stable block lofts each housed about 200 men.[3]

The German authorities adhered to the Geneva Convention and allowed the camp detainees to administer their own internal affairs. Gradually, a mini-society evolved in the camp. Letters, books, sports equipment and a printing press were all allowed into the camp and the detainees organised their own police force, magazine, library and postal service. The latter, known as the Ruhleben Express Delivery, was organised by Albert Kamps and began operating in July 1915. Soon it was handling over 6,000 pieces of mail per month and 16 different postage stamps, which have since become collectors items, were issued. In April 1916 however the German postal authorities declared the service illegal and it ceased operating. Prisoners began growing their own fruit and vegetables, especially as fresh produce was hard to come by. This evolved into the Ruhleben Horticultural Society, which developed close links with the Royal Horticultural Society in London.[4] In addition, a number of independent businesses, including a casino, also developed within the camp.

Arts and culture[edit]

Gala performance of The Mikado: painting by Nico Jungman

The detainees arranged their own entertainment. Among them were several musicians, including Ernest MacMillan, later to become a conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Other British musicians included Edgar Bainton,[5] Edward Clark and the Australian-born Arthur Benjamin.[6][7] MacMillan was a prominent member of the Ruhleben Musical Society, formed in 1915, and directed performances of The Mikado (with orchestra and costumes) and a pantomime version of Cinderella. MacMillan transcribed the music for the former from memory with the help of four other musicians, including Benjamin Dale.[8] Among those who attended these performances were James W. Gerard, the United States ambassador. The detainees also presented Trial by Jury, The Pirates of Penzance, The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers.[8][9] MacMillan gave lectures on each of Beethoven's symphonies, which were followed by piano duet performances played by him together with Benjamin Dale.[10] MacMillan was also a member of the Ruhleben Drama Society and acted in productions of Othello, Twelfth Night, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.[11]

The artist Charles Freegrove Winzer was interned at the camp, and provided illustrations for the camp magazine. His detention was contested, because he worked for the French Red Cross, and had been visiting his sister in Germany with permission of the military authorities there. Some of his lithographs, depicting life in the camp, are now in the Australian War Memorial collection.[12][13]


Boxing match: painting by Nico Jungman

Sports also played a major role in the lives of the detainees. Among them were several former professional footballers, including three former England internationals, Fred Pentland, Samuel Wolstenholme and Steve Bloomer; a Scotland international, John Cameron; a German international, Edwin Dutton; and John Brearley, once of Everton and Tottenham Hotspur.[14] The Ruhleben Football Association was formed with Pentland as chairman and Cameron as secretary. Cup and league competitions were organised with teams representing the individual camp barracks. Around 500 prisoners played in the football competitions. Several thousand spectators attended the bigger games. A series of exhibition and "international" matches were also organised. On 2 May 1915 an "England XI" featuring Pentland, Wolstenholme, Brearley and Bloomer played a "World XI" captained by Cameron. Towards the end of the war an international triangular tournament called the Coupe de Allies, featuring a "British XI", a "French XI" and a "Belgium XI", was organised.

Other sports such as cricket, rugby, tennis and golf were also popular within the camp. In May 1915 a "Ruhleben XI", featuring Bloomer and Brearley, played a "Varsities XI" in the Ruhleben Cricket League. In July 1916 a "Lancashire XI", featuring Bloomer, beat a "Yorkshire XI" that included Wolstenholme.

Notable detainees[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Pyke, 1916.
  2. ^ Keel, 1920.
  3. ^ Evans, Stephen (28 July 2014). "The prisoners of war who made Little Britain in Berlin". BBC News. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  4. ^ Elliott, Brent (September 2014). "A Tale of Two Societies: The Royal Horticultural Society and the Ruhleben Horticultural Society" (PDF). Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library. 12: 31–76.
  5. ^ Joseph W Pegg, Newcastle's Musical Heritage: An Introduction
  6. ^ LindaJo K. McKim, LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion
  7. ^ Joseph W. Lewis, What Killed the Great and Not So Great Composers?
  8. ^ a b MacMillan, Sir Ernest (1997). MacMillan on music: essays on music, Carl Morey (ed.) pp. 25–29, Dundurn Press ISBN 1-55002-2857
  9. ^ Photo of the prisoners in The Gondoliers, 1917, accessed 30 May 2012
  10. ^ Nevins, Maureen (1994). Sir Ernest MacMillan: portrait of a Canadian musician (1893–1973), Ruhleben. Library and Archives Canada (electronic collection). Retrieved 2011-09-12.
  11. ^ Hart, Harold B. (9 January 1918). "Life in Ruhleben – Stories of Returned Civil Prisoners". The Scotsman. pp. 5, 11.
  12. ^ "Figures, 2 removing another under force". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  13. ^ "Figures behind wire". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  14. ^ Brown, Paul (2020). The Ruhleben Football Association. Goal Post. ISBN 9780995541238.
  15. ^ Sorenson, Lee (21 February 2018). "Prichard, Matthew Stewart". Dictionary of Art Historians. Retrieved 2 January 2019.


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°32′0″N 13°14′0″E / 52.53333°N 13.23333°E / 52.53333; 13.23333