'Two German Prison Camps'
by Arthur Ruhl, American journalist

Visiting a German Prison Camp in 1915

Zossen prison camp - Russian prisoners

Zossen prison camp - French and British prisoners
two pages from a German magazine 'Des deutschen Volkes Kriegstagebuch'


Visiting a prison camp is somewhat like touching at an island in the night — one of those tropical islands, for instance, whose curious and crowded life shows for an instant as your steamer leaves the mail or takes on a load of deck-hands, and then fades away into a few twinkling lights and the sound of a bell across the water. You may get permission to see a prison camp, but may not stay there, and you are not expected, generally, to talk to the prisoners. You can but walk past those rows of eyes, with all their untold stories, much as you might go into a theatre in the midst of a performance, tramp through the audience and out again.

It is a strange experience and leaves one hoping that somebody — some German shut away in the south of France, one of those quick-eyed Frenchmen in the human zoo at Zossen — is keeping a diary. For while there have always been prison camps, have there ever been — at least, since Rome — such menageries as these! Behind the barbed-wire fence at Zossen — Zossen is one of the prisons near Berlin — there are some fifteen thousand men. The greater number are Frenchmen, droves of those long blue turned-back overcoats and red trousers, flowing sluggishly between the rows of low barracks, Frenchmen of every sort of training and temperament, swept here like dust by the war into common anonymity. I do not remember any picture of the war more curious, and, as it were, uncanny than the first sight of Zossen as our motor came lurching down the muddy road from Berlin — that huge, forgotten eddy, that slough of idle, aimless human beings against the gray March sky, milling slowly round and round in the mud.

But the French are only part of Zossen. There are Russians — shaggy peasants such as we see in cartoons or plays at home, and Mongol Russians with flat faces and almond eyes, who might pass for Chinamen. There are wild-eyed "Turcos" from the French African provinces, chattering untamed Arabs playing leap-frog in front of their German commandant as impudently as street boys back in their native bazaars. There are all the tribes and castes of British Indians — "I've got twenty different kinds of people in my Mohammedan camp," said the lieutenant who was showing me about — squat Gurkhas from the Himalayas, minus their famous knives — tall, black-bearded Sikhs, with the faces of princes. There are even a few lone Englishmen, though most of the British soldiers in this part of Germany are at Doberitz. Whether or not Zossen could be called a "show" camp, it seemed, at any rate, about as well managed as such a place could be. The prisoners were housed in new, clean, one-story barracks; well fed, so far as one could tell from their appearance and that of the kitchens and storerooms; they could write and be written to, and they were compelled to take exercise. The Roman Catholics had one chapel and the Greek Catholics another, and there was an effort to permit Indian prisoners to observe their rules of caste.

As we tramped through barracks where chilly Indians, Russians with broad, high cheek-bones, sensitive-looking Frenchmen with quick, liquid eyes, jumped to their feet and stiffened at attention as the commandant passed, a young officer, who had lived in England before the war and was now acting as interpreter, volunteered his guileless impressions. The Turcos were a bad lot — fighting, gambling, and stealing from each other — there was trouble with some of, them every day. The Russians were dirty, good-natured, and stupid.

The English — well, frankly, he was surprised at their lack of discipline and general unruliness — all except some of the Indians, and those, he must say, were well-trained — fine fellows and good soldiers. One could surmise the workings of his mind as one thought of the average happy- go-lucky Tommy Atkins, and then came across one of those tall, straight, hawk-eyed Sikhs and saw him snap his heels together and his arms to his sides and stand there like a bronze statue.

It was a dreadful job getting the Frenchmen to take exercise — "they can't understand why any one should want to work, merely to keep himself fit!" Aside from this idiosyncrasy they were, of course, the pleasantest sort of people to get along with. We saw Frenchmen sorting mail in the post-office, painting signs for streets, making blankets out of pasted-together newspapers — everywhere they were treated as intelligent men to whom favors could be granted. And, of course, there was this difference between the French and English of the early weeks of the war — the French army is one of universal conscription like the German, and business men and farmers, writers, singers, and painters were lumped in together. There was one particularly good- looking young man, a medical officer, who flung up his head to attention as we came up.

"He helped us a lot — this man!" said the commandant, and laid his hand on the young man's shoulder. The Frenchman's eyes dilated a trifle and a smile flashed behind rather than across his face — one could not know whether it was gratitude or defiance.

A sculptor who had won a prize at Rome and several other artists had had a room set aside for them to work in. Some were making post-cards, some more ambitious drawings, and in the sculptor's studio was the head of the young doctor we had just seen and an unfinished plaster group for a camp monument. On the wall was a sign in Latin and French — "Unhappy the spirit which worries about the future," a facetious warning that any one who loafed there longer than three minutes was likely to be killed, and the following artistic creed from "La Fontaine:"

"Ne forfans point notre talent,
"Nous ne ferions rien avec grace;
"Jamais un lourdaud quoiqu'il fosse
"Ne saurait passer pour gallant."

("Don't strain your talent or you'll do nothing gracefully. The boor won't pass for a gallant gentleman, no matter what he does.")

The Germans, at different times in their history, have conquered the French and humbly looked up to and imitated them. Generally speaking, they study and try to understand the French, and their own intellectuality and idealism are things French-men might be expected to like or, at any rate, be interested in. Yet it is one of history's or geography's ironies that the Frenchman goes on his way, neither knowing nor wanting to know the blond beasts over the Rhine — "Jamais un lourdaud quoiqu'il fasse" . . .the young sculptor must have smiled when he tacked that verse on the wall of his prison!

Ruhleben is a race-track on the outskirts of Berlin, and a detention camp for English civilians. This is quite another sort of menagerie. You can imagine the different kinds of Englishmen who would be caught in Germany by the storm — luxurious invalids taking the waters at Baden- Baden; Gold Coast negro roust-abouts from rusty British tramps at Hamburg; agents, manufacturers, professors, librarians, officers from Channel boats, students of music and philosophy.

All these luckless civilians — four thousand of them — had been herded together in the stables, paddock, and stands of the Ruhleben track. The place was not as suited for a prison as the high land of Zossen, the stalls with their four bunks were dismal enough, and the lofts overhead, with little light and ventilation, still worse.

Some had suffered, semi-invalids, for instance, unable to get along with the prison rations, but the interesting thing about Ruhleben was not its discomfort, but the remarkable fashion in which the prisoners had contrived to make the best of a bad matter.

The musicians had their instruments sent in and organized an orchestra. The professors began to lecture and teach until now there was a sort of university, with some fifty different classes in the long room under the grand stand. And on the evening when we had the privilege of visiting Ruhleben it was to see a dramatic society present Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion."

The play began at six o'clock, for the camp lights are out at nine, and it was in the dusk of another one of Berlin's rainy days, after slithering through the Tiergarten and past the endless concrete apartment-houses of Charlottenburg, that our taxicab swung to the right, lurched down the lane of mud, and stopped at the gate of Ruhleben. Inside was a sort of mild morass, overspread with Englishmen — professional-looking men with months-old beards, pink-cheeked young fellows as fresh as if they had just stepped off Piccadilly, men in faded knicker-bockers and puttees, men in sailor blue and brass buttons, men with flat caps and cockney accent, one with a Thermos bottle, and crisp "Right you are!" — a good-natured, half-humorous, half-tragic cross-section of the London streets, drifting about here in the German mud.

There were still a few minutes before the play began, and we walked through some of the barracks with the commandant, a tall, bronzed officer of middle age, with gracious manners, one of those Olympian Germans who resemble their English cousins of the same class. Each bairack had its captain, and over these was a camp-captain — formerly an English merchant of Berlin — who went with us on our rounds.

The stables were crowded with bunks and men — like a cattleship forecastle. One young man, fulfilling doubtless his English ritual of "dressing for dinner," was punctiliously shaving, although it was now practically dark; in another corner the devotee of some system of how to get strong and how to stay so, stripped to the skin, was slowly and with solemn precision raising and lowering a pair of light dumb-bells. Some saluted as private soldiers would; some bowed almost as to a friend, with a cheery "Guten Abend, Herr Baron!" There seemed, indeed, to be a very pleasant relation between this gentleman soldier and his gentlemen prisoners, and the camp- captain, lagging behind, told how one evening when they had sung "Elijah," the men had stood up and given three English cheers for the commandant, while his wife, who had come to hear the performance, stood beside him laughing and wiping her eyes.

As you get closer to war you more frequently run across such things. The fighting men kill ruthlessly, because that, they think, is the way to get their business over. But for the most part they kill without hate. For that, in its noisier and more acrid forms you must go back to the men who are not fighting, to the overdriven and underexercised journalists, sizzling and thundering in their swivel-chairs.

The dimly lit hall under the grand stand was already crowded as we were led to our seats on a rostrum facing the stage with the commandant and one of his officers. There was a red draw curtain, footlights made with candles and biscuit tins, and so strung on a wire that at a pull, between the acts, they could be turned on the spectators. A programme had been printed on the camp mimeograph, the camp orchestra was tuning up, and a special overture had been composed by a young gentleman with the beautiful name of "Quentin Morvaren."

You will doubtless recall Mr. Shaw's comedy, and the characteristic "realistic" fun he has with his Romans and Christian martyrs, and the lion who, remembering the mild-mannered Androcles, who had once pulled a sliver from his foot, danced out of the arena with him instead of eating him. And you can imagine the peculiarly piquant eloquence given to the dialogue between Mr. Shaw's meek but witty Christians and their might-is-right Roman captors, spoken by British prisoners in the spring of 1915, in a German prison camp before a German commandant sitting up like a statue with his hands on his sword!

The Roman captain was a writer, the centurion a manufacturer, Androcles a teacher of some sort, the call-boy for the fights in the arena a cabin-boy from a British merchant ship, and the tender-hearted lion some genius from the "halls." Even after months of this sodden camp it was possible to find a youth to play Lavinia, with so pretty a face, such a velvet voice, such a pensive womanliness that the flat-capped, ribald young cockneys in the front row blushed with embarrassment. A professor of archaeology, or something, said that he had never seen more accurate reproductions of armor, though this was made but of gilded and silvered cardboard — in short, if Mr. Shaw's fun was ever better brought out by professional players, they must have been very good indeed.

It was an island within an island that night, there under the Ruhleben grand stand — English speech and Irish wit in that German sea. You should have seen the two young patricians drifting in, with the regulation drawl of the Piccadilly "nut" — "I say! He-ah's some Christians — let's chaff them!" The crowd was laughing, the commandant was laughing, the curtain closed in a whirl of applause, one had forgotten there was a war. The applause continued, the players straggled out, faltering back from the parts in which they had forgotten themselves into normal, self-conscious Englishmen. There was a moment's embarrassed pause, then the rattle of a sabre as the tall man in gray-blue rose to his feet.

"Danke Ihnen, meine Herren! Aeusserst nett!" he said briskly. ("Thanks, gentlemen! Very clever indeed!") He turned to us, nodded in stiff soldierly fashion. "Sehr nett! Sehr nett!" he said, and led the way out between a lane of Englishmen suddenly become prisoners again.


from two German magazines : happy prisoners

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