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Landscapes of Internment: British Prisoner of War Camps and the Memory of the First World War

  • Tim Grady


During the First World War, all of the belligerent powers interned both civilian and military prisoners. In Britain alone, over one hundred thousand people were held behind barbed wire. Despite the scale of this enterprise, interment barely features in Britain's First World War memory culture. By exploring the place of prisoner-of-war camps within the “militarized environment” of the home front, this article demonstrates the centrality of internment to local wartime experiences. Forced to share the same environment, British civilians and German prisoners clashed over access to resources, roads, and the surrounding landscape. As this article contends, it was only when the British started to employ prisoners on environmental-improvement measures, such as land drainage or river clearance projects, that relations gradually improved. With the end of the war and closure of the camps, however, these deep entanglements were quickly forgotten. Instead of commemorating the complexities of the conflict, Britain's memory culture focused on more comfortable narratives; British military “sacrifice” on the Western Front quickly replaced any discussion of the internment of the “enemy” at home.



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1 “Memorial Honours War Fallen,” Wilmslow Guardian, 30 March 2016, 12; King, Alex, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (Oxford, 1998), 237.

2 Only Dorchester has been the subject of a short local history. Bates, Brian, Living with the Enemy: Dorchester's Great War Prison Camp (Frampton, 2015).

3 The choice of these three similarly sized camps allows for a practical comparative framework. Sewell, William H. Jr., “Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History,” History and Theory 6, no. 2 (1967): 208–18.

4 Aside from camps on the Isle of Man, it was only those in Stobs, Eastcote/Pattishall, Frimley, and Dorchester that had equitable or larger populations for the period 1914–1919. Panayi, Panikos, Prisoners of Britain: German Civilians and Combatant Internees during the First World War (Manchester, 2012), 44, 88–9.

5 “Memorial to Honour Our Fallen Unveiled,” Wilmslow Guardian, 30 March 2016, 1.

6 Mitchell, W. J. T., introduction to Landscape and Power, ed. Mitchell, W. J. T. (Chicago, 1994), 14, at 1; Schama, Simon, Landscape and Memory (London, 1995).

7 Lowenthal, David, “British National Identity and the English Landscape,” Rural History 2, no. 2 (October 1991): 205–30, at 217.

8 On the term “militarized environments,” see Pearson, Chris, Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France (Manchester, 2012). Other important work in the field prefers the slightly narrower term militarized landscapes”: Pearson, Chris, Coates, Peter, and Cole, Tim, eds., Militarized Landscapes: From Gettysburg to Salisbury Plain (London, 2010); Dudley, Marianna, An Environmental History of the UK Defence Estate, 1945 to the Present (London, 2012).

9 Cesarani, David and Kushner, Tony, eds., The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain (London, 1993). See also Dove, Richard, ed., “Totally Un-English”? Britain's Interment of “Enemy Aliens” in Two World Wars (Amsterdam, 2005). For a variety of national perspectives, see Oltmer, Jochen, Kriegsgefangene im Europa des Ersten Weltkriegs (Paderborn, 2006).

10 Carr, Gilly and Mytum, Harold, eds., Cultural Heritage and Prisoners of War: Creativity behind Barbed Wire (New York, 2012).

11 Feltman, Brian K., The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond (Chapel Hill, 2015), 106–7; Rachamimov, Alon, “The Disruptive Comforts of Drag: (Trans)Gender Performances among Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914–1920,” American Historical Review 111, no. 2 (April 2006): 362–82, at 364; Murphy, Mahon, Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914–1919 (Cambridge, 2017).

12 Hinz, Uta, Gefangen im Groβen Krieg: Kriegsgefangenschaft in Deutschland, 1914–1921 (Essen, 2006), 185203; Jones, Heather, Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany, 1914–1920 (Cambridge, 2011), 3369.

13 Wilkinson, Oliver, British Prisoners of War in First World War Germany (Cambridge, 2017), 2342.

14 Manz, Stefan, “‘Enemy Aliens’ in Scotland in a Global Context, 1914–1919: Germanophobia, Internment, Forgetting,” in Minorities and the First World War: From War to Peace, ed. Grady, Tim and Ewence, Hannah (Basingstoke, 2017), 117–42.

15 Stibbe, Matthew, British Civilian Internees in Germany: The Ruhleben Camp, 1914–1918 (Manchester, 2008); Panayi, Prisoners of Britain.

16 Jerram, Leif, “Space: A Useless Category for Historical Analysis?,” History and Theory 52, no. 3 (October 2013): 400–19.

17 This was the case with many Second World War American airbases in Britain which have been preserved as heritage assets. Sam Edwards, “Ruins, Relics and Restoration: The Afterlife of World War Two American Airfields in England, 1945–2005,” in Pearson, Coates, and Cole, Militarized Landscapes, 209–28; Nora, Pierre, Les Lieux de Mémoire, 3 vols. (Paris, 1984–1992).

18 “Handforth a Military Centre?,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 18 September 1914, 5.

19 Panayi, Prisoners of Britain, 47–51.

20 “War Prison at Dorchester,” Western Morning News, 8 August 1914, 8.

21 “The War: How Is It Affecting the Camberley District,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 15 August 1914, 3.

22 Reginald Potts, 16 September 1914 and Handforth Urban District Council to Reginald Potts, 18 September 1914, CCJ11/29, Cheshire Record Office (hereafter CRO).

23 “German Prisoners in Camp at Handforth,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 9 October 1914, 8.

24 Schmidt-Reder, Bruno, In England Kriegsgefangen! Meine Erlebnisse in dem Gefangenenlager Dorchester (Berlin, 1915), 35.

25 “Electric Shocks for Prisoners,” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 29 August 1914, 3.

26 “Camp Visitor's Arrest,” Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 24 October 1914, 8.

27 For thoughtful reflections on the occupation of contested urban spaces, see Rossol, Nadine, Performing the Nation in Interwar Germany: Sport, Spectacle and Political Symbolism, 1926–36 (Basingstoke, 2010), 1333.

28 George Kenner, “Sketches of a German Interned Civilian Prisoner in England,” 1929,

29 Vöhringer, Gotthilf, Meine Erlebnisse während des Krieges in Kamerun und in englischer Kriegsgefangenschaft (Hamburg, 1915), 19.

30 “German Prisoners Arrive,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 9 October 1915, 3.

31 “German Prisoners at Frimley,” Surrey Advertiser, 26 September 1914, 3.

32 “More Prisoners at Handforth,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 13 November 1914, 6; “The Prisoners of War,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 27 August 1914, 6.

33 Jones, Violence against Prisoners of War, 49–50; Hinz, Kriegsgefangenschaft, 188–89.

34 “German Prisoners at Handforth,” Manchester Evening News, 2 August 1915, 3.

35 “Teutonic Humour,” Liverpool Echo, 9 February 1915, 4.

36 “German Prisoners Camp,” Surrey Advertiser, 30 September 1914, 2.

37 Jones, Violence against Prisoners of War, 49.

38 “German Prisoners Interned at Handforth,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 6 November 1914, 5.

39 “To the Editor,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 19 September 1914, 3.

40 Mark, Graham, Prisoners of War in British Hands during WWI: A Study of Their History, the Camps and Their Mails (Exeter, 2007), 74, 92, 103.

41 The National Archives (hereafter TNA), FO383/106, Foreign Office report, December 1914.

42 TNA, FO383/106, Leisler, Greig & Co. to the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 4 January 1915; Foreign Office to Leisler, Greig & Co., 14 January 1915.

43 Harold Tennant, House of Commons, Written Answers, 19 November 1914, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th series, vol. 68, cols. 565–56.

44 TNA, FO383/107, War Office to Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office, 15 January 1915.

45 Wilmslow Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 25 January 1915, LUW/2472/3/4, CRO.

46 “German Prisoners Arrive,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 8 May 1915, 3.

47 Wilmslow Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 22 February 1915, LUW/2472/3/4, CRO.

48 Jenner, Mark, “Follow Your Nose? Smell, Smelling, and Their Histories,” American Historical Review 116, no. 2 (April 2011): 335–51, at 335.

49 Wilmslow Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 22 February 1915 and 29 March 1915, LUW/2472/3/4, CRO; “Frimley Council Meeting,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 5 June 1915, 3.

50 Wilmslow Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 5 May 1916, LUW/2472/3/4, CRO.

51 Dorchester Borough Council Minutes, 26 May 1915, 14 March 1916, DC/DOB, Dorset History Centre.

52 Schmidt-Reder, Kriegsgefangen!, 112–13; “The Prisoners of War,” Dorset County Chronicle, 27 August 1914, 6.

53 Dorchester Borough Council Minutes, 6 February 1915, DC/DOB, Dorset History Centre; “Frimley Council Meeting,” Camberley News and Yorktown Observer, 10 October 1914, 3; Handforth Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 7 October 1915, 3 May 1917, 5 July 1917, and 2 May 1918, LUHd/1/2, CRO.

54 Jeger, Maurice, 22 Monate in Englischer Kriegsgefangenenschaft—Aus den Internierungs-lagern Shrewsbury, Handforth, Knockaloe, Douglas (Insel Man) (Vienna, 1917), 34.

55 Schmidt-Reder, Kriegsgefangen!, 36, 64.

56 Jeger, 22 Monate, 28.

57 “War Notes,” Western Gazette, 4 September 1914, 3; “Letters to the Editor,” Globe (London), 11 September 1914, 6; “Letters to the Editor,” Globe (London), 18 September 1914, 3.

58 American Special Attaché, London, 11 April 1916, R901/83075, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

59 TNA, FO383/106, Robert Cecil, “Note of Visit to Prisoners’ Camps,” 2 February 1915.

60 Plüschow, Gustav, My Escape from Donnington Hall (London, 1922), 166; “Handforth Prisoners in ‘Clover,’” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 6 February 1915, 6.

61 Plüschow, Escape, 167.

62 “Handforth Villagers’ Protest,” Nottingham Evening Post, 20 May 1915, 3; Jeger, 22 Monate, 26.

63 “German Prisoner Shot,” Liverpool Daily Post, 8 August 1918, 3; “Prisoner of War Fatally Shot,” Dorset County Chronicle, 22 May 1919, 2. The worst incident occurred in November 1914 in Douglas on the Isle of Man, when guards shot and killed five prisoners during a disturbance: Panayi, Prisoners of Britain, 156–57.

64 Bogenstätter, Ludwig and Zimmermann, Heinrich, Die Welt hinter Stacheldraht: Eine Kronik des englischen Kriegsgefangenlagers Handforth bei Manchester (Munich, 1921), 83.

65 TNA, FO369/1450, War Office, “Report on the Directorate of Prisoners of War,” September 1920, 24.

66 Pörzgen, Hermann, Theater ohne Frau: Das Bühnenleben der Kriegsgefangenen Deutschen, 1914–1920 (Berlin, 1933); Rachamimov, “Disruptive Comforts”; Feltman, Stigma of Surrender, 127–33.

67 “Funeral of German Prisoner,” Surrey Advertiser, 12 September 1914, 7.

68 Bogenstätter and Zimmermann, Stacheldraht, 83–85.

69 “Military Funeral of German Prisoner of War,” Dorset County Chronicle, 2 September 1915, 5.

70 TNA, FO383/122, War Office to Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1 June 1916; TNA, FO369/1450, War Office, “Report on the Directorate of Prisoners of War,” September 1920.

71 Bogenstätter and Zimmermann, Stacheldraht, 85.

72 American Special Attaché, London, 28 August 1916, R901/83075, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

73 TNA, FO369/1450, War Office, “Report on the Directorate of Prisoners of War,” September 1920, 50.

74 “Why Not Use Germans on Our Farms?,” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 21 December 1915, 5; Panayi, Prisoners of Britain, 206.

75 “German Prisoners of War,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 11 May 1917, 2.

76 “Amusing ‘Mare's Nest’ at Dorchester,” Western Daily Press, 10 October 1917, 4; Dorchester Borough Council Minutes, 25 October 1917, DC/DOB, Dorset History Centre.

77 TNA, FO383/164, Report of the American Special Attaché, 12 September 1916; Dorset County Council Minutes, 1 August 1916, DCC/A1/3/35, Dorset History Centre.

78 Cheshire War Agricultural Committee, 30 April 1918; Douglas Wright, 16 August 1918, DLT 4996/19/12, CRO.

79 “German Prisoners on Cheshire Farms,” Times (London), 29 August 1918, 4.

80 Blackbourn, David, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany (London, 2007), 4.

81 County War Agricultural Committee, “Review of Work of above Committee from Date of Appointment to 30th June 1918,” CRO, CC1/4/1/1/1.

82 “Wirral War Agricultural Committee,” Chester Chronicle, 10 November 1917, 5.

83 Carr, W. and Mercer, W., “Reclamation of Frodsham Marshes,” Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society 108 (1947): 112–26, at 112; “War Agricultural Matters,” Chester Chronicle, 26 May 1917, 6.

84 Swiss Legation to Swiss Minister London, 23 June 1919, R901/83121, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

85 “The Chronicle,” Chester Chronicle, 17 August 1918, 4.

86 Swiss Legation to Swiss Minister, London, 10 September 1918, R901/83121, Bundesarchiv, Berlin; “German Prisoners at Frodsham,” Chester Chronicle, 14 September 1918, 4. On Frith Hill complaints, see TNA, FO383/164, Walter Page to Viscount Grey, 31 October 1916.

87 Hinz, Kriegsgefangenschaft, 193–97.

88 For a similar history, albeit in Canada, see Bohdan Kordan, No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience (Montreal, 2016).

89 Panayi, Prisoners of Britain, 276.

90 Nachtigal, Reinhard, “The Repatriation and Reception of Returning Prisoners of War, 1918–22,” Immigrants and Minorities 26, no. 1/2 (March/July 2008): 157–84, at 175.

91 TNA, FO383/506, Swiss Legation to Swiss Minister, London, 19 March 1919.

92 Feltman, Stigma of Surrender, 162; “‘Jerry's’ Farewell,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 14 November 1919, 4.

93 Gregory, Adrian, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919–1946 (Oxford, 1994), 913.

94 “Local and District News,” Western Gazette, 14 November 1919, 3; “Local Notes,” Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser, 14 November 1919, 4.

95 Mosse, George L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford, 1990), 107.

96 See in particular Panayi, Panikos, The Enemy in Our Midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War (Oxford, 1991), 283.

97 The only internees to remain were those deemed too sick to travel. Ivan B., for example, remained in the “Cheshire County Asylum” until he died, aged seventy, in 1949. Parkside Asylum, Notice of Death, NHM 8/5176/65, CRO.

98 On the Reichsvereinigung ehemaliger Kriegsgefangener, see Feltman, Stigma of Surrender, 176–91.

99 Bogenstätter and Zimmermann, Stacheldraht; “Aus der Welt der Bücher,” Der Heimkehrer, 15 August 1921, 4. For Dorchester, see “Ehemalige Angehörige des Lagers Dorchester!,” Der Heimkehrer, 1 February 1921, 4.

100 Wilmslow Cemetery Register, 27 October 1919, LUW17, CRO; Josef Jakob Melzl, Bilder aus dem “P.o.W. camp” Dorchester (London, 1919).

101 “Sales by Auction,” Western Gazette, 6 August 1920, 1; TNA, WO78/3052, Map, “Dorchester RHA Barracks,” 1925.

102 For the pre-war abandonment of the site, see “Derelict Factory's Future,” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 19 March 1914, 12. On the Bradford Dyers Association's interwar links, see TNA, HLG 50/449, Handforth Urban District Council to Ministry of Health, 7 December 1934.

103 Handforth Urban District Council Committee Minutes, 5 January 1920, LUHd/1/2, CRO.

104 On grief for wartime losses, see Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1995).

105 Handforth Parish, Register of Services, 4 August 1918, P10/2/1, CRO.

106 “Dorchester Scoutmaster and the ‘Chief,’” Western Gazette, 13 June 1930, 2.

107 Rachamimov, Alon, POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front (Oxford, 2002), 221–28.

108 Wilkinson, Oliver, “A Fate Worse than Death? Lamenting First World War Captivity,” Journal of War and Culture Studies 8, no. 1 (February 2015): 2440, at 25; Jones, Violence against Prisoners of War, 319–26.

109 Todman, Dan, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London, 2005), 9495.

110 Re World War I POW Camp at Handforth,” Cheshire Ancestor 46, no. 2 (December 2015): 17; TNA, WO 32/20939, “Infantry Training Centre, Dorchester,” 13 May 1940.

111 On shifting meanings in buildings, see Whyte, William, “How Do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture,” History and Theory 45, no. 2 (May 2006): 153–77.

112 TNA, HO282/21, “Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany regarding German War Graves in the United Kingdom,” 16 October 1959.

113 “Feierstunde zur Einweihung des deutschen Soldatenfriedhofes Cannock Chase,” 10 June 1967, C/C/PR/5/1/4, Staffordshire Record Office, Stafford.

114 de Groot, Jerome, Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture (New York, 2016), 146.

115 “Reparation of the German Prisoners,” Western Gazette, 21 November 1919, 3.

116 “Departure of Prisoners of War,” Dorset County Chronicle, 20 November 1919, 5.

117 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” in “Memory and Counter-Memory,” special issue, Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 7–24, at 22.

118 On postwar discord, see Lawrence, Jon, “Forging a Peaceable Kingdom: War, Violence, and Fear of Brutalization in Post–First World War Britain,” Journal of Modern History 75, no. 3 (September 2003): 557–89; Panayi, Prisoners of Britain, 8–10.

119 Bushaway, Bob, “Name upon Name: The Great War and Remembrance,” in Myths of the English, ed. Porter, Roy (Cambridge, 1992), 136–61.

120 Reynolds, David, “Britain, the Two World Wars, and the Problem of Narrative,” Historical Journal 60, no. 1 (March 2017): 197231, at 226; Reynolds, David, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London, 2013), 387.


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