Search

First World War centenary: Plight of internees revealed in author’s new book

PUBLISHED: 12:00 13 March 2016

German prisoners at an English prisoners of war camp in France. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

German prisoners at an English prisoners of war camp in France. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

Archant

The cruelties of war all too often extend to the streets of the battling nations, with families, homes and livelihoods torn apart by the undiscriminating nature of conflict.

A group of internees who had been arrested in Scarborough and were being taken to York. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyA group of internees who had been arrested in Scarborough and were being taken to York. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

These attacks usually assume themselves through the “enemy” bomb, or machine gun, but sometimes the crimes are committed by countries against their own people.

Thousands of civilians were interned in Britain during the First World War, separated from their families and plunged into a life of hardship – all because they were of German ancestry.

Many had lived in Britain for years and their children were fighting for the country, but it was not enough to stop their persecution, with an atmosphere of fear and loathing lurking on the streets.

Historical writer Michael Foley, 60, who taught in Ilford for more than a decade, explores the topic in his 24th book Prisoners of the British: Internees and Prisoners of War During the First World War.

Author Mike FoleyAuthor Mike Foley

He said: “For a lot of them it wasn’t really fair. Some had fought for Britain and were still interned because they were seen as a danger to the country.

“I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realise.”

Upon the outbreak of war, it was evident a “feeling of suspicion and fear had already taken root against the German population,” writes Michael in the book, referring to the years of cool relations between the two countries, which saw a fierce naval rivalry among other issues.

The conflict had barely begun when the authorities set about arresting civilians with German heritage, mainly middle-aged men.

Some of the inhabitants of Dorchester Camp. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleySome of the inhabitants of Dorchester Camp. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

But the persecution was not something the government had sought, according to Michael.

He writes: “At first the government refused to take action over the majority of those seen as enemy aliens; eventually, due to outbreaks of rioting and violence towards anyone with a foreign-sounding name, they were forced to act.

“The German soldiers were often handed gifts of fruit and cigarettes by the public as they made their way to the camps.

“Meanwhile, civilians with German or even foreign-sounding names were being attacked and looted.”

Armed guards lining the streets of Southend, Essex, as a large number of internees march from the station to the pier. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyArmed guards lining the streets of Southend, Essex, as a large number of internees march from the station to the pier. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

One example given is that of a man called Herman Krauss, a 39-year-old hotel waiter with a wife and three children.

Arrested and sent to a camp in 1914, he became withdrawn.

One day he said his goodbyes to a fellow prisoner and was found dead in a toilet an hour later.

Michael writes: “It is impossible to tell how many other men felt suicidal after being separated from their families, especially after having done nothing wrong apart from being born in another country.”

A boxing match at the internment camp in Ruhleben, Germany. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyA boxing match at the internment camp in Ruhleben, Germany. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

The late 19th century saw German citizens arrive en masse in Britain, including businessmen and waiters.

But once the conflict kicked off, many waiters lost their jobs and found themselves sleeping on park benches, said Michael.

According to the book, there were under 20 camps for prisoners of war and “alien” citizens in late 1914, but this jumped to more than 500 by the end of the war.

One facility was at the old jute factory in Stratford.

A workshop in Alexandra Palace for internees. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyA workshop in Alexandra Palace for internees. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

Fierce rioting erupted in London throughout the First World War, including in the East End.

October 1914 saw some serious outbreaks across the capital, while The Times reported on May 13 1915 that there had been rioting in 24 different areas, with German and Austrian stores targeted.

More than 150 shops were affected in Camden Town and Kentish Town alone.

Rioting continued into the latter years of the war, with incidents also reported in 1917.

German prisoners at a railway station in France, awaiting transport to England. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyGerman prisoners at a railway station in France, awaiting transport to England. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

Michael said: “I’m still not sure why they treated the civilians worse. I guess they thought the German soldiers were doing their duty, but saw the civilians more as traitors.

“Families were separated, lost their homes, had to go to charities for help. There was a lot of bad feeling.

“A lot of these people had been living here for years, were married to British people, had children who were fighting for Britain, but the parents were still interned and had to go back to Germany after the war.

“You get the idea that the British were very fair, but that wasn’t the case here.”

German prisoners entering the gates of a tented camp. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael FoleyGerman prisoners entering the gates of a tented camp. Picture: Prisoners of the British by Michael Foley

Prisoners of the British is available from book stores and amazon.co.uk.

------------------------------------

Britain’s treatment of its soldiers

It was not only civilians who were mistreated by their country during the First World War – Britain also came down hard on its soldiers.

The Army used a number of locations to discipline recruits who had broken military law, such as deserters.

One of these was in the town of Poperinge, Belgium. A sobering sight which still remains today is the execution pole and cell block at the town hall.

Four British soldiers are confirmed as having been shot at dawn there.

In total, 304 recruits were executed by the British Army.

Latest Ilford Stories

Yesterday, 17:22

A self-proclaimed “Snapchat queen” from Ilford who posted a video of her boyfriend dying in a pool of blood has been jailed for 14 years.

Yesterday, 16:24

Essex County Cricket Club have announced that Sam Cook has signed a two-year contract extension that will see him remain on their playing staff until the conclusion of the 2020 season.

Yesterday, 17:00

Namrah Chaudry is student services manager at William Morris Sixth Form, where she inspires young people every day after spending her childhood beating bullies and a stammer.

Yesterday, 17:00

A mint-minded pensioner who penned a hilarious letter to the boss of a soap manufacturer has recieved a pleasant surprise.

Yesterday, 15:00

After victory over Fullerians last time out, Eton Manor will seek another win on Saturday

Yesterday, 14:54

One of the country’s largest discount retailers has been ordered to pay almost £500,000 for repeatedly selling knives to children in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath.

Yesterday, 13:00

West Ham United will want to build on their first win in the Premier League when they host Chelsea at the London Stadium on Sunday.

Yesterday, 12:27

Do you want to do something to help tackle the borough’s homelessness crisis? Look no further!

PROMOTED CONTENT

Struggling to find a buyer for your home in a slower market? We speak to Ilford property expert Nina Kaura from Portico about the Crossrail effect and why getting things right first time will get you the best price for your property.

Exchange Ilford is a shopping centre on a mission to make it a more welcoming and accessible place to the people of Redbridge.

An Ilford shoe retailer and podiatry practice is taking the next step with a move to a new shop just a few doors down.

Newsletter Sign Up

Ilford Recorder twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Newsletter Sign Up

Ilford Recorder twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read entertainment

Show Job Lists

Education Promo

Digital Edition

cover

Enjoy the
Ilford Recorder
e-edition today

Subscribe

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now