First World War centenary: Plight of internees revealed in author’s new book
- Credit: 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.
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.
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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.”
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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.
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.”
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Arrested and sent to a camp in 1914, he became withdrawn.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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.