Christmas Greetings from Oldham Prisoners in Germany

At Christmas 1914 the Mayor of Oldham, Councillor William Lees, received a postcard from Germany. On the front were the words: ‘Kriegs-Gefanjenen Sendung’ and the address ‘The Mayor of Oldham, Clarksfield House, Lancashire, England’, while on the reverse side were the words: ‘Englander lager, Ruhleben – Spandau, Germany’. The card was a Christmas message from Fred Watson a civilian prisoner of war, barrack 10, Ruhleben camp near Berlin:

Wishing you a Happy Christmas and a Brighter New Year from Fred Watson, Fred Holland, Herbert E Travers, Ernest Woodcock, Harry Holland, Richard Williamson, Frank Eckersley, Fred Sterndale, William Low, Edwin Wallwork, British civil prisoners of war.

 Ruhleben was a German interment camp established in September 1914 on a former harness-racing track at Spandau near Berlin. It was used to house non-German civilian internees who had been working, on holiday or resident in Germany at the outbreak of the war. At its largest in February 1915, there were 4,273 internees living at Ruhleben and about 2,000 men spent all four years of the war there.

Many of the Oldham men had been employed by Messrs Platt Brothers as fitters. One of them was working in Leipzig at the beginning of the war:

When war broke out, instead of receiving twenty-four hours’ notice to leave the country he was arrested on leaving the mill and marched to the police station. After a time he was liberated, and along with his wife and daughter attempted to cross the frontier, travelling by way of Hanover. Posing as Dutch people they reached the frontier where, unfortunately, German officers discovered their nationality. After this he underwent three weeks’ solitary confinement at Hanover before going to Ruhleben.

At Ruhleben the prisoners were accommodated in the stables and hay lofts. Each stall was ten-feet square and slept six men with 200 men in each hay loft. There were no blankets or bedding and no change of clothing. Rations were poor and some prisoners grew food with seeds obtained from Kew gardens.

On arrival at Ruhleben things were in an awful state. The ground was under water and everyone had to plod through it to get to the kitchens to get food. A typical day’s menus was – Breakfast: coffee and a piece of black bread; mid-day: turnips cut up into cubes and made into soup; evening: coffee and a piece of black bread. Without parcels sent to the men many would have died. At first they were put into the stables with no heating apparatus. Each stable was formerly hole for 27 horses and became home for 250 men… All the men were made to stand in the open three or four times a day and in all kinds of weather whilst they were counted. Things did improve when the civilians were able to take matters in hand, but all the improvements were made by them not by the Germans. When outside of the huts there was only the railing round the camp to gaze upon, and several of the men suffered from nervous trouble.

In Ruhleben the Lancastrians formed themselves into a ‘Ruhleben Lancastrians Association’ under the chairmanship of Walter Butterworth who was connected with Manchester Art Gallery. In early 1915 he supplied a list of members which included the following local men:

Fred Holland, 17 Plough Street, Oldham

Harry Holland, 17 Plough Street, Oldham

William Lowe, 113 Robinson Street, Chadderton

Fred Sterndale, 49 North Street, Oldham

Fred Watson, 116 Burlington Avenue, Oldham

G. Williams, 14 Minton Street, Oldham

Woodcock, 121 Edward Street, Oldham

Wallwork, 121 Edward Street, Oldham

E Travers, Atherley Grove, New Moston

Many of these men were members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). The Oldham Branch of the ASE was voluntarily levied to provide comforts for members, and in addition to what allowance the employers make the dependants the union also paid a grant. Parcels were sent to the internees and in August 1916 a letter was published in the Oldham Standard addressed to Asa Schofield, secretary of the Oldham district of the ASE, from the Oldham men in Ruhleben:

The members of the Oldham branches of the ASE interned in Ruhleben met this morning and unanimously expressed a desire to thank you for the very kind manner in which you have aided our wives. We are helpless to aid them ourselves, and our anxiety has been relieved by your generosity, which is worthy of our sincerest thanks. Perhaps you are aware that correspondence from this side is limited, so a collective letter will, we hope, answer for us all. We also desire to express our thanks for the parcels which have been sent from headquarters. We are all enjoying fairly good health, but the monotony of enforced idleness get’s on one’s nerves. It may interest you to know that we have a Ruhleben branch of the ASE comprising between 70 and 80 members. They meet every second Thursday, and have well attended meetings. We were photographed a few weeks ago, and the group makes a good picture…Perhaps you will be able to pick a few Oldhamers out…

George Mellor, No 1 branch

Herbert E Travers, No 2 branch

Richard Williams, No 2 branch

Fred Holland, No 2 branch

Harry Holland, No 2 branch

Fred Sterndale, Chadderton branch

Fred M Watson, Hollinwood branch

Ruhleben_0008
A photograph of the Oldham men was posted to the Oldham Standard by Fred Sterndale, appearing in the paper on Saturday 16 September 1916. Left to right – Top row: W. Lowe, J. Gresty, H. E. Travers, R. G. Williams, F. Lowe Middle row: George Mellor, F. Watson, J. Hewitt, F. Sterndale Front Row: F. Holland, W. Hewitt, H. Holland

At Christmas 1916 the Oldham men held a Christmas party:

 We had no turkey or geese to dismember, but we ‘killed’ two tins of rabbit and made rabbit pie. We also had tinned Christmas pudding and tinned fruit. Christmas Day to the men was merry and bright. TO pass three Christmas Days in a concentration camp is a sore trial, but we do our best to cheer one another up, and this little party of ours passed of as pleasantly as if it had been served in the Savoy Hotel. For instance, the cooking by Brother Hall was worthy of the Savoy chef. Fred has altered wonderfully since he used fruit salts to make his pastry rise. And when Brother Williams brought the pie from the cookhouse everyone who saw it envied it and admired it. After the ‘banquet’ your letter was read and discussed, and the toast ‘Best wishes for the ASE’ was proposed and drunk in tea. Other toasts besides the one mentioned were proposed, including that of ‘A merry Xmas to our parents, wives, and children,’ which was proposed by Brother Mellor. It created a sentimental feeling, which was noticeable in the eyes of all. During the evening each in turn gave one or more of his experiences, either at home or abroad.

The men were destined to spend another Christmas in Ruhleben before their eventual release in November 1918.

 

Thanks to Sandra Ratcliffe for writing this great blog post. 

References:

Oldham Standard
Oldham Chronicle

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