By Paul Hurley
In both the first and second war, thousands of prisoners were taken by both sides. But sticking to WW1, during the duration of that war thousands of German captives and detainees held in Britain during the conflict, their numbers having peaked at 115,950, comprising 24,522 civilian and 91,428 military internees. It was in the main men who were placed in internment camps. The detainees incarcerated in Britain are split into three categories: German civilians resident in Britain in 1914 who were subjected to increasing levels of control; German civilians seized by the British around the world, especially in the British Empire and on the high seas and who were transported for detention in. Prisoners of war included German and troops allied to Germany and taken as prisoners of war on the Western Front and other battle sites and then transferred to the United Kingdom in increasing numbers especially after 1917.
115,950 prisoners to be housed in Britain, that constitutes a lot of people and the troops to manage them but more importantly, where to put them. Some were German civilians who lawfully lived here but could not be trusted and so were interned in camps. During WW1 the Isle of Man was used for this and also during WW2, Douglas promenade was fenced off and the holiday hotels used as camps for alien persons usually of German origin but to include other races. During the early stages of WW1 military and civilian prisoners in the UK were housed in the same camps, although usually separated from each other within them. As the conflict progressed, different camps evolved for the two groups. Like WW2, the civilian detainees from Germany became overwhelmingly concentrated on the Isle of Man. Other small numbers were held in other locations on the mainland, notably Alexandra Palace, Stratford and Lofthouse Park near Wakefield. Other places of incarceration where built or taken over by the government for the purpose. These included purpose built camps, large premises and ships on the South Coast. Germany did not escape this need, during the war the number of soldiers imprisoned reached a little over 7.000,000 for all the belligerents, of whom around 2,400,000 were held by Germany.
Not a lot has been written about Britain’s detention camps in WW1 but let’s see what we can deduce regarding those in Cheshire. First let’s look at one of the larger and more important camps, Handforth Internment camp near Wilmslow.
From The Advertiser of 9th of October 1914.
“The print works buildings at Handforth are being converted into a place of internment for Prisoners of War. Huge sheds a quarter of a mile in length, with a block of offices at one end and a large red brick chimney, erected four years previously by the Bradford Dyers Association, who for some reason abandoned the scheme to establish works at Handforth. The buildings are complete except for some internal details. It is situated in a hollow half a mile from Handforth Station, a road leading to it with only occasional traffic, and is visible from the Manchester to Crewe line. It will be spacious and healthy, if rather comfortless, with a clamour of rooks in the trees outside. A team of engineers arrived on Monday evening, and were later joined by fifty more men. The War Office overruled the scheme to house the 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Manchester Regiment there, and stepped in and took it over. It will house 2000 to 3000, possibly both military and civilian prisoners.”
Handforth was a major prison camp, the first 500 prisoners arrived in November 1964 with another 500 from East Africa. Birmingham sent its civilian Germans to Handforth in 1915 when 101 German civilians were sent there (In this year the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine with great loss of life and bad feeling towards all Germans was rife). By April 1915 there were nearly 2,000 people incarcerated there. Five smaller POW camps came under the control of Handforth amongst these were Cheshire camps in Appleton, Cuddington, Frodsham, Hatherton, Knutsford, Leasowe and Thornton-le-Moors.
An inspection was carried out at the Handforth Camp in 1916 which gives us a good insight into life there and this was the report.
American Embassy, London (German Division)
April 11th 1916
I have the pleasure to submit to you herewith a report covering a visit of inspection to the prisoner of war internment camp at Handforth, Cheshire, on the 1st April, 1916.
Direction :- The camp is under the general supervision of the Commander of the Western District, and the commandant is Lieutenant-Colonel A. Kenney Herbert.
Prisoners:- There were 2,713 prisoners at this camp, all of whom were Germans, comprising 2,399 military prisoners, 313 naval prisoners, and one civilian, who was allowed to be in this camp so that he could see his wife, who was seriously ill in Manchester, a few miles away.
Committees:- The management and control of this camp are practically in the hands of a German Feldwebel-Leutnant interned here, who is a member of all the committees. The committees are as follows: a “Lowry” committee, a relief committee, which works with Dr. Markel: a hand-work committee, which is principally interested in carving, for which it buys wood etc; a canteen fund committee, the profits of which go to the kitchen; an amusement committee, which each Sunday gives either a concert or a theatrical entertainment, and often during the week also; a gymnastic committee, and a teaching committee, which gives extraordinary opportunities for education. There were thirty teachers, who give instruction every day in languages etc, to between 400 and 500 men. The plan of studies is hereto annexed (sent to Berlin). There is also a library committee, which has in the library over 3,000 books. All those committees are entirely chosen and run by the prisoners themselves.
Sleeping Accommodations:- There has been no change in the sleeping accommodations since the last visit, except that the beds have been arranged across instead of along the rooms, and shelves have been erected between the rows of beds. One of the larger dormitories has also been turned into a dining room, and a special dining room is provided for the non-commissioned officers. The rooms were carefully examined and found very neat, clean, well-warmed, well-lighted, and well-ventilated.
Sanitary Arrangements:- A new sewage system has been adopted and is nearly complete. Water-flushing latrines are replacing the dry-earth system at the west end. The sanitary arrangements were inspected and found neat and clean and odourless. The commandant reports that the changes, now nearly completed, will be a great improvement, although he had received no complaints about the sewage arrangements in general.
Infirmary:- There were two doctors, assisted by nine British and four German attendants, two of whom were cooks and one an interpreter. On the day of my visit there were eighteen in-patients and thirty-five out-patients. There was only one serious, a case of dysentery. The other patients were suffering from influenza, colds, rheumatism, and some were recovering from wounds. There is an isolation ward, where contagious cases, such as scabies, are treated.
The infirmary has its own sanitary arrangements and kitchen. Everything was found in good condition, and there was no criticism to be made.
Kitchens:- There was one kitchen in charge of a Feldwebel, two under-officers, and twenty-two men. The daily ration may be, and is, increased by the purchases made by the kitchen committee from the profits of the canteen fund. There was nothing found to criticise in the kitchen arrangements.
Work:- The prisoners were engaged in shoemaking, tailoring, carpentering, and gardening; also in working on the paths and grounds of the camp, when this work is necessary and approved by the engineers, and for this they receive pay.
Exercise:- On every fine day a party, not exceeding 300, march for an hour in the adjacent country roads. Two field are available for exercise, but only one, of about 3 to 4 acres, is being used at the present time, so as to give the grass on the other field a chance to grow.
A few prisoners have volunteered for garden work in an adjacent field, and more can be given this work if they desire.
There is also a cinder ground, nearer to the camp, which can be used as an exercise ground in wet weather, and there is a gymnasium fitted with the usual gymnastic appliances.
Wants by Camp:- There were no complaints of a serious nature at this camp. Several of the interned prisoners requested their exchange or repatriation. These matters were all taken up either with the War Office or with the commandant of the camp, and I was assured that each case should have proper attention.
There were also two complaints made about the sanitary arrangements. This matter was taken personally, and I was informed that the improvements now being made in these arrangements would obviate the difficulties complained of.
Observations:- There was no criticism of any kind to be made of this camp, and everything was found in excellent condition. The German Feldwebel-Leutnant, who has charge of the running and care of the camp seems to have the confidence of the men, who all appeared to be in excellent physical, mental, and moral condition.
There was one man in the cells awaiting trial for aggravated assault with a sharp instrument. The cells were clean, dry and airy.
I have etc
Boyston A. Beal, special Attaché.
This would indicate that the prisoners of war led rather comfortable lives in this country albeit they were prisoners. They certainly did not suffer too much from their time in sunny Cheshire. That was the large and important Handforth Detention Centre.