Introduction Military administration Civil administration Police Camp services Relief

Camp Administration: Introduction

Barrack Captains.

Unlike other military and civilian prisoner of war camps, the camp at Ruhleben was not a labor camp. Nothing was expected of—nor granted to—the prisoners but that they should maintain order and not cause trouble for the German military establishment. This military administrative team consisted of an elderly commandant, Count Schwerin (who was succeed by Lieutenant-Colonel von Reichenbach in 1916), and his deputy Baron Von Taube who, along with a staff of officers and a company of soldiers ran the day-to-day operations of the camp. The primary objective of the military administration was to keep the prisoners from escaping, which they did by patrolling the camp with a force of nearly 200 soldiers. Additional soldiers were assigned to keep order in each barrack. This arrangement only lasted for a limited time, however, and on September 16, 1915, the soldiers were withdrawn to the outside of the camp and rarely entered the grounds thereafter. This measure amounted to “home rule” for the internees, and as such “thenceforward Ruhleben was really a bit of England – a small British colony as it were, planted in the heart of the enemy’s country.”

A strong civil administration led by a Captains’ Committee comprised of Ruhleben internees took over running the camp with the German military’s withdrawl. One of Baron Von Taube’s first actions upon the arrival of the Ruhleben prisoners was to nominate a captain to represent each barrack. The only nomination requirements were that the prisoner speak both German and English fluently and appear to have the support of their fellow barrack-members. The barrack captains formed a captains’ committee charged with communicating military orders, maintaining discipline, and overseeing all the internal affairs of the Camp. And quickly, there were a lot of internal affairs to watch over.

The Captains’ Committee maintained the books and finances of a large range of internee-run endeavors at the camp, which included a variety of shops and businesses such as a dry goods store, refreshment counter, laundry, boiler house, cookhouse, private latrines, exchange and mart service, an internal mail service, and specialty shops such as a tailor, a boot repair shop, a watchmaker, and a printer. In place by the end of May 1915, eight committees whose membership was set by the Captains’ Committee oversaw these enterprises: finance, kitchens, canteens, watch and works (police), sanitation, sports, education, and entertainment. A critical piece of work managed by the finance committee was the distribution of relief payments, which over half the camp claimed in 1915.

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