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Camp Layout: Introduction

Where the Boche Interns British Civilians

During World War I, internment camps for both civilian and military prisoners were set up in all manor of available spaces such as abandoned castles, old fortresses, military barracks, schools, and even racetracks. The Ruhleben racetrack was leased from its owners by the Prussian Ministry of War beginning in September 1914 and housed Russian, Russian-Polish, and Japanese prisoners before the large influx of British prisoners arrived in November. On a footprint of about ten acres, arrivals at Ruhleben found eleven horse stables, an administration building, the ‘Casino’ or staff restaurant, a ‘Tea-House’, and three grandstands. The racetrack itself and its interior space were off-limits to the internees until March 1915.

The stables or housing barracks were less than welcoming homes. Each barrack contained an average of twenty-seven horseboxes and an overhead loft for the storage of hay. Ten feet square, each stall was expected to house six men. The horseboxes were luxurious, however, compared to the loft spaces overhead, which housed up to 200 men. Barrack overcrowding was a problem immediately and privacy and personal space were nonexistent luxuries.

The public spaces did not offer much in way of relief from the barracks. With the coming of spring rains came a giant pool of water in the middle of the camp measuring 130 feet long by 25 feet wide. The washing facilities were inadequate with a warm shower being available only once every two weeks at the emigrants’ railway station. The latrines were a horror. In inclement weather, there was almost nowhere for the men to go except their cramped and dark barracks.

Through the good efforts of the internees and demands from outside forces, the housing situation improved drastically and the public spaces of Ruhleben took on the appearance of a healthy town. The military authorities, under pressure from the American embassy, built four new barracks in June 1915. These new barracks took about 150 residents each from the overcrowded lofts. The internees improved their horsebox homes by buying wood to build tables, chairs, and other furniture. In April 1915 interned engineers put in drainage and elevated pathways between the public buildings, latrines, and washing facilities. New latrines were constructed in June 1915, and warm showers became available once a week with cold showers available at all times. The American YMCA donated and built the YMCA “hut” in December 1915 providing the men with a well-lit and comfortable place to go complete with a large hall for gathering, classrooms, and a reference library.

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