When you think about the First World War, you might picture poppy fields, muddy trenches and shell-shocked soldiers. These have become a central part of mainstream history, but what if there was an alternative story to tell?
Imagine becoming an ‘enemy’ to your neighbours overnight. This was the experience of many German nationals living in Britain and the British empire, and British nationals living in Germany, when war was declared in 1914.
Over the next four to five years, hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides were imprisoned in internment camps — set up to hold ‘enemy aliens’ seen as hostile or a potential threat.
I’ve been studying civilian internment — and what it can tell us about family, community and identity — for over a decade. I’ve visited over 30 archives in eight countries, and examined the experiences of more than 800,000 non-combatants who spent all or part of the years 1914-20 in captivity.
This research, along with my work with schools and community groups, has helped unlock this forgotten chapter of our history — and its relevance to life today.
Ruhleben prison camp
At the end of a quiet underground station on the western outskirts of Berlin, there’s a space between the railway and river where a racecourse once stood. It’s hard to believe this is the site of the Ruhleben prison camp, where 4-5000 British citizens from across the empire were held during the war.
The men imprisoned here came from all walks of life. They formed a unique, international community of academics, musicians, businessmen, seamen, and even tourists who had only been in Germany for a few days when war broke out.
Drawing on diaries, photos, camp magazines, poems and memoirs, I undertook the first in depth historical study of Ruhleben. I started to uncover the internees’ cultural life, experiences and memories — as well as the impact on their families.