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Ruhleben P.O.W. Camp

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Camp life

Ruhleben P.O.W. Camp was a camp near Berlin, Germany, where British prisoners of war were detained (kept) during World War I. Ruhleben itself was then a village 10 kilometres to the west of Berlin, but now it is part of the city of Berlin, in a district called Ruhleben in the borough of Spandau. The camp was originally a horse racecourse.


The detainees (people who were kept there) came from countries that were fighting against Germany in the war. Most of them were British. They were in Germany when the war broke out, which is why they were taken prisoner (detained). Some of them were in Germany because they lived there, others were on holiday at the time. Some of them were crew members of civilian ships that happened to be in German harbours at the time or who were captured at sea.

There were about 5,500 prisoners in the camp. Most of them spent all four years of World War I there. Books have been written about what it was like living in the camp. These include To Ruhleben - And Back by Geoffrey Pyke, who successfully escaped from the camp in 1915.

The detainees were mostly treated quite well. The guards had to obey the Geneva Conventions. Although there were some people who found it very difficult being kept there, many others found lots of things to do to keep themselves occupied. Letters, books, sports equipment and a printing press were all allowed into the camp and the detainees organised their own police force, magazine, library and postal service. Some of the detainees were young people who later became famous. They included the Canadian musician Ernest MacMillan who later became the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. MacMillan had been on holiday in Germany to visit the Bayreuth Festival when war broke out. Charles Ellis and James Chadwick later became famous scientists. They used their time in Ruhleben to study. They were able to build a laboratory and do some experiments. There were famous footballers and athletes as well.

The Arts in Ruhleben

A lot of musical activities were organized in the camp. There was a Ruhleben Musical Society. Ernest MacMillan was a member and he gave concerts and lectures. Together with the composer and pianist Benjamin Dale, he played piano duet versions of all Beethoven’s symphonies. The society put on a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Mikado and a pantomime version of Cinderella. They did not have the music for the Mikado, but someone had the libretto (the words), and four of the musicians wrote the music from what they could remember. They wrote it out for whatever instruments they had in the camp. There was also a Ruhleben Drama Society which put on productions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Sports at Ruhleben

As well as music and drama, sports also played a big part in the life of the camp detainees. Among the detainees were four people who had been England internationals: Fred Spiksley, Fred Pentland, Samuel Wolstenholme and Steve Bloomer, a Scotland international, John Cameron, a German international Edwin Dutton, and John Brearley, once of Everton and Tottenham Hotspur. There was a Ruhleben Football Association. Sometimes 1,000 detainees watched a game. Cricket, rugby, tennis, golf and boxing were also popular.

End of the war

The detainees were free when the war ended and many of them were taken by ship back to Britain.

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