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Prisoners of Britain

Fiona Reid commends a compelling social history of the German people held as prisoners on British soil during the First World War

Published: June 25, 2013 at 4:19 pm
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Reviewed by: Fiona Reid
Author: Panikos Panayi
Publisher: Manchester University Press
Price (RRP): £65


More than 115,000 Germans were interned as prisoners of war in Britain during the First World War. They included soldiers captured during the fighting; civilians, some of whom had lived in Britain for decades, some of whom were unlucky enough to be holidaying during the late summer of 1914; sailors and fishermen found in British territorial waters; and German men in British colonies around the globe.

Men were interned in holiday camps, stately homes, hospitals, hotels, factories and old mills. Camps were spread across England, Scotland and Wales, and the last remained until 1920. The treatment of prisoners was an essential feature of propaganda in both Britain and Germany during the war, and charities publicised the fates of incarcerated men throughout the conflict. Yet Panayi is the first to investigate the history of German PoWs on British soil during the First World War. It is always hard to establish why any history becomes ‘forgotten’, but Panayi argues that First World War internment was “drowned out” by postwar Germanophobia and then rendered apparently insignificant by the greater brutalities of the Second World War. Quite frankly, nobody believed that this story deserved to be told.

What is most striking about this work is the way that Panayi has created an insightful social history of the camps by focusing on the details of everyday life: letters, concert programmes, educational materials, camp newspapers and books published by PoWs. These fragments give us a complex and nuanced picture. ‘Barbed wire disease’ was more prevalent in men condemned to idleness, and so internees strove to create vigorous camp societies. Life could seem surprisingly rich, as descriptions of well-stocked libraries, musical entertainments and religious celebrations attest, yet despite their obvious benefits, these attempts to replicate prewar cultural patterns were ultimately superficial and unsatisfying.

Relationships between internees and ordinary Britons were similarly complex. A violent Germanophobia – expressed in physical attacks on Germans and their property – existed alongside many acts of humanity despite the stiff penalties that fraternisation incurred. In 1918 William Barratt was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for giving a box of food to German PoWs; in 1919, Dr Frederick Horseman was fined £25 for giving PoWs fruit. Cases involving women obviously raised fears about inappropriate sexual relations, but not all such encounters were the result of sexual attraction. Often they were simply acts of kindness.

Panayi’s work is more than a long- overdue study of a neglected topic. As an imperial power Britain was at the centre of “a global system of incarceration” and the war was a crucial turning point in the persecution of minorities within the British state. By linking wartime internment with the wider history of the persecution and incarceration of minorities, Panayi restates the importance of the war. More significantly, as we move towards the commemorations of 2014, he is urging us to look again at the war, and to look at it differently.


Dr Fiona Reid, University of South Wales


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