Life in the Camp

Life in the camp was organised by the inmates, who were obviously given a fair degree of freedom in their actions. The Camp was divided into four compounds, denoted A, B, C and D. Each hut was led by a hut captain, and the hut captains reported to the leader of the appropriate compound. These, in turn, reported to the overall camp captain. This role was fulfilled by senior Engineer W. Schulz until January 1918, when he became a member of a prisoner exchange. It would appear that the British commander from 1914 to November 1917, Lt. Col. H. J. Bowman helped to establish an environment in which the prisoners’ background was respected 1. They named their streets after German military leaders 2, and celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday 3. While no politics was to appear in the Stobsiade, the prisoners obviously took a great deal of interest in English language newspapers which were made available to them. It is understandable that the inhabitants of the camp retained their loyalty to their country throughout the war, and that they were reading the British newspapers “against the grain”. Although many military prisoners had probably experienced some form of trauma in the course of fighting there is practically no mention of it in the Stobsiade, apart from one poem 4 about nightmares and one 5 about being taken captive. On the other hand, there are a number of poems about civilians being apprehended or suffering a change of status as a result of the war 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. As is to be expected, some of the civilians had lived for a long time in England, some had British wives, and some understandably found it difficult to identify with Germany in the present conflict. This led to some occasions in which the latter were attacked by the military personnel. This is alluded to in a poem dealing with a decision to separate the military and civilian prisoners 11.

. One article 12 discusses some of the differences between being in a civilian prison and being a prisoner of war. The prisoners in Stobs had indeterminate sentences, but they did have the opportunity to collectively run their own environment, and to find some means of occupying themselves. They were not criminals, indeed many of the soldiers were conscripts. In the case of the civilians they often had families who had lost their breadwinner, which caused these prisoners significant anguish. It is understandable that some people succumbed to indolence and depression, but significant efforts were made by others to provide their comrades with meaningful work and to engender a sense of common purpose. This consisted either of teaching or learning 13, of working creatively, possibly for commercial purposes 14 , of providing some form of musical 15 or theatrical entertainment 16 or of encouraging and participating in sporting activity 17. It is interesting that in 1915 sledging became popular 18. Given that the camp was built on a hillside, it was quite suitable for this sort of activity.

Sometimes the physical environment got people down. Simply being constrained by barbed wire was a significant problem, and any temporary relief was welcomed 19. The weather was often quite challenging, albeit people tried to cope with it using humour 20, 21. Similarly the clay soil came in for a lot of criticism right from the start 22 , and continued to be mentioned fairly frequently 23, 24 . Living in close proximity with other people brought other difficulties. Occasionally problems would flare up and then die down almost as quickly 25. The huts were heated by coal-fired ovens, on which people could cook, but the resultant smells sometimes upset others 26. From time to time the camp authorities found it necessary for mass migrations within the camp. These removals caused significant uncertainty among many inmates, but there were also people who refused to be flustered 27. Within the huts, people naturally gathered round the ovens and inevitably they discussed the events they were living through. The people who pontificated in these discussions became collectively known as the “Oven Commission” 28, 29 It would be a mistake to consider that life in the huts was entirely negative 30 and even at the end of the process, the newspaper reported that people felt positive about the solidarity which had been enjoyed through all the difficult times 31.

It is clear that the prisoners’ diet, while apparently adequate, left them longing for the food they used to enjoy at home 32 33. Alcohol was clearly not permitted, but greatly missed 34 35. In the early days, there was a bakery and herring business, but it went bankrupt three times 36. Given their circumstances, it is natural that the prisoners in Stobs longed to return home. This found frequent expression in the column of the Stobsiade. An article in which a prisoner describes the region from which he came from is one of the best 37. There is also an interesting, humorous article in which a prisoner dreams of returning home and has difficulty in adjusting to his changed circumstances 38.

Sundays could be problematic because of the absence of newspapers, and the lack of activity 39, 40, 41, but they also provided opportunities for entertainment 42. In the summer, Sundays provided opportunities for sporting activities and competitions 43 44. Sometimes the events on Sundays found spectators from outside the wire – typically Scottish soldiers, their girl-friends and families. This led to an interesting misunderstanding in which a Scottish soldier doffed his cap because he thought that the Germans were singing the British national anthem since "Heil dir im Siegerkranz" used the same tune. The German who saw this obviously felt indignant because the text was “fundamentally different” 45. Sundays naturally also provided an occasion for religious services 46. A very unusual event occurred on one particular Sunday in mid-December: the prisoners were able to observe the Northern Lights 47. In the second last edition, there is an article about just how oppressive Sundays in Stobs could be 48.

Very little mention is made in the Stobsiade of the various people in charge of the camp. A notable exception is a report of the departure of the censor Lt. Conway-Poole who “always fulfilled his office in a consistently humane way” 49. It was also reported that one of the prisoners made a painting of the Camp Commander, Major Bowman 50. There was extensive reporting of meetings with representatives of the Society of Friends – Mr Richardson, Mr Baily and in particular Mr R W Clark 51. A great deal of financial support was organised by Dr R W Markel, a retired chemist and industrialist of German origin 52, but he does not appear to have had the same contact with the prisoners as Mr Clark did. Although other sources indicate that prisoners in Stobs did find work outside the camp, there is little mention of it in the newspaper – unlike the extensive descriptions from the work camps. On one occasion the prisoners were allowed to leave the Stobs camp for a short time. It was described as a stroll 53 but it seemed to have some of the characteristics of a route march – at least for prisoners who had been cooped up for so long.

Footnotes