Life at Ruhleben

Revolting story of cruelty

Would have starved but for food sent from home

Details of the shocking treatment of British prisoners of war in Germany were told to a representative of the Shields Daily Gazette by Mr Michael Gill, of 67, Bowman Street, South Shields, who has been interned at Ruhleben for nearly two years, and had just been released.

He was a member of the crew from Glasgow Bellalsa, and was in Hamburg at the outbreak of the war.

When Great Britain declared war on Germany, he said, the Germans were very embittered against the English.

The crew of the Bellalsa were removed from their vessel and put on hulks.

Here they remained for about three weeks, after which they were transferred to Ruhleben, where a large number of Shieldsmen are interned.

The food, he said, was pretty fair at the beginning, but it gradually got worse and during the last three months of his incarceration Mr Gill said it was absolutely rotten.

There was a great scarcity, and even what they did get was not fit to eat.

“Agonising Cruelty”

“If it hadn’t been for the food from home many of us would have died of hunger,” he added.

“I never saw meat for months, and even the bread was terrible.

“It was just like sawdust, and it took us all our time to get it down. I hadn’t a really substantial meal for months.”

The general treatment of the prisoners was shocking beyond words.

On more than one occasion they went to bed at the point of the revolver.

They were “knocked about” by the guards without the slightest provocation and if they opened their mouths to complain they got 72 hours confinement on bread and water.

On the slightest pretext a man was sent to a military camp, where the treatment is even more severe, British soldiers receiving disgusting and revolting treatments.

They are spat at and bullied for no reason whatever, and the Germans never seem to get tired of calling them English swine.

One of the German officers, a baron, was heard to say: “We are the conquerors of the world, and we will remain the conquerors!”

The cases were numerous in which military prisoners had been tied to trees and ill-treated in outrageous fashion.

One night at Ruhleben there was almost very serious trouble.

Some of the men refused to accept the so called rice as their food.

The Germans were wild and, fearing a riot in the camp, machine guns were brought the gates in readiness.

Fortunately, however, they were not needed, for the trouble did not come to a head.

On another occasion a German deliberately struck a Britishman across the face for no reason whatever, and the Englishman was powerless to defend himself.

The prisoners had to sleep on shavings that were in a disgusting state.

The men were frequently formed up, scantily attired and kept standing in the cold for hours on end. There was absolutely no medical attendance, and if a man were taken ill he had just to cure himself as best he could. Prior to the Englishmen being sent to Ruhleben the camp was in the occupation of Russians. The treatment they were subjected to was even worse than the Englishmen had to put up with. On one occasion he saw a poor helpless Russian being struck with “packing.”