Bristol Area First World War Prisoner of War Camps
Upon the declaration of war in August 1914, most male civilians of military age with Germanic-sounding names living in Britain and its overseas territories were arrested and questioned to discover if they were 'friendly aliens' or 'enemy aliens'.
Suspicions of potential ‘enemies in our midst’ had been aroused by some novels, published a few years earlier, featuring foreign spies. Any aliens, after questioning, considered a threat to British security, even if they had lived in Britain for years, or had a British-born wife or a son in the British army, were interned – many of them for the remainder of the war. The majority of these civilian internees (around 23,000) in Britain were eventually held on the Isle of Man.
As the war proceeded, combatant soldiers, sailors, U-boat and zeppelin crews and airmen fighting for Germany and its allies were captured. Large numbers were brought to Britain to thwart attempts to escape and re-join their units. Civilians and combatants alike, because imprisoned as a consequence of the war, were termed Prisoners of War. The places where many prisoners were concentrated together were termed concentration camps. This description used during the First World War had none of the sinister meanings attributed later to Second World War concentration camps.
To manage increasing numbers of combatant POWs brought across the English Channel, the War Office utilised the British Army Command structure, establishing a major camp in each Command area. The old counties of Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset fell within Southern Command, for which Dorchester was designated as the parent camp. Southern Command also embraced Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. Gradually, parent camps became crowded as further combatants were captured.
A major problem for all POWs was boredom: being confined in a limited space with little to do or think about caused mental disorientation, leading typically to neurasthenia (known as ‘barbed wire disease’). Accordingly, POWs were encouraged to participate in sports, theatricals, model making and gardening. Photographs taken at this time, some produced as official postcards, show POWs engaged in these pursuits. The prisoners formed committees to organise their various activities and usually nominated an NCO to act as their camp leader.
As the war continued, less labour was available throughout Britain to maintain the infrastructure on the Home Front: e.g., to plough and sow fields, fell much-needed timber, dredge rivers, build roads and help with construction. After overcoming resistance from trades unions, a solution to the national demand for labour was to employ POWs. Satellite Working Camps were, therefore, opened in all Command areas from which small teams under armed escort could meet daily local needs. This notion simultaneously solved the other pressing problems: boredom and increasing parent camp populations.
The British and German authorities agreed in 1915 that all POW camps could be inspected by a ‘neutral’ power (America until 1917 and Switzerland thereafter) to ensure that international conventions for POWs were being followed. Inspection reports were sent to both governments. Some details on parent and working camps, noted in surviving reports, are given below.
Around Bristol, working camps were opened in 1917 to accommodate POWs at Yate, Henbury and Shirehampton, and in 1918 at Thornbury and Flax Bourton. Altogether around 700 Germans and Austrians, with a few Bulgarians and Turks, were allocated locally. From the 1917 camps the POWs undertook building and road construction, whereas from Thornbury and Flax Bourton they worked on local farms. Essential supplies to these satellite camps came through the parent camp at Dorchester, as did unlimited amounts of incoming mail from home, and all outgoing mail; POWs were permitted to write two letters a week on semi-glossy paper having 23 ruled lines – although most mail was censored in Dorchester or London until mid-1919.
Yate was the first local camp to be established (February 1917) at the corner of what is now Stanshawes Drive and Westerleigh Road; initially it held only civilian internees but these were soon moved to the Isle of Man, and Yate camp was reopened on 23 March 1917 for combatants. By May 497 soldiers and two sailors were living in 20 wooden huts. The Commandant was Capt M C Macfarlane and the camp leader Xaver Volsmeier. Two civilians (Austrians) escaped in March 1917 but were recaptured three days later at Twyford. Two sick combatants were transferred in 1917 and 1918 to Beaufort Hospital where they died; they were buried in Bristol cemeteries.
Henbury Camp, a mile from Henbury itself, was opened for 399 soldiers and one sailor in April 1917. The POWs were housed in four large huts, each holding 60 men and six smaller huts with 30 men in each; but within two months the camp was closed and the POWs moved to Pattishall in Northamptonshire, the parent camp for Eastern Command. Maj G A Soltau-Symons was the Commandant and Schindling the camp leader.
Shirehampton Camp, overlooking the River Avon, was opened in June 1917 and held 100 POWs in twelve 9-man tents with Lt Griffith as the Commandant. Bernhard Schmidt was the camp leader. This was the only local camp under canvas but was, like Henbury, short lived; it was closed in September 1917. Even so, it had mains water and, unusually, the latrines were connected to the Bristol sewers.
42 POWs at Thornbury Camp were housed in Marlwood Grange under 2nd Lt J A Worswick with Hermann Grob as the camp leader. The Grange was requisitioned as a camp, opened in February 1918 and closed in May 1919. In a letter to the military authorities the owners wrote they were, ‘glad the Germans are going’ on learning they could retrieve their property. One POW escaped from Thornbury in July 1918 but was recaptured within 12 hours.
At Flax Bourton the school house of Bedminster Workhouse was made available in March 1918 to house 50 POWs under 2nd Lt Forbes Glennie. The camp leader’s name is not recorded.
In February 1963 the only two POWs who died while in Bristol camps were exhumed, together with over 2,000 other civilian and combatant POWs from around Britain, and reburied at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.