Friday, July 12, 2013

How the United States Takes Care of German Prisoners (World War One era concentration camps)

How the United States Takes Care of German Prisoners (June, 1918)


By Reuben A. Lewis

WHAT sort of treatment will American soldiers receive when the fortunes of war leave them prisoners in German hands? The question is one that may come to have a very poignant interest as the great struggle goes on; and we shall have the right to ask it in a most emphatic manner. For, in championing the cause of humanity, we are fighting with clean hands. We already have several hundred German prisoners in the United States, and this article was written to tell how they are faring.

"Prisoners of war shall be treated as our own enlisted men," is the rule that prevails in the three prison camps that the government has established at Fort McPherson, Georgia, at Fort Oglethorpe, in the same State, and at Fort Douglas, Arizona.

I recently visited the camp at Fort McPherson, which is the largest of the three, containing eight hundred and sixty-five officers and men from the crews of the German cruisers Kronprinz Wilhelm and Eitel Friedrich. As I surveyed the prison barracks from the outside, I thought that life in limbo must be doleful and monotonous. My impression was heightened by the somber hue of the plain, buff-colored quarters with a background of bare trees. The compound, high upon an eminence, seemed lonely, especially with the surrounding strands of barbed wire and pacing sentinels here and there. Within I expected to find a lot of heavily bearded Germans, crestfallen and pitiable, with nothing to do.

(See the picture at the bottom of page 137)


The first shock came when the sentinel stationed at the inner strand of the barbed-wire barrier swung open the inside gate and admitted me, together with the officers who had promised me a view of the camp. Instead of war-weary, thin, morose men, I saw rotund figures, well and even nattily dressed in naval blue unforms. Their faces were round and wore no evidence of inward misery. Most of them smiled readily, and looked at me with friendly curiosity, for civilian visitors were rare.

"That fellow is a pretty good advertisement for our carte du jour," the mess officer chuckled, as he indicated a three-mundredpounder named Schultz. "Come into the kitchen, and I'll give you a gentle hint why."

It was an impromptu call. As the officers stepped inside the room, where savory odors made an attack in force upon my nostrils, the prisoners scrambled to their feet, clicked their heels together at attention, and saluted. The stove, a big modern range, shone. The pots and pans glistened. The floor was spotless.

"Let's see your karte," the commander suggested.

And here was the day's menu:

Breakfast—oatmeal, rye bread, butter, coffee.

Dinner—tomato soup, Vienna steak with sauce, potatoes, bread, butter.

Afternoon—tea and cakes. Supper—cheese, bread, butter, tea.

"No war rations here," the captain commented. "Their food is prepared by chefs who formerly served on transatlantic liners. The German taste is catered to, even to the extent of serving sauerkraut, sausage, rye bread, and Limburger cheese. In fact, they can have anything, provided it can be bought with the food ration allowance of forty-four cents—the same as is given to the American enlisted man. There is virtually no waste. The last estimate was one fiftieth of one per cent. Quite a contrast with the half-pound loss per man per day in our own army!"

The serving of tea or coffee in the afternoon impressed me as being rather a luxury for prisoners of war, but the officers explained that it would be a real hardship to the sailors to forego this customary little repast.

There was nothing else about the compound that seemed luxurious. The arrangement of the buildings is as simple as their architecture. All are constructed of undressed lumber, painted a dull buff, and lacking in frills. They are grouped in threes, so that each barrack has a mess-hall in front and a bath-house in the rear. The prisoners can keep clean, for there is plenty of hot and cold water, with shower-baths and modern plumbing.

(See the picture at the bottom of page 138)


The living-quarters are of the same design as those in which the candidates for commissions in the first officers' training-camps stayed—long, one-story affairs, with three intercommunicating units. In front there is an office partitioned off from the barracks. There, a rather important personage, the warrant officer, holds forth.

(See the picture on page 139)


Beneath the barracks I noticed freshly disturbed earth, with here and there a yawning excavation. This recalled the one startling event in the history of the camp— an escape.

When the prisoners were moved into their permanent barracks, after a brief stay in the quarters of the regulars at Fort McPherson, they were at loss for elbowroom. They desired to write letters and play games, to study, to get a little privacy. The mess-halls were available for reading, but they were not private.

Some keen-eyed fellow observed that, owing to the slope of the ground on which the living-quarters were built, there was an intervening space between the earth and the floor, ranging from two to five feet. With a spade he dug and cleared out the earth, gaining a greater leeway. Soon he had made a little cubby-hole, floored and enclosed, between two of the posts supporting the barracks. Because it involved digging, and because the term was timely, the subterranean retreat was called a " trench."

The idea met with instant approval, and soon the space beneath the barracks was honeycombed with trenches. More than a hundred were excavated to serve as carpenter-shops, furniture-factories, study-rooms, and even tea-houses. They had a great vogue until one wily crew of ten restless Germans tunneled more than thirty feet and dug their way out to temporary freedom under the surrounding barbed-wire fence.

EDITOR'S NOTE—Shortly before this magazine went to press it was announced that five hundred and seven additional German prisoners of war had arrived at Fort McPherson, having been transferred from Fort Douglas, Arizona.

(See the picture at the top of page 140)


The fugitives were caught by the Secret Service, and the Germans felt a first touch of the iron fist. Thenceforth trenches were verboten.

President Wilson's phrase, " We have no quarrel with the German people," may be hard to understand on the outside of the compound, but not within it. Uncle Sam is merciful to those who cannot fight. The government has placed few restrictions on the prisoners, and they live nearly as they please. They can gaze upon the gruff-looking countenance of Hindenburg. If they wish, they may salute the Kaiser's flag and mediate reverently upon the symbolism of its black, red, and white—" from night to light through blood."

I saw a life-size portrait of the most-hated man in the world adorning, in honor, the most prominent wall in the Y. M. C. A. building. Undisturbed, the German flag was draped above its champion. There was no ban upon the patriotism of the prisoners.

There is only a slight suggestion of the military in the prison camp. For the purposes of administration, the captives are organized into eight companies. A German warrant officer, corresponding to a sergeant, is in charge of each company. He sees that the quarters are kept in order, that the men are supplied with proper clothing, and that they rigidly observe the only two orders of the commandant, Colonel John T. Van Orsdale. The two things that the colonel requires of the Germans are presence at roll-call twice daily, and one hour of exercise.

A glimpse within the neat and orderly barracks indicates that the occupants are sailors, for one sees nondescript kits and chests and many nautical knickknacks. Otherwise the prisoners' quarters are much like the buildings in our own army or navy camps, with their olive-drab blankets and regulation cots and mattresses.

Naturally, it can scarcely be said that the inmates lead a gay life, and yet they have many occupations and amusements. I was momentarily astonished when a lieutenant whispered to me that they were raising an army, and that not a day passed without the creation of a company, a troop, or a battery. In due time, he said, there would be at least a division of warriors; but then he explained that fortunately the fighters were only toy figures.

The toy-shop, where horsemen and foot-soldiers are made with soft metal and paint, is one of the most interesting spots in the compound. In this tiny nook three artizans work from morning to night, and each day they produce about sixty brilliantly uniformed soldiers — French, German, American. English, or Turkish. It is pleasant to add that they work partly for the benefit of the Red Cross. The toys are shipped to various cities by the wives of the officers, and sold. One-third of the profits have been given to the Red Cross—an amount of more than three hundred dollars.

There is a small colony of wood-carvers, fifteen or more devoting hours daily to this laborious art; but the most painstaking craftsmen that I saw were three sailors from the Eitel Friedrich, who had made a six-foot replica of the liner, complete in every point, with life-boats, decks, guns, and even wireless. The proud builders told me that it took three months' time to lay the keel, supply the superstructure, and make the cruiser generally shipshape.

While the prisoners are, to all appearances, satisfied and orderly, a close vigil is kept over them. Two guard companies, each of one hundred and fifty men, keep watch throughout the day and night. Sentinels patrol the grounds. In case of a rush for liberty, a withering voltage may be shot into the barbed-wire fence by merely pressing a switch. Three towers, forty feet high, have been erected at the corners of the enclosure, and powerful search-lights, capable of Hooding the camp with blinding rays at night, are mounted upon the summits. Incandescent lights are set at forty-foot intervals along the fence.

(See the picture at the bottom of page 141)


Among the baggage that the prisoners brought to Fort McPherson was an extraordinary piece of crazy-looking mechanism, which seemed to embody parts of a bicycle, a clock, and a camera. A warrant officer was summoned to explain just what the machine was.

"When the Kronprinz Wilhelm was raiding shipping on the Atlantic," he volunteered, "we captured an English liner. On it we found several reels of English war films. Curious to know what the enemy was doing, the crew wanted to make the movies move. It seemed absurd, for there was no projecting-machine aboard. However, we also found clocks, cameras, and a bicycle, and one of our mechanics announced that there would be a showing. He dissected the bicycle, took some wheels from a clock, and combined what he needed with the lens and shutter of a camera. Sure enough, there was an exhibition, and only one criticism was heard. The bicycle sprocket and chain, used in turning the shutter of the machine, made a terrible noise by banging against the biscuit-tin that contained the film. It sounded more like a boiler-factory than a motion-picture show."

This primitive projector was discarded shortly after the prisoners reached Fort McPherson, for here they are treated to the movies twice a week. Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Roscoe Arbuckle are the star attractions, and the most corpulent one is the favorite.

I saw one group of men who were enjoying a little performance of their own. They were gathered about their "wireless station," and had just "raised" Berlin. From a small wooden box, two knobs, a scrap or so of tin, and a few bits of string, humorists had constructed a fake radio outfit. All doubts as to its power and range were removed, for upon the side of the coilbox was marked in bold letters " five thousand volts."

The operator was busied in receiving war news, which purported to come direct from the Kaiser and General von Ludendorff. Some of the messages were personal, for a brother-in-law of the general was for a time interned here as an enemy alien. The harmless little box sank battle-ships, killed thousands of troops, and even heralded the coming of peace. But rumors fly in all military circles, and this " intelligence bureau" has never been banned.

(The picture on page 143 takes up the entire page)

Some of the prisoners are content to while away the hours tinkering with toys and baubles, but the greater number follow trades, play in one of the musical organizations, attend classes, and write letters or diaries. I saw one fellow teaching a pet lizard. Another, with his head cupped in his hands, was studying Sanskrit. There is a colony of pets, which includes dogs, rabbits, cats, and a parrot.

There is more reading than writing, for the government restricts the correspondence of the prisoners. Each inmate may send out two letters and four postal cards each month to friends in Germany or America. Although incoming and outgoing .mails are carefully censored, there is no limit to the volume of letters and newspapers that a prisoner may receive.

The officers do not mingle with the men. Off from the larger group of barracks is a spacious bungalow, surrounded by a rustic fence and some patches of flowers. Here the commissioned officers are quartered. Though originally a bare, unadorned structure, it has been converted into an attractive abode. Under the direction of the residents, porches, fashioned from limbs of trees, were added on the front and side. There is an air of coziness within the quarters, and they are sufficiently large to permit a study-room and bunk for each inmate.

Several means of earning money are open to the men. They operate a laundry, a tailor-shop, a barber-shop, and other little enterprises. Five clerks are employed in the office of the camp executive. No one, however, is compelled or urged to do any labor except about the men's own quarters and in the kitchen.

The camp theater is the amusement center. It has a twenty-foot stage, with two sets of scenery and many properties. There are several companies of players, who offer light skits of their own composition. Vaudeville artists give variety to the shows. Patriotic plays have been presented, and in one a submarine was prominent. A grand piano from the Kronprinz Wilhelm occupies a prominent place near the stage.

Athletics are stimulated in every possible manner. The government, as has already been stated, insists that each prisoner shall have one hour of exercise daily, but he has the option of participating in the setting-up drills or playing games. The Germans have taken a fling at baseball and football, but neither of these has gained the vogue of fist-ball, in which a ball is batted to and fro over a net with the closed fist.

(See the picture at the bottom of page 144)


(See the picture at the top of page 145)


The captives are not without benefit of clergy or lacking in the matter of friends. The Y. M. C. A. director and a German Lutheran pastor provide athletic supplies and materials for work, after the order has been indorsed by the camp officials. A number of German-American institutions have seen that the prisoners should want for nothing. Last Christmas the receiving officers were swamped with such quantities of canned goods that there was no place to store some of them. Colonel Van Orsdale was obliged to send out to the prisoners' friends the rather curious message that only delicacies were acceptable.

Play does not consume all the time of the prisoners, for they must clean up their quarters, serve in the kitchen at certain times, and do what their warrant officers order. As in all places, there are some "conscientious objectors " to work. When a prisoner rebels against the orders of his officer, he must face the camp executive, who boasts that he can accomplish the change—bad German, good German—by a simple little formula. Strong-arm methods are barred, but a vulnerable spot has been found—the stomach.

The experimental laboratory in which these reactions occur is a small tin house. When one of the captives gives way to his national temperament and endeavors to make his will law, he is escorted to the shining little retreat and assigned to a seat within the structure, through which few rays of light filter. Seven days on bread and water are sure to reduce him to subjection. The little tin house is familiarly known as the Good German Factory.

The United States was probably the only one of the Allied nations to take German prisoners before any of its own men fell into the hands of the enemy. Just what treatment American captives will receive in Germany is still a matter of some uncertainty. We may find occasion for protest, but we are not likely to try to balance the misdeeds of schrecklichkeit by reprisals in kind. German captives will be treated humanely, however few or many we may have of them; and plans are even now being made for the reception of large numbers who are likely to be sent over from France.

I repeat that Uncle Sam, championing humanity, fights with clean hands.

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