Camp Reports – Working Camps in Westphalia

Transcript from copy held at US National Archives.

Source Document: US National Archives Washington (NARA) ; RG 84 Records of Foreign Service Posts ; Diplomatic Posts – Great Britain – Volume 0763

Memorandum as to conditions in Working Camps in Westphalia

In connection with two recent journeys to Westphalia (March 14-24 and April 4-18) for the prose of visiting main camps and labour camps, questions regarding the obligation to labour to which the English prisoners are subject arose almost everywhere. Owing to the great number of manufacturing establishments and the variety of work in this section of the country, these questions assume peculiar importance, and it seems advisable to make them the subject of a separate statement, including also a short summary of general conditions observed at these working camps.

The reasons for the recalcitrant attitude towards work, which is new manifest in Westphalian camps on the British prisoners arise apparently:

First: from a wide spread impression that in the absence of their expressed wishes they cannot be forced to work.

Second: from a belief that the British Government is unwilling that they should work in any way on the ground that their labour will be of benefit to the enemy.

Third: from reports of unfavourable conditions and treatment at working camps.

Fourth: from the fact that the regular British soldiers do not naturally take to anything but military work.

These grounds for friction were found present to some extent in a great number of the camps visited. In many of them there were British under arrest for refusing work. At Münster I a group of 30 had been ordered to hold themselves in readiness to start for work on the morning following the visit. There was, however, a very refractory spirit among the men and they objected to starting, unless they were informed on what kind of work they were to be employed.

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The Kommandant told me that this had not been [?] and that it was impossible, for disciplinary and other reasons, to give the prisoners notice in advance. At the suggestions of the Sergeant Major, I requested the Kommandant to postpone  the departure of the group in question for a few days, in order that the leading Non-Commissioned Officers should have an opportunity to talk with the men and persuade them in their own interest not to rebel against the order. A similar state of facts was observed at Holverde. At Senne lager II some 20 men were kept in a separate compound for having refused to work on a railroad. There were also individuals being punished for refusals on various grounds, some of which were clearly insufficient such as objections to work in the rain. Especially noticeable was the antipathy of men to work in any establishment where labour on munitions was being performed, although the work they themselves were required to do was not on munitions.

The punishments given did not seem to be unduly severe, [?] that they were justified and consisted generally is [?] (being kept standing for some hours or in confinement in a special compound for two or three weeks without communication other prisoners, being marched up and down under guard and having all special privileges such as football, attendance at the theatre etc. taken away.  The regular rations of food were not, however generally changed in quality or quantity.

In nearly all these camps, the higher Non-Commissioned Officers usually take a broad minded and sensible view of the situation and are doing all in their power to prevent the men from quitting work arbitrarily. This is realised and appreciated by the German authorities.

In consequence of the attitude of the British towards work in general, I was informed in several places, for instance at   Dülmen, that there was a growing disinclination on the part of the factory


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Factory owners to receive British as workmen, and that in some cases such owners had directly specified that only French, Russians or Belgians would be accepted. The French prisoners are in all cases most desired as workmen, and there have apparently toon few difficulties with them.

Taking up grounds of complaint as to working camps in detail:

1) Work on Munitions: The nature of any work required was everywhere made the subject of such investigation as was possible. In especial reference to work on munitions, the Sergeants were in each main camp asked by me to state any fact which had come to their personal knowledge, and to bring before me any man who could testify personally as to conditions. As a rule, only negative results were obtained by this means. There were many rumours and considerable second-hand information, which generally sifted down to men having seen munitions of war in the factories where they were employed, but not having hem asked to work on them. More definiteness was, however, obtained in relation to the Gute Hoffhnung Hütte at Sterkrade near Oberhausen. District representations were made to me at Münster II to the effect that, of the 114 British prisoners detained at this factory it Sterkrade, a number at least had beam actually employed on shifting shells about, end it was stated that if they refused they were severely punished. An application in writing in the name of the prisoners at Sterkrade to the Kommandant protesting against ill treatment of British prisoners who had refused to work on munitions of war, and expressly their willingness to do all other kinds of work, was, as was stated, refused transmission to him. A sergeant who had been at Sterkrade told me that though he had not been asked to work on munitions himself, he had seen a number of British. unloading casings of shells from the railroad trucks as they arrived, and stacking them ready for finishing

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Finishing off, also that two men, whom he named, were to his knowledge punished for refusing to work on shells. A Private told me that he himself, besides two others, had been asked to work on casing for shells but that on his refusal to do so he had not been punished.

No investigation of the truth of these statements was possible, as, in answer to repeated applications, permission was definitely refused me to visit any part of the works in question, or to allow the prisoners to be brought out for an interview. As in other cases (Dortmund, Herne and Barrop) I was informed that the works in question were on the list of such where inspection has been refused to representatives of a neutral country. The reason given was the danger that business interests might be jeopardised by the possible revelation of trade secrets.

Statements in regard to men having been asked to handle shell casings at the camp in Hörde were also made to me at Münster. These were corroborated on a visit to Hörde on 8th April 8th by an interview with two prisoners. In those cases it appeared that, on the refusal of the men to handle these castings, they were asked to perform work not directly connected with munitions and still persisting in their refectory attitude, were punished by being obliged to stand for several hours.

I was also informed at Münster I that there had been trouble at Barrop and that in March 30 men were put into prison for refusing to work on shells. I was unable to verify this further, as the men in question were not present in the camp at the time, and as permission was refused me to visit this working camp.

At Münster I I also heard complaints of requests to work on shells having been made of several men in Annen Nord where there were 6 English altogether. One man stated that he was taken to a screen at the establishment there and asked to


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to fill shells. In the absence of further corroboration and investigation, this last statement should in my opinion be received with considerable caution. At present there are no British at Annen Nord.

2) Labour in mines: In regard to work in mlnes, there apppears to be very little uniformity of practice. I was informed at the Sennelager camps and at Dülmen that no one was obliged to work in mines. unless he volunteered. At Münster III the Kommandant told me that he had recently ordered a number of British out of the mines, sad that he hoped gradually to be able to take out all attached to his camp. In other camps, notably Münster I and II, I did not find this attitude, and at the Inspection Department at Münster I was informed that no reasons existed for allowing the British special privileges in this regard. At Herne, according to the statements made to me, there have been 100 English working In the coal mines since September last on a double shift of 6 hours a day. At a coal mine at Dortmund 130 British are said to be employed. Permission was refused me to visit both these camps, though repeated and urgent applications were made.

At a mine at Mörs eleven British are employed (see report of April 22nd). The statements made to me by Sergeants at Münster II to the effect that persons of education had been required to work in mines were partially confirmed by inquiry at this mine, but, as far as other mines wore concerned, no further opportunity occurred to verify the statements.

It does not seem probable that there are more than a relatively small number of British now working in mines in Westphalia, but no direct information on this point was forthcoming, as the complete list of working camps in Westphalia for which I applied was not furnished me.

5)    Employment of Non-Commissioned Officers: A number of corporals were found at work in various camps. These had in no case volunteered, but had

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Been put at work a number of months ago, when the arrangements for releasing them from labour had not yet been formulated, and it seemed doubtful whether since they had in all cases been notified that work on their part was not obligatory. In two or three cases which I took the Corporal was willing to continue to work; in one case it was arranged that he should be put on supervision duty, on which Corporals were found to be engaged in a few working camps. In the remaining instances the corporals asked for discharge from work, and their requests were transmitted to the authorities. No sergeants were found at work. In view of the number of working camps at which visits are not allowed, it seems quite possible that Non-Commissioned Officers may still be at work there.

The military authorities look with disfavour on the refusal of Non Commissioned Officers especially Corporals to work and by their concentration at the camp at Minden (report of April 22) it is undoubtedly intended to convince them if possible that it is for their best interests to volunteer.

Lance Corporals are not treated as Non-Commissioned Officers and their applications for release from work are rejected.

4) Notice of Nature of work: In the majority of cases men are not informed beforehand for what place they are destined. Several complainants were heard to the effect that the German Non-Commissioned had deceived them in regard to this and told them that they were being sent to an agricultural camp, when in fact they were intended for work in a factory. The Kommandants, with whom I discussed this topic, stated that as a practical matter it was impossible to give such notice, and that the British should not be encouraged to think that they were free to choose at what kind of labour they were to be put.

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-7 Conditions of Work: a) Agricultural labour: The majority of the prisoners in the Westphalian camps have been put to work in the fields, either on miscellaneous form work, or in digging over and reclaiming waste land. Here there is generally a ten-hour day, exclusive of time of travel and of meals, though it is stated the obligation is to work as the farmer and his free labourers are employed. The pay is uniformly 30 pfennigs a day, which is distributed in cash and the farmer provides the food, of which in rural districts there is little complaint.  The British are seldom averse to farm labour, and their relations with the farmers are as a rule good. There is no work on Sundays, at least at this season, and often the men are allowed to quit somewhat earlier on Saturdays.

  1. b) Miscellaneous industrial work: British prisoners were found in Westphalia at a large variety of employments coming under this heading. Many are now employed on the railroad, either in repairing thread bed and hedges, or in loading and unloading trucks and cars.

A number are working in iron and steel factories, in coke works and brick kilns. Others have been put at sawing wood, at various kinds of machine work, at digging foundations and at constructing buildings. The working day is usually ten hours exclusive of the time reaching the place of employment (which is generally close by) and of time for meals.  Where the work is of an exceptionally severe nature, there is sometimes an eight-hour day in three shifts. In this case there is generally a double shift at the end of the week, usually arranged that each prisoners has to work on it every other week.

Payment is generally by the day, in a few cases, however, by the piece. In one instance there was found to be a fixed quota which had to be performed in case the pay of the prisoners was not be diminished. The pay is determined by contract between

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Between the employers and the authorities at Münster. The contractor pays the prisoner one-quarter of the wages fixed, and has to support him out of the remainder, but is under no obligation to supply him clothes. In case of some camps outside working clothes are, however, furnished, but seldom underclothes and socks.

If a prisoner’s work is equal to that of a free man, he is paid one quarter of the same wages, if not he is paid according to his supposed capacity. The remaining three-quarters of the wage is retained by the employer for support of the prisoner. The payment is generally but not always in camp money. At one camp the larger sums were paid in real money, and the old pfennigs in money only good at the canteen. If however a prisoner wishes to buy supplies outside, he is almost invariably allowed to send into town for them, and for this purpose his camp money is exchanged. The rate of pay varies from 75 pfennigs to 1 mark per day, and generally closely approaches the latter figure.

The men employed in these various works appear to be of all degrees of education and of widely differing previous occupations. It does not appear probable that careful investigations is made whether or not they are especially suited by previous training for particular kinds of labour.

There is no work on Sundays, except where men are employed on an eight-hour shift on industrial work alleged to be necessary. In such cases it is generally arranged that alternate Sundays shall be free.

  1. c) Mines – Here the conditions are regulated closely by the legal requirements relating to underground work, and in general no distinction is made between free and prisoners’ labour, except as to the rate of wages. As in industrial works, the employer

pays one quarter of the wages agreed on. At the mine visited (Mörs) the rate was 75 pfennigs a day, but the employer found all working clothes. The eight-hour shift prescribed by statute is

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Is prevalent in all mines, and it is believed that in all free workmen and prisoners are in no way separated while at work. Sunday work, as far as ascertained, does not exist.

5) Living accommodations: As a rule the sleeping quarters were found to be sufficient and less crowded in the working camps than in main camps, This was especially the case in small country towns, where the prisoners are often housed in large halls, formerly used for amusement purposes, in restaurants and other buildings. As a general rule, the accommodation in the large industrial works are modern and satisfactory, though occasionally (e.g. Langendreer) there is evidence of overcrowding. The bedding (generally straw mattresses in wooden or iron frames, with two or three blankets) appeared almost aIways to be sufficient. In camps separate dining rooms were found, but more often meals are eaten in the sleeping quarters.

In the country in many cases the prisoners eat and sleep with the farmers, sometimes without a guard, in some instances returning to the camp for the week-end.

7) Baths and sanitation: In quite a number of the smaller camps no provision was found for baths. Often, however, there is opportunity for river bathing in summer.

The latrines are generally simple in construction and, except in case of an occasional industrial establishment, without flushing. As a rule they are kept clean and there is sufficient use of disinfectants, with occasional exceptions.

In most working camps there are small Iazarets in the camp itself, with frequent visits from physicians. Serious cases are sent back to the main camps. The medical attendance is almost invariably satisfactory, and there are few complaints. A cause of friction in a number of camps is the number of occasions on which some of the prisoners report themselves as unfit.

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Unfit for work.

8) Food: As in most of the main camps the reliance of the men is very largely on packages from home. Complaints were numerous of deficiencies in quantity and quality of the food regularly served. As a rule the soup and other fare is found unpalatable, but where the men are at work out of doors, it is sometimes all eaten, as the contents of the packages. At two or three camps where only English were employed it was found that not much variety was provided, on the probable theory that the food would not in any case be eaten. The kitchens were almost without exception found to be clean, and the food carefully prepared.

The ration of bread is 300 grams (about 10oz) per day. Occasionally in case of out of door work this amount is increased. The meat allowance is 300 grams per week, but this is many cases exceeded. Eggs are only served in rare instances, fish occasionally. The staple article of diet is a thick vegetable soup into which meat is occasionally put.

The canteens in the working camps are apt to be insufficiently stocked, and prices are occasionally high, owing to supplies being brought in small quantities. Generally the prisoners are allowed to send into town for articles they require. Biscuits, sugar, lemonade, chocolate and soap are among the articles most frequently inquired after. An experiment by which light white wine and in some cases, beer with a slight percentage of alcohol is placed on sale three times a week at the canteen has been instituted too short a time to permit an opinion as to its merits.

9) Clothing: The very great majority of British prisoners in working camps are fitted out entirely with British clothes and exceptions are very few. The regulations provide that before leaving for working camps prisoners shall be supplied from the main camp with suitable clothing, including leather boots,

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Boots, but that when work has begun, replacements must be made at the working camp from wages. In a few cases complaint was made that the prices charged for repairing leather shoes was very high, and in one or two isolated instances prisoners had not been able to able procure leather shoes and wore sabots.

In the mine visited) (Mörs) all working clothes were furnished by the employers, and this is presumably the case at other mines.

As in all main camps strips of buff coloured cloth are inserted in the black clothing sent from England and the caps are treated in the same way, this being on the ground that the outfits are too civilian in character.  For this purpose the clothing is sent back to the main camps, and occasional complaints are heard that there is great delay in returning them.

Permission was refused by the authorities at Münster to a British Non-Commissioned Officer to send a list of clothing needed by the men with details and sizes to the Embassy for transmission to England, on the ground that clothing was in the regular course furnished by the German authorities and that prisoners could write individually to their families and friends stating their wants.

10) Interpreters: In many working camps, especially the smaller ones, there is a lack of English speaking persons among the contractors and the guards.  Often the communication is by means of a British prisoner who has picked up a little German, occasionally through a French or Belgian prisoner. Sometimes there is some difficulty about transmitting complaints to the officer in charge on account of failure of the men to make themselves understood, and it is believed that friction is occasionally to be traced to this cause.


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11) General treatment of prisoners: Only in the very fewest instances serious complaints were heard as to harsh treatment by either the military authorities or the contractors in working camps, though ample opportunity was in all instances afforded to make such complaints in private.

The Non-Commissioned Officers placed in charge of working camps are generally men of education and of reasonable views, and in some cases have even adopted a distinctly sympathetic attitude. In one instance which I personally witnessed a misdemeanour of some little seriousness, committed by two British prisoners, and acknowledged by them, went unpunished except by a reprimand. The conduct of the conduct of the employers and foremen is also as a rule correct and            humane. One exceptional case, where brutal methods were found to have been used by a foreman, was investigated on the spot and by co-operation of the representative of the Münster Department remedied without delay. – In agricultural districts I heard no complaints about ill treatment of prisoners by the farmers.

In general, such instances of rough handling as came to my notice were consequent on refusals by the British to work. While these cases were invariably enquired into as fully as possible, it was, in general, difficult to arrive at a positive conclusion as to whether the complaints were fully Justified, and a certain allowance must be made for the unwillingness, touched on above, of the British to labour. It should be added

that the Kommandants, as well as members of the higher Departments, expressed themselves as anxious to have all cases of ill treatment reported to them fully, end showed a (deposition to Investigate them thoroughly, and the guards were in several places in my presence admonished to use all possible care and consideration in their behaviour towards the prisoners.

Ellis Loring Dresel

Berlin April 28 1916.

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