c.1915-1918. ©Ern. Thill, Simonisstraat 20 22, Brussel

A Photo-postcard depicting the POW camp cinema at Soltau Germany c.1915-1918. ©Ern. Thill, Simonisstraat 20 22, Brussel.

WW1 prisoners of war ran their own cinemas in German camps, records show

British World War One prisoners of war established and ran their own cinemas while held by the Germans – even watching films regularly with their captors, new research shows.

Soldiers held behind barbed wire hoping to find distraction from hunger and cold managed to buy equipment needed to set up their own picture houses. Movie-going become a popular pastime, helping people pass the time and find some respite from harsh camp conditions, a historian has found.

Prisoners rebuffed attempts to get them to watch propaganda, and German camp commanders would regularly cancel screenings, but encouraged cinema-going because they thought it would prevent disorder.

The research, by Dr Chris Grosvenor from the University of Exeter, is the first study to examine the extent of cinema-going in POW camps.

Officers were held in purpose-built camps away from the front line, and were more likely to be able to use a barn or theatre to show films. Soldiers would have needed to organise equipment, find funding, translate foreign language titles and provide musical accompaniment. Film projection was a technical job, and the soldiers would have needed to make connections with the German film industry – helped by their captors - to find movies to screen.

Other soldiers were held in working camps in much more basic conditions, and would have watched films in the fields at night projected onto a sheet or wall. These makeshift cinemas would have been run by camp commanders, with projectors travelling around the different camps. Prisoners were also allowed to visit local cinemas, where they could see French or German films.

Dr Grosvenor used testimony from evidence given by 3,500 POWs to the Committee on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as magazines produced by prisoners at 17 camps in Germany and Switzerland.

Dr Grosvenor said: “Allowing cinemas in camps shows the Germans were looking for ways to control their prisoners. Films would distract a large group of people for a long period of time, useful if there were fears prisoners would revolt, escape or use violence. It also helped the German authorities look enlightened and compassionate. Of course, it also helped the POWs to relax and distract them from their imprisonment.”

A total of 185,329 British officers, NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and men representing the ordinary rank and file, spent some portion of their military career during the First World War as POWs in Germany or in internment camps located in neutral countries such as Switzerland. They faced psychological debilitation, hunger, physical illnesses, forced labour and often violence at the hands of German authorities.

The Committee on the Treatment of Prisoners of War testimony mentions cinema-going 55 times, with evidence of films being shown in twenty-seven different POW camps or working detachments. Of these, roughly 40 per cent were established in officer camps, 35 per cent in main camps, and 25 per cent in working detachments.

Most POW cinemas appear to have been established from 1916 onwards. There is little evidence about dedicated cinema venues, but soldiers do mention films being shown in pre-existing buildings such as theatres, halls or stables.. There were some purpose-built cinemas, including one at the Friedrichsfeld POW camp.

In officer camps such as Heidelberg, Neisse and Trier, inmates – who were not forced to work and could collect their pay – were allowed to organise and pay for their cinema. In Heidelberg Major E. R. Collins reported in early 1917 that ‘we were allowed cinematograph entertainments twice a week […] the machine being the property of British officers’. Shows were regularly cancelled by German camp staff ‘as reprisals against the French government’.

Second Lieutenant John S. Poole reported that in May 1916 at the officer POW camp in Neisse: ‘we bought a cinematograph from the Germans, and used to give shows three nights a week’. At Trier officer officers formed a syndicate to purchase their machine.

At the Friedrichsfeld OR POW camp German authorities ran a cinema for the prisoners, they were charged between 3d and 5d for admission. POW working detachments based at Bochum, Duisburg, Gołdap and others were encouraged to go to local cinemas on a Sunday, often weekly or monthly.

At the cinema in the Dülmen camp German guards and prisoners attended the same film programmes. Private J. E. Preston reported: “Germans provided the cinema, but we paid for it, the entrance fee being 3d ,4d. and 6d. By patronising the cinema we got more privileges, and if our parcels were delayed, we boycotted it”. Camp screenings for POWs were followed by dedicated screenings for German guards and labourers.

Cinemas showed comedies and dramas, both in English and German, so at some screenings an interpreter was needed and their skills were crucial. Often this was a German-speaking officer, who would stand at the front and read out titles. Films with foreign subtitles were less popular. Several incidents in which German propaganda films or films related to the war – about the Kaiser or other POW camps - were deliberately shown to British POWs by their captors were recorded.

Dr Grosvenor said: “It’s not clear if showing the soldiers propaganda was an attempt to ridicule them, or because they thought the films would be of interest. But their efforts were clearly dismissed by their prisoners who would walk out of such shows.”

Soldier Samuel Child reported that following efforts to: “[try] propaganda on us’ at the camp cinema at Sennelager, the audience ‘all got up and walked out; they offered to return our money, but we refused it.”

Cinemas behind barbed wire: British Prisoners of War and POW camp cinemas, 1914-1918, is published in the journal Early Popular Visual Culture

Date: 15 August 2019

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