Dorchester’s prisoner of war camp
Pete London looks a hundred years back to when Poundbury Camp was home to 4500 German POWs
Published in December ’15
August 1914: across Europe World War 1 erupted. As Britain’s army left for France, at home rumours sprang up everywhere of spies and saboteurs. The government began to intern foreigners of enemy nationality, rounding up thousands of men. All over the country, places were sought where the so-called ‘aliens’ could be detained until the war’s end.
At Dorchester, empty Poundbury artillery barracks was pressed into service. Around its perimeter a mass of barbed-wire fencing was hurriedly erected, with sentry boxes for armed guards and an electric light security system installed by the County of Dorset Electrical Supply Company. Just ten days after war had begun, on 14 August the new prison camp’s first inmates appeared at Dorchester South railway station. Escorted by soldiers of the Scottish Fusiliers, eighteen German civilians were marched to their new quarters; crowds of curious local people turned out to watch the strange procession.
Gradually though, the civilians were moved away. Instead prisoners of war began to arrive, mostly rank and file soldiers from the Western Front, with a few sailors and submariners; captured officers were housed elsewhere. Space soon ran out, so the camp was extended by building rows of wooden huts, each with bunks for thirty men. Chapels, workshops, kitchens, a reading room supported by Dorchester’s YMCA, even a theatre appeared. To serve the camp, the London and South Western Railway built a special signal box and a siding nearby.
The prisoners’ first Christmas in December 1914 was reported by the Dorset County Chronicle newspaper. ‘With the Germans the cult of the Christmas tree is a most cherished institution; and as it is indispensable to the observance of the festival a magnificent tree was set up, decorated and lighted, in the large drill shed in the grounds. A short religious service was conducted and hymns sung … each prisoner was given that piquant and much-relished savoury, a German sausage, a cake, a pipe, and a supply of tobacco. On Christmas Day a special service in German will be conducted for the prisoners by the Reverend R S Holmes, Congregational pastor.’
Every so often camp inspections by the press were permitted; accounts appeared surprisingly widely, published in the United States and even as far as New Zealand. Pennsylvania’s daily, the Reading Eagle, reported on 23 January 1916: ‘A correspondent was conducted over the place by the commandant, Major W C Bulkeley DSO … a humane man with a decided sense of humor.’ The Eagle’s journalist was allowed to meet the prisoners, finding their stove-heated huts ‘considerably more comfortable than the average grate-heated London house.’
Also noted were the well-equipped hospital complete with operating theatre, a school set up in the old handball court, and a large mess hall. The inmates’ cuisine was particularly admired: ‘The daily ration … consists of one-half pound of beef or mutton, potatoes, seasonal green vegetables, white bread and soup. The meat is of good quality and well cooked by the skilful German chefs.’
But the camp post-office was ‘the busiest and most popular institution of the place.’ In the 1915 Christmas rush, prisoners’ packages had arrived via the Red Cross at the rate of around 1500 each day. However, seasonal spirit was limited, guards checking the parcels before they were passed on. The Eagle remarked: ‘The usual contraband is in the form of small bottles of brandy or rum, ten bottles of which had been removed from packages [on] the day of the visit.’
Dorchester folk soon became used to their new neighbours; relations were cordial and reasonably trusting. The Germans were allowed to go out under guard, taking recreational walks through the town, and were given various jobs. Some laboured on local farms, others swept the streets or looked after the trees in The Walks, for which they were paid. The soldiers used their earnings to buy cigarettes, chocolate and other comforts at the camp’s shop. Even pets were allowed; rabbits were kept, it seems for company rather than extra rations.
One prisoner worked in the high-walled garden of Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester town house. In November 1916 Hardy and his second wife Florence were invited to look round the camp and meet some of the inmates. Florence later wrote: ‘T H’s kind heart melted at the sight of the wounded and he expressed his sympathy with them by eloquent gestures, to which they responded in a most friendly manner … now he is sending some of his books in German, for their library.’
A reporter on New Zealand’s Evening Post also visited, remarking on the prisoners’ woodworking skills and love of music. ‘One had made two violins … a choirmaster had trained fifty of his fellow prisoners, and there was a brass band of thirty members.’ Discipline was admirable, even when it came to keeping the huts warm in winter: ‘When a prisoner burned a plank from a bunk, the others court-martialled him, charging him with damaging Government property.’ The Post praised Major Bulkeley’s tact and straightforwardness in dealing with his charges; he happened to hail from Taranaki, a region of New Zealand’s North Island. Though the prisoners were made relatively comfortable, not everyone settled into the routine of camp life. Escapes were few, but in December 1914 the Dorset Chronicle reported an attempt by Oberleutnant Otto Köhn. Taking advantage of a repatriation to Germany of some older merchant seamen prisoners, Otto hid among their luggage, compressing his long six-foot frame into a small packing crate.
For sustenance during his escape he took with him some bananas and bottles of water. The luggage, including the crate, was taken to Tilbury docks for loading aboard the SS Batavier bound for Hamburg. But the dockers handled the crate so forcefully that its occupant had enough, bursting out and tumbling onto the jetty. The stevedores’ reaction wasn’t recorded but Otto was duly returned to Dorchester; the Chronicle led with ‘German Jack in the Box.’
By the end of the war the camp was one of Britain’s largest, acting as the parent responsible for the smooth running of subordinate camps across a wide area, including Berkshire, Devon, Sussex and Worcestershire. At its peak Dorchester housed around 4,500 prisoners, roughly half the town’s usual population at that time though many of its young men were away fighting; this was partly why the Germans had been put to work.
Over the camp’s life just forty-five prisoners died, mostly in the influenza pandemic at the end of the war. Sadly one inmate, a Polish man named Franz Radgowski, was shot while trying to cut through the perimeter wire. All the men had military funerals, taken by gun carriage to St George’s Church at Fordington. German contingents were allowed to attend, accompanied by guards; the Reverend Robert Stratton Holmes conducted some of the services.
Post-war, by mid-1919 the prisoners had returned to Germany; the Chronicle reported: ‘All the POW’s have now been repatriated, and the great internment camp will be no more. The majority of the inhabitants’ departure was virtually unknown, as the prisoners left in large batches at night.’ Unlike the aftermath of World War 2, it seems none of the Germans settled in Britain after the end of hostilities. That is not to say that none of the Germans stayed behind.
Whilst there is little to remind us of the old camp, the land partly occupied by the Grove trading estate, at Fordington Church cemetery, overlooking Holloway Road, is a memorial to the prisoners of war who were buried there, designed by one of the inmates. The carved stone monument shows a German soldier, holding a rifle and kneeling with his head bowed. . ◗