Sunday, 27 January 2013

Youthful indiscretion in the First World War

For a few years now I have been working on a project to try to identify those British civilians (and civilians from the British Empire) who were interned at the Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin during the First World War (see My interest comes from the fact that my great uncle John Brownlie Paton was interned there in 1916, just a few months after the death of my great grandfather David Hepburn Paton in Brussels in April of that year. My own family story fascinates me no end (but then again, whose doesn't?!) but occasionally I come across wee gems that just add another insightful glimpse into the attitudes of society at that time.

I am currently working through a series of Foreign Office file images from the National Archives at Kew, which contain various lists of people who were interned, as well as some additional details. The files were sourced from FO 369/710. Amongst them was the following tale of a young lad who was living in Germany when the war broke out, and who should have perhaps kept his opinions to himself about the war!

Harold Ewart Crick was one of two lads who in the eyes of the British had been unjustly arrested by the Germans and imprisoned in Berlin. They had been detained as 'seamen' (i.e. merchant seamen). The American Legation, acting as an intermediary for the British with the Germans prior to their own entering the war, was asked to look into his case, with the British summary of his plight as follows:

Harold Ewart Crick. "in prison for making defamatory statements about Germany".

This boy wrote a letter, which under the circumstances must be at least described as foolish, to his mother in this country, and Mrs Crick sent it to the "Times" for publication - without giving the boy's name or address. The German authorities identified the writer, who has since been imprisoned.

Could we not ask that the matter may again be put before the German Government, urging that in view of the period of imprisonment already under-gone by Crick, a sufficient punishment has now been meted out to him for his youthful indiscretion? It may be added that the boy is stated to be very delicate, having been frequently in the hands of doctors for heart trouble, and that he is also of an epileptic tendency. 

For good measure, the newspaper clipping from October 9th 1914 is also included, with the offending letter included as follows:

My dear Mother, - At last a chance of writing to you a decent letter. We are quite well here, and as happy as can be expected. The feeling here has undergone a decided change during the last fortnight. At first everybody thought the Germans were going to have a kind of picnic, and that all would be over by Christmas. Now, however, they are not nearly so hopeful. We hear the wildest stories about the brutalism and cowardice of the British troops, which everybody believes. They call every battle a victory here, which, if it wasn't so sickening, would be amusing.

Here everything is going on as if there was no war at all, except that we are overrun with soldiers. We have two quartered on us; they are very decent fellows, their patriotism being conspicuous by its absence.

You may depend upon it that the very day after peace has been signed aunt and I will go to E.; we are quite fed up with these dirty self-righteous Germans.

According to their papers the only army which contains any brave men is the German. Whenever they lose, it is by the meanness of the British, who have no respect for the laws of humanity or any other laws.

They bate us most. They say we forced France and Russia to make the war, and are responsible  for every unfortunate happening since the world began, including the Flood. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah have been proved to be direct ancestors of the British!

Be sure and treasure up the newspapers. If you come across a German be as kind to him as you can. "Heaping coals of fire".

Fortunately, the outcome of the appeal was a happy one for young Harold:

Crick has now been released and has safely returned to England. 

Boys will be boys...!

(With thanks to Simon Fowler)


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