On 12 May 1915 Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced the introduction of a ‘comprehensive policy of segregation and internment’ of German and other enemy aliens resident in Britain.
He made it clear that the decision was influenced by recent events: the use of poisonous gas on the Western Front, the revelations about German atrocities in the Bryce Report, and the attack on the British passenger ship ‘Lusitania’ by a German submarine.
All male enemy aliens of military age were being made subject to internment. Women, children and men over military age were to be repatriated to their country of origin. This also affected British-born women who had married German men.
By November 1915, 32,440 male enemy aliens had been interned, and between May 1915 and June 1916 around 10,000 people were repatriated.
The treatment of men in the internment camps varied and often depended on the character of the man in charge. In the main, they were treated humanely and reasonably well fed.
Many internees from the North of England found themselves in Stobs camp in Hawick in the Scottish Borders. Opened in November 1914, it housed both military and civilian prisoners until the latter were transferred to Knockaloe in July 1916.
In April 1916, compounds A and B held 1,102 and 1,098 civilians respectively while C and D contained 1,081 and 1,209 military and naval internees. The accommodation consisted of huts, each holding thirty-three men.
Few could escape the pervasive problems of boredom, frustration and apathy. Many internees also had to reconcile themselves to the fact that their families were not only suffering from the severe social pressures of being enemy aliens in a hostile community, but were living in destitution.
Many camps provided activities such as wood working and gardening in an attempt to help men pass the time and contribute to the running of the institution. Cultural activities were run by the prisoners themselves where they could obtain permission.
Many internees found themselves worrying about sons who served in the British Army. Ten common German names contributed at least 1,000 recruits to the war effort and there were others who enlisted under anglicised names. There was no formal bar to them joining up. The legislation which turned English women into German wives did not apply to their children. A child born in Britain was a British subject unless they renounced it.
When conscription was introduced, the son of German-born parents might find himself forced to serve even if he had mixed sympathies.
The Army consequently decide that British-born men of German parentage would not be called up until they were 21, at which age the law allowed them to renounce citizenship. If they decided to remain British subjects, they would serve in the Middlesex regiment, sometimes unkindly known as ‘The Kaiser’s Own’. Two battalions were established and remained in England, but eight additional Infantry Labour Companies were raised and served in France behind enemy lines.