Comedy and cross dressing WW1 style

£100k project to give new insights into life in Britain as a Prisoner of War

Date posted

27 February 2018


Theatre shows by German PoWs featuring music, comedy and cross-dressing are to be recreated as part of a £100,000 project to raise awareness of life in the WWI internment camps of Britain and the Commonwealth.

Performances based on a century old programme will spearhead a year-long initiative which will see a new exhibition, online resources and the development of education packs for school pupils and people in prisons.

An Internment Information and Research Centre will also be created at Hawick in the Scottish Borders, close to Stobs Camp, the world’s best preserved First World War internment camp and an archaeological site of global significance. Britain and its Empire were dotted with camps, holding close to 140,000 civilian and military prisoners.

The wide-ranging project – running throughout 2018 - is led by academics from Birmingham’s Aston University and Edinburgh Napier University, who will use Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to offer the public new perspectives on the inner life of the camps that existed on their doorsteps.

It builds on earlier work by Aston’s Dr Stefan Manz on the German diaspora between 1871 and 1914 and the wartime internment of Germans as ‘enemy aliens’, and Edinburgh Napier’s Dr Anne Schwan’s research on the history and literature of imprisonment around the turn of the century. 

The project also links closely with the Stobs Camp Project, a Hawick volunteer initiative led by Archaeology Scotland that is exploring the history of the camp and its effect on local people.

Humour was important in the life of the internment camps, and Edinburgh Napier will stage a Lustspielabend comedy evening as it would have been performed by Stobs internees in 1917. This will take place at venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Hawick in June. 

Reconstructed from a programme found in Hawick Museum, it will combine light music with comedy plays and will be performed by an all-male cast, with female roles filled through cross-dressing.

The year-long drive to give the forgotten PoWs a contemporary voice will also involve a travelling exhibition on the internment camp system in the Commonwealth, including English translations of German letters and newspapers detailing camp life. It will be made available in digital form to communities around the world where internment occurred.

The Heritage Hub in Hawick – the central archives service in the Scottish Borders – will host the new Internment Information and Research Centre, which will be the only centre of its kind in mainland Britain.

Nearby Stobs became the HQ for the PoW camps in Scotland as the war progressed, with scores of wooden huts enclosed within a barbed wire compound. The prisoners worked on the land all around the local area and built a state-of-the-art sewage system for the camp, which housed around 4500 prisoners and another thousand guards and ancillary staff.

The new centre in Hawick, including an online catalogue, will be an international focal point for the study of internment in the British Empire during WWI, and will sit close enough to the camp to accommodate visits in conjunction with research.

Project leader Dr Manz said: “Despite all the humour involved, our project uncovers a dark chapter of Anglo-German relations. Germany also interned British citizens in return.

“The involvement of German project partners makes sure that we remember this chapter together as a joint experience, moving away from purely national remembrance. In an age where, yet again, ethnic and religious minority groups are seen as a threat to internal security, our activities highlight that state action can have devastating effects on communities.”

Dr Schwan, who leads on the music and theatre productions, said: “This project offers a unique opportunity to showcase the creativity and resilience displayed by people in internment camps, and brings to light some of the more hidden aspects of WWI experience. 

“It explores the human cost of war and imprisonment but also the positive interactions between internees and local residents. As we are currently faced with the challenges of Brexit and new debates about migration, such a re-examination of cross-cultural encounters is timely.”

Our images show a) a scene from Die Frankfurter, by kind permission of Mr Jake Coltman, an example of a play staged at Stobs Camp during the First World War with a stage, a decorated set, costumes and female roles played by men b) a barrack hut at Stobs Camp c) Dr Anne Schwan

1 Arts and Humanities Research Council funding was awarded for the calendar year 2018 to Principal Investigator Dr Stefan Manz (Aston University) and three co-investigators from Edinburgh Napier University. The grant – under the category Follow-on Funding for Impact and Engagement – enables researchers to disseminate their work beyond the academic world.  One of the aims is to work with local projects such as the Hawick Heritage Hub and Stobs Camp, and expand their reach to national and international audiences.

2 The Lustspielabend, dating from January 1917, features music by Jacques Offenbach, Josef Strauss and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and the two translated comedy plays By Ourselves (Ludwig Fulda) and The Broken Jug (Heinrich von Kleist). The programme will be framed by general information about camp life, co-developed by Dr Manz, Dr Schwan and Dr Andrew Frayn (Edinburgh Napier). Audience members will get mini learning packs and the opportunity to ask questions. The performances will be staged by Edinburgh Napier music and acting students, with music productions overseen by Dr Rachael Durkin (Edinburgh Napier) and Ken Dempster (Edinburgh Napier). Iain Davie, Programme Leader for Acting at the university, is directing the shows at Edinburgh Napier’s Morningside Church venue (7.30pm 18th June), Cottiers in Glasgow (7.30pm 19th June) and Heart of Hawick Tower Mill Auditorium (7.30pm 22nd June), with additional support from Dr Susan Martin (Edinburgh Stage Management School) as stage manager. 

3 An exhibition - Hawick Gone Global. Internment Camps in the British Empire, 1914-1918 - will open in November in the newly-established First World War room in Hawick Museum. It will offer the chance to explore not just Stobs but similar camps in South Africa, India, Canada, Jamaica and Australia. The exhibition will reveal how German prisoners spent their time; the sports they played, the cultural activities they engaged in and the plans they made to try to escape. The exhibition will also be shown in South Africa.  

4 The Internment Information and Research Centre will be launched in late 2018 or early 2019 as a centre for the public and scholars to find out more about the Stobs camp, and the general theme of internment. There will be a small library, with titles covering different periods and continents. It will be located in the Heritage Hub (Borders Archives) in Hawick, and will have a website and social media presence. 

5 Education packs will be developed by curator Rosemary Hannay, with input from Professor Matthew Stibbe from Sheffield Hallam University. As well as WWI, they will consider more general issues of minority discrimination.

6 The education material about camp life and the history of internment and minority discrimination will be adapted for use in Scottish prisons in collaboration with Edinburgh Napier’s existing partners; the Scottish Prison Service and its learning provider Fife College.

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