A unique collection of previously unseen photographs, revealing what life was like for German soldiers in an East Midlands WW1 prisoner of war camp, has gone on show in Derby.
The exhibition is part of a research project involving historians from the University of Nottingham and the W.W. Winter Heritage Trust in Derby. Founded in 1882, W.W. Winter is believed to be the longest running photography business in Britain.
This new WW1 research was inspired by local historian Jane Middleton-Smith after she unearthed a collection of glass plate negatives and prints in the Winter’s company archives. The photographs were taken by Winter’s photographers at the PoW camp in and around 1917.
The camp was a dual site, comprising the Midland Agricultural College at Sutton Bonington and Donington Hall stately home. Around 200 German officers, orderlies and a few civilians were held at the camp between 1915 and 1919.
Over the past two years, Middleton-Smith and W.W. Winter staff have been working with researchers at the Universities of Nottingham and Derby on the collection of photographs. The images show captive German prisoners, including some high-profile and senior ranking military and naval officers, who were alleged in Parliament to enjoy ‘champagne lifestyles’ in the camp.
The research has revealed the politics behind their internment and new information about the prisoners themselves, the camps and their organisation, and the dramatic escape attempts made by some of the men.
The Sutton Bonington and Donington camp opened in 1915. By June 1916 it held 102 military officers, 39 naval officers, 50 military orderlies and one naval orderly, and three civilians. Of these, 98 army officers and 38 naval officers were German, four army officers were Austrian, and one naval officer was a Turk, while all of the civilians and orderlies were German.
This camp attracted much negative attention in the House of Commons and the British press because of its allegedly luxurious conditions. Harold Tennant, the Under-Secretary of State for War, was asked in the House of Commons whether it was customary for a sergeants’ mess to be provisioned with a billiard room. He replied that he did not know whether it was a custom but admitted that such a provision was included at Donington. Photographic evidence also reveals that the camp had a football pitch, a bowling alley and facilities for gardening.
One of the most significant problems faced by prisoners, especially during the early stages of the war when most captives did not work, was boredom. Sport and other physical activity helped to relieve the boredom of camp life.
Like all camps, Donington was subject to independent inspection. In 1916, this was performed by the (then still neutral) Americans. Messrs Beal and Buckley of the American Embassy visited the camp on 9th June 1916, when it was home to 194 prisoners. The Americans noted that there were three tennis courts, a skittles alley, places for playing hockey and football, and paths for leisurely walks through ‘beautiful country’.
The more fanciful tales of lavish conditions were dispelled by journalists in July 1916 when they visited for an inspection.
The photographs and accompanying stories are now on show in an exhibition at the University of Derby.
When: On until 3rd January 2020 (Monday – Friday)
Where: University of Derby, Markeaton Campus, The Street & Café corridor, Derby DE22 3AW
£: Free admission
More info: www.nottingham.ac.uk