WWI

British Prisoners Of War Built Their Own Cinemas In German WWI Camps

Imprisoned soldiers required German troops to translate some comedies and dramas.

A photo-postcard depicting the PoW camp cinema at Soltau Germany during the First World War (Picture: Ern. Thill Simonisstraat/Exeter University).

British prisoners of war (PoWs) held by Germans during the First World War ran their own makeshift cinemas, a historian has found.

Research shows that soldiers would distract themselves from imprisonment by watching films in pre-existing theatres, halls or stables.

The study by Dr Chris Grosvenor from the University of Exeter shows that German camp commanders in 27 facilities would regularly cancel screenings, but sometimes used it to prevent ‘revolt, escape attempts and violence’:

"Allowing cinemas in camps shows the Germans were looking for ways to control their prisoners."

A total of 185,329 British soldiers spent time as PoWs in Germany and neutral countries such as Switzerland during the First World War, 3,500 giving evidence to the Committee on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Film was one of the great boom industries of the years before the Great War. In the picture above, German soldiers watch a movie at a cinema in the billet at the Western Front (Picture: Stefan Sauer/PA).

The study used this testimony, alongside magazines produced by prisoners, to reveal that soldiers found the funding and equipment to screen movies acquired from the German film industry.

This "helped German authorities look enlightened and compassionate”,  said Dr Chris Grosvenor.

A German-speaking officer would have to translate some comedies and dramas, filmed in a ‘foreign language’, for British soldiers.

The study also shows that captured troops would refuse to watch screenings of German war propaganda.

Dr Grosvenor is unsure if the films were shown in “an attempt to ridicule them, or because they thought the film would be of interest.”

"…their efforts were clearly dismissed by their prisoners who would walk out of such shows."