Military Men in Drag: Theatre and Music in World War One Internment Camps in Britain

In this blog post, Iain Davie and Anne Schwan from Edinburgh Napier University, discuss a project exploring creativity behind the barbed wire during World War One.

Our project is about making visible one of the more hidden aspects of First World War history: life in internment camps in Britain and the Commonwealth. In particular, we wanted to draw attention to the creativity and resilience displayed by internees, despite their difficult living conditions.

Taking Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders as our starting point, we created a series of performances to illustrate how the German internees at Stobs – like in many other camps around the world – tried to make the most of their time by setting up a school, playing music, putting on arts and crafts exhibitions and staging shows.

It was important to us to bring the history of First World War internment to life in accessible yet thought-provoking ways. We used the programme for a Lustspielabend or comedy evening found at Hawick Museum; this consisted of two German plays – By Ourselves by Ludwig Fulda and The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist – and some light music by Jacques Offenbach, Josef Strauss and Giacomo Meyerbeer.

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A Night at Stobs music performance conducted by Kenneth Dempster. Photograph by Olga Tyukova

At its peak, Stobs was home to around 4,500 internees. Initially, the camp housed German immigrants who, following the Aliens Restriction Act  after the outbreak of the war, had been classified as ‘enemy aliens’. The Act allowed the government to register, deport and intern immigrants. Overall around 30,000 immigrants were interned in Britain during the war and a further 20,000 in the Empire. Stobs later held a mix of civilians and military men before becoming a dedicated camp for military PoWs from the middle of 1916. Our Lustspielabend dating back to January 1917 was originally performed by PoWs.

Director Iain Davie was keen to convey what life was like as an internee by creating an entertaining framework rather than giving lectures about Stobs Camp and World War One history. Writer Charity Trimm therefore developed a ‘backstage play’ – A Night at Stobs – featuring six characters who discuss information we had found in letters and other historical sources. Through a combination of humour and pathos, the conversation conveys some of the challenges encountered by the internees, from having to make do with limited props and costumes to touching personal stories about the long wait between letters from home. The dramatic dialogue in the frame narrative tied the two plays and music together and demonstrated how important evenings of entertainment were to the internees. Such shows helped them keep busy, both physically and mentally, which they saw as their duty towards the Vaterland.

A Night at Stobs enabled us to highlight the role of humour and escapism as coping mechanisms in internment camps. Such shows played a significant role in the life of all interned men, not only those actively participating in them. The frequent performances were tremendously popular and, alongside other educational, artistic or sports activities were reviewed in the camp newspaper Stobsiade that was read by camp inhabitants and friends and family back home.

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Actors performing By Ourselves by Ludwig Fulda. Photograph by Olga Tyukova

A unique feature of theatre behind the barbed wire was that female roles had to be filled by men. There is ample evidence that some of the men embraced this challenge with gusto, with some of them performing female parts on a regular basis and to great acclaim. Such impersonations upheld the illusion of a female presence for heterosexual men but also opened up possibilities for transgender identifications. The famous German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld – whose books were burnt by the Nazis – believed that cross-dressing in internment camps had helped to make homoerotic love among prisoners more acceptable.

A review in Stobsiade of a revue evening on Easter Monday 1917 mentioned the performance of a Gavotte in Biedermeier costume, featuring ‘three “ladies” and three gentlemen’. The reviewer acknowledged the dance as a ‘pretty novelty’, although a passing reference elsewhere in the paper hinted that some PoWs were discomfited by ‘“Ladies” with deep voices’.

Globally, over eight million men suffered captivity during the First World War. Through A Night at Stobs, performed in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Hawick in June 2018, we wanted to provide a glimpse into this world, experienced by over 100,000 German military men who spent some time in internment camps in Britain. Our audiences at three sold-out venues appreciated the educational mix of history, theatre and music, commenting ‘I had never put any thought into British PoW camps before today’. Another agreed that ‘This was enlightening, only ever heard of British internees’. The humanising aspect of the performances was highlighted by those familiar with Stobs camp: ‘Really enjoyed the men at Stobs being portrayed as real people. We are used to dealing with the emptiness of Stobs’. These insights and responses resonate with our goal to place World War One commemoration in a wider European and global context, as a reminder of the human cost of national prejudice, war and imprisonment.

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The cast of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug concluding A Night at Stobs. Photograph by Olga Tyukova

The project was brought together by a multi-disciplinary team: Iain Davie (Acting/Directing), Kenneth Dempster (Music), Rachael Durkin (Music), Andrew Frayn (Literature), Stefan Manz (History), Susan Martin (Stage Management), Anne Schwan (Literature) and Charity Trimm (Playwriting). We are grateful to our collaborating partners at Stobs Camp Project by Archaeology Scotland, Hawick Museum and Live Borders who have helped make this project possible. Thanks also to the wonderful students and graduates of Edinburgh Napier who brought this performance to life.

This project was conducted as part of an AHRC grant for impact and public engagement, ‘The German Diaspora during World War I: Remembering Internment Camps in Britain and the Commonwealth’, led by Stefan Manz (Aston University) and Anne Schwan (Edinburgh Napier University). Iain Davie and Andrew Frayn are Co-Investigators on this grant.

Main Image: Hut at Stobs Camp today. Photograph by Stefan Manz

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