Our memory of the First World War tends to focus on the trenches and shellfire, but for hundreds of men held in Ruhleben Internment Camp in Berlin the war was actually spent tending vegetable patches and organising flower shows. When the war broke out in 1914, British men of military age who happened to be in Germany were interned within the confines of the Ruhleben Racecourse. In total about 5,500 men were detained there, and they created a community that closely resembled the one they had left in Britain. This soon included a thriving horticultural society, which is itself a fascinating story and an example of the positive power gardening can have in the most challenging of circumstances.
The German authorities left the camp’s internees to run their own affairs, and in addition to public services, they founded a series of hobby clubs – including popular sporting, musical and theatrical societies. In 1916 the Crown Princess of Sweden gifted some seeds to the internees, which inspired the idea of an official horticultural society. In September 1916 the initial 50 members drew up a constitution, and the society quickly expanded – by the start of 1917 there were 454 members on the books.
A letter was sent to the Royal Horticultural Society in London asking for official affiliation. They apologised for being unable to include the usual fee, but the RHS did not see any problem with that, and sent a batch of bulbs and seeds to get them started. Gardening efforts were initially focused on growing flowers, with the camp’s joinery shop producing frames to help bring on the first seedlings. The flowers were prized as a way of distracting from the dreary daily reality of barbed wire, and were even sold to raise money for their families back in Britain. An array of different flowers were grown, including chrysanthemums, dahlias and over fifty varieties of sweet pea. A rock garden was also established near the wash house, which “redeemed one of the most melancholy views in camp”, according to a report by the society’s committee.
In April 1917 the first camp flower show was held, which was organised with written directions and assistance from the RHS. The horticultural standard was high and the show was a great success. There were several further shows in the following years, which grew in size and popularity – in March 1918 600 pots were staged in total, and 2.000 pots were sold for a healthy profit.
In 1917 the Ruhleben Horticultural Society widened their focus to growing vegetables to supplement the internees’ diet, and took over a large parcel of land for that purpose. A loan from the German authorities also enabled the building of a heated greenhouse, which was used to grow melons and tomatoes. The vegetable garden was managed by a permanent staff of 18 internees, assisted by 10 volunteers, and by 1918 the camp was almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, in stark contrast to the near starvation being experienced throughout Germany at the time.
The society’s gardening efforts were not always easy; the soil at hand was dry and sandy, and sourcing manure was difficult – but they worked around the challenges to create amazing results. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society is a wonderful example of finding positivity in a time of hardship, and is a demonstration of just how life-changing gardening can really be. The internees were released in November 1918, and will surely have returned home healthier in mind and body thanks to the green-fingered efforts of their horticultural society.
Will is a Copywriter at Primrose and spends his days rattling out words for the website. In his spare time he treads the boards with an Am-Dram group, reads books about terrible, terrible wars, and rambles the countryside looking wistful.