Alois: Prisoner of war

What was internship like during the first world war, Not like you might think, in British ruled India a hundred years ago.

In the previous articles in this biographical series (index below) Alois Friedl described, in his own words, how on January 1st, 1912 he, a German technician and engineer, arrived in India and how he encountered the city of Bombay. A few years before his death (in 1964), he had started writing an autobiography — which was never completed. Recently we found the typed carbon copy, in barely legible condition, and my wife Ingrid spent weeks deciphering it, typing the text into a computer — and then weeks translating it into English.

Before I continue the narrative from his autobiography, here a word about his name. It was originally Alois Friedl, a common spelling in Bavaria, Germany. My closest relatives in the town on Wellheim still spell it that way. But for the British, who ruled India, the consonant cluster “dl” was impossible, and they inserted an “e” into the surname. From then on it was Friedel — which is the name I, his son, carry to this day.

Now on to the Alois Friedl autobiography.

Although the tragic outcome of my first hunt (Death in the jungle) shocked me, it could not take away my joy in the untamed nature of the country that was my new home. I spent almost every weekend in the jungle, mostly hunting; but also often just as a silent observer of animals and plants. Occasionally I would join a group of friends; but often I would go into the ghats alone and spend the night either in the open or in the company of Nepomuk, the red jungle god, who by now had become a familiar friend.

The headline ‘War in Europe’, which appeared in all the newspapers one August day in 1914, did not particularly upset me or my German and British acquaintances. We went on with our work, socialising at the club, and with other activities as if nothing had happened. Life in the city went on as usual.

Today’s generation may not understand this equanimity and lack of participation. For them it may be taken for granted that every member of a belligerent or beleaguered state will immediately and sharply distance himself from the members of the ‘enemy nation’. The possibility of such a relaxed attitude is absent in our day and age, when in almost all countries of the world every foreigner is scrupulously registered and his entire way of life is controlled by an army of special officials. Every foreigner is well known to the state and is immediately taken into custody in the event of an outbreak of hostilities. Today, this is taken for granted.

At that time, however, nothing happened at first. Most Europeans did not even know the native country of their friends and acquaintances. People did not carry their nationality in front of them like a flag, and asking for it would have been as impolite as asking for information about income or private matters. People talked with slight regret about the unpleasant events in Europe, but they did not take them too seriously. Until then, the world had never known a ‘real’ war. Before 1914, relatively small groups of armies had fired at each other, and after at most a year the matter was decided. Peace was concluded, one that hurt as few of the parties as possible, and order restored.

Since the cause of the First World War was, after all, only Serbia’s refusal to apologise for the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, we Europeans in India saw the whole affair as a question of honour, on a larger scale, where the duel would be fought by a few divisions instead of two men. None of us seriously thought that the first world conflagration could arise out of this trifle. We were all convinced that the conflict would be settled in a few weeks.

It took more than a week before we realised that it was serious after all. I had just returned from a weekend trip to the Ghats when I noticed a large poster on a wall asking all Austrians, Germans, Italians and Turks to report immediately to a police station to register. As a German, I had been brought up to obey any official orders, so the very next morning I made my way to the police station in my neighbourhood and asked to see the inspector.

“Good morning, dear friend,” said the English official as I entered his office, “how nice of you to show up again.” I was a little perplexed by the friendly greeting, because I had been called to perform an embarrassing official act. But the inspector first offered me a chair and a cigarette, and inquired about mutual acquaintances and other personal matters.

“You’ll have some tea, won’t you?” he asked, ordering it without waiting for my reply. While we drank the beverage the inspector told of his last hunting trip to the southern parts of the country, which he had made just before the outbreak of war. I listened, riveted, to his account, and quite forgot the purpose of my visit. It was only when he had finished that it came back to me.

“I don’t want to keep you too long,” I said, “but I have a little official business to attend to, which I have actually come to see you about.”

“Yes?” made the inspector, “what is it then? Have you had possessions stolen?”

“No,” I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. “But you know I have to report to you.”

“Report to me? You ? What for?” he said in amazement and raised his eyebrows.

I looked at him in bewilderment. Could I be mistaken? Even though I had learnt to speak English fluently, it could still happen that I misunderstood one word or another, especially if it was written in the difficult and somewhat complicated official style. Perhaps I had not correctly understood what I had read on the poster. After all, why on earth should we have to report to the police, just because there was a bit of shooting in Europe? We had nothing to do with it.

“Excuse me,” I said, relieved. “I read a notice by the police yesterday that all Germans, Austrians, etc. had to register. But it was probably a mistake and…”

“Wait a minute,” the inspector interrupted. “I’m afraid it’s not a mistake. But the order only applies to nationals of enemy states, and not to all foreigners. There lies your misunderstanding.”

I looked at him in surprise. “But I am German”.

“You are German?” He leaned back in his chair, quite stunned. “I always thought you were Swiss. You work for a Swiss company, don’t you?”

“Nevertheless,” I said, “I am German.”

He looked at me for a long time. Then he said, through clenched teeth: “You are Swiss!” But I insisted: “No, I’m German — actually from Bavaria.”

“All right,” he said finally, sighing and taking out a still-new notebook from the drawer. “I’m sorry, Mr. Friedel, but we have to obey the orders from above.” And he started entering my personal details into the new register. For the first time since setting foot on Indian soil I had been asked for them. I didn’t know it at the time, but with this entry our old, free world had collapsed. I had lost my individuality, I could no longer be respected as a matter of course, without catchwords. That register on the table of a Bombay police inspector was one of the first building blocks of a worldwide bureaucracy that has dominated the people of all nations ever since, more than world view and religion.

“All right, Mr Friedel, that’s settled then,” the inspector said in conclusion, folding the notebook shut again. “Just don’t worry about it, in a few weeks or months the whole spook will be over again.” With that he held out his hand to me and bade me farewell.

But the spook was not over. A short time later I received an official note asking me to report to the police station on 5 September at 8 o’clock — to be interned as a national of an enemy state for the duration of the war. I was advised to bring enough linen, clothes, blankets and other necessary things right away.

We were about 100 Germans who gathered in front of the police building that morning, the 5th of September 1914. We were like enlisting recruits, we had suitcases and boxes with us. A gawking crowd stood in a large semicircle around us to watch the fun. A British officer had us line up in rows of three, our names were read out, and we marched to the station under guard of the soldiers. A special train of second class coaches was waiting for us. “Only Kaiser Wilhelm can afford this in Germany,” said a wag as we boarded.

During the night we reached Poona, and the next morning we arrived at our destination, Ahmednagar. The city was once the capital of an Indian empire, and the old fort, situated just outside the city and used by British troops for accommodation, became our temporary abode.

Ahmednagar Fort (Ahmadnagar Qilaa) was the headquarters of the Ahmednagar Sultanate. In 1803, it was taken by the British during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It was used as a prison during the British Raj.

The internment of Germans was unexpected for all concerned, and no preparations had been made for our accommodation. For several weeks we camped in hastily pitched tents in the courtyard of the fort. It took more than a month before we were able to move into a barrack camp cleared by British troops, which was located even further away from the city, in the steppe-like landscape.

In itself, we were not doing badly. Our accommodation was clean, the food good and plentiful, and we could buy anything we wanted from the British canteen. Like all the other Germans, I also received a monthly bridging allowance from my company, which enabled me to buy many an extra treat, and to supplement my clothing.

Anyone who has the internment and concentration camps of the Second World War in mind will not get a correct picture of internship in the first global conflict. There were none of the mutual hate slogans or mistreatment and humiliation that have unfortunately become the norm in recent decades. Both the British guards and we internees regarded our stay as a regrettable necessity, to be endured as best we could. Fighting was the business of the soldiers in Europe, not ours. It was a comradely relationship that bound the guards and the guarded in Ahmednagar. And, as I said, we still believed it would only be a matter of a few months.

Only when our camp became overcrowded with more and more arrivals, we gradually realised that our internment would probably last quite a while. The mood slowly changed to depression. Many of us considered the worst punishment of our imprisonment to be the enforced inactivity, which must be torture for anyone used to work. Gradually the mood became irritable, the first open hostilities broke out among us internees, which naturally increased the general ill-feeling.

One night, shortly before the first Christmas of the war, haunting whispers disturbed me from my sleep. “It’s a sure-fire thing, I tell you,” I heard whispered, “it can’t go wrong at all.”

“But if there is no way out,” another voice said, “we would be trapped underground. How do you know the whole old sewer is still safe?”

“Listen here, you scaredy-cats. Are you going to break out with me or not?” the first voice said again emphatically. “If you don’t dare, then I’ll do the job alone.”

There was a pause in the whispered conversation during which the two accomplices of the instigator, whose shadows I could see in the dim moonlight, seemed to be considering the possible consequences of the escape attempt. I strained my eyes to make out the three men sitting on the neighbouring bed. One of them was no doubt my neighbour, a somewhat stubborn Silesian. The other two were only shadows.

I must have moved a little in my efforts to recognise them, because suddenly my neighbour stood in front of my bed and looked at me inquiringly. “Friedel?” he said softly. For a moment I thought of pretending to be asleep so as not to be drawn into their business, but then I thought it silly to put on an act for other people and opened my eyes again.

“You were listening?” said my neighbour, and there was a threatening undertone in his voice. “Yes, partly,” I said, straightening up. “Are you going to join in?” he said.

“What is it you want me to join in?” I asked back, because, apart from the fact of their escape plan, I didn’t know any details.

“We want to get out of here,” my neighbour said again. “Tonight! Listen: the day before yesterday, by chance, I found a hole close to the old building behind the fourth barrack. I crawled in — just out of boredom, you know — and came to a long, brick passage. I walked at least half a kilometre without coming to an end. I think it’s an old sewer. So it must have other exits or openings somewhere.”

“What do you think, Friedel?” asked another voice from the darkness.

“I wouldn’t do it,” I said.

“Coward,” my neighbour hissed angrily. “You’ve probably been here too long to still feel German. You’d love to lick the Tommies’ shoes, wouldn’t you?”

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to go along with this thing because it would be unfair to the other comrades. So far we have got on well with the Tommies and have been treated decently. But if we start running away, they will certainly tighten the camp rules. And besides, where would you be going? We are several thousand miles from home here. Can you tell me how you are going to get home?”

“It will all work out,” my neighbour said heatedly. “Let’s get out first.”

“I don’t know…” said another voice, hesitantly. “All right, then, you limp dicks stay here. Are you coming, Bruno?” he turned to the third person, who had been sitting there silently the whole time. “I’ll come with you,” he said firmly and stood up.

“Good, then get ready,” said my neighbour, and began to pack a few things into a bundle. “But I’ll tell you this one thing, Friedel,” he turned to me threateningly, “if you say anything to anyone…”

I turned without a word and got back into my bed. The third runaway, who had changed his mind, disappeared into the darkness. Ten minutes later I saw two shadows flitting through the central corridor of the barracks. The door opened silently and closed again. The first two escapees from our camp had set off.

The incident gave us camp talk for a few days, and the British officers were quite disturbed. After a thorough search of the camp they discovered the escape route and had it blown up by sappers in order to deprive other internees of this possibility. For a week the camp guard was strengthened, and the morning and evening checks were carried out more thoroughly. Then one day the two escapees were brought back in by a military patrol, completely exhausted and half-starved, and the old, somewhat relaxed order was restored.

The end of my inactivity was ushered in quite unexpectedly by an orderly of the camp commandant, who summoned me to his office. “Mr. Friedel, it says in your files that you are a watchmaker and optician,” the major told me as I stood in his office. “Wouldn’t you fancy doing a little work?”

“Fancy, yes,” I said a little hesitantly. “I know, of course, that according to the rules of international regulations you cannot be forced to work,” the Major continued quickly, “but we need someone to look after our watches and the glasses for internees and soldiers. You would be paid according to regulations, of course.”

At last a way out of boredom, I thought, and the prospect of a source of income was not exactly unpleasant either, since most companies, and mine too, had recently stopped paying the bridging allowances. But I had no tools and no instruments. The day before my internment I had packed them into a box and stored them in my company’s attic.

“If that is all…” said the Major after I had presented my ‘tool-less’ situation to him. “Please give me power of attorney to have your box handed over to me and it will be here in three days.”

With joy I signed this power of attorney and really, three days later the box was handed over to me. From that day on, I no longer had to complain about boredom. The camp carpenter built me a workbench and set up a workshop for me in the corner of the barracks. In addition to the clocks of the entire Ahmadnagar garrison, orders soon came in from surrounding troop units, and almost daily the military hospital sent me soldiers and internees for spectacle prescriptions. In the camp I was the unrivalled master in my field, and business was booming.

However, as man is hard to please, the lack of seclusion and the noise in the big barrack soon got on my nerves, and I asked the sargent if he could not give me a slightly better workshop. “We’ve just been talking about it for the last few days, Mr. Friedel,” he said kindly. “Some patients have complained that they always have to walk the three kilometres to the camp to get to you. The staff doctor has suggested that you should stay in the military hospital.”

I thought I could not believe my ears. This solution would of course be the very best not only for the patients, but also for me.

The next morning I was already moving. The Major agreed to the new arrangement and had sent for me. He gave me leave to move into the hospital — if I would promise on my honour not to attempt an escape. With British correctness he added that escape was the legitimate right of every prisoner of war, and that he could not or would not force a word of honour. But I gladly gave it to him and became a free man that very day, calling a large, clean room without barbed wire fencing my own.

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.