New research shines light on cinema-going habits of British prisoners of war
British prisoners of war during the First World War established and ran their own cinemas while held captive by the Germans – even watching films regularly with their captors, new research shows.
Soldiers held behind barbed wire hoping to find distraction from hunger and cold, managed to buy equipment needed to set up their own picture houses.
Movie-going become a popular pastime, helping people find some respite from harsh camp conditions, a historian has found.
Prisoners rebuffed attempts to get them to watch propaganda, and German camp commanders would regularly cancel screenings, but encouraged cinema-going because they thought it would prevent disorder.
The research, by Dr Chris Grosvenor from the University of Exeter, is the first study to examine the extent of cinema-going in prisoner of war camps.
Officers were held in purpose-built camps away from the front line and were more likely to be able to use a barn or theatre to show films.
Soldiers would have needed to organise equipment, find funding, translate foreign language titles and provide musical accompaniment.
Film projection was a technical job, and the soldiers would have needed to make connections with the German film industry to find movies to screen.
Other soldiers were held in working camps in much more basic conditions and would have watched films in the fields at night projected onto a sheet or wall.
These makeshift cinemas would have been run by camp commanders, with projectors travelling around the different camps.
Dr Grosvenor used testimony from evidence given by 3,500 prisoners to the Committee on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as magazines produced by prisoners at 17 camps in Germany and Switzerland.
“Allowing cinemas in camps shows the Germans were looking for ways to control their prisoners,” he said.
“Films would distract a large group of people for a long period of time, useful if there were fears prisoners would revolt, escape or use violence.
“It also helped the German authorities look enlightened and compassionate. Of course, it also helped the PoWs (prisoners of war) to relax and distract them from their imprisonment.”
A total of 185,329 British soldiers spent some portion of their military career during the First World War as prisoners in Germany or in internment camps located in neutral countries such as Switzerland.
The Committee on the Treatment of Prisoners of War testimony mentions cinema-going 55 times, with evidence of films being shown in 27 different camps or working detachments.
Most camp cinemas appear to have been established from 1916 onwards.
There is little evidence about dedicated cinema venues, but soldiers do mention films being shown in pre-existing buildings such as theatres, halls or stables.
Cinemas showed comedies and dramas, both in English and German, so at some screenings an interpreter was needed and their skills were crucial.
Often this was a German-speaking officer, who would stand at the front and read out titles. Films with foreign subtitles were less popular.
Several incidents in which German propaganda films or films related to the war – about the Kaiser or other camps – were deliberately shown to British prisoners by their captors were recorded.
Dr Grosvenor added: “It’s not clear if showing the soldiers propaganda was an attempt to ridicule them, or because they thought the films would be of interest.
“But their efforts were clearly dismissed by their prisoners who would walk out of such shows.”
– The study, Cinemas Behind Barbed Wire: British Prisoners Of War And POW Camp Cinemas, 1914-1918, is published in the journal Early Popular Visual Culture.