Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Bid to find war's 'forgotten victims'

Leith street in 1918 (Scottish Screen Archive)
People lined the streets of Leith in 1918 to welcome them home

By David Miller
BBC Scotland

The newsreel pictures are grainy and blurred. There's no sound. But the black and white film from Thursday 28 November 1918, which I have just been watching, still makes compelling viewing.

At first, the newsreel shows cheering crowds on board a ship as it docks in the Port of Leith.

Next, there's a procession through the streets. The crowds lining the pavement surge forward to shake hands with the ship's passengers.

The atmosphere in Leith that day was clearly extraordinary. But what sparked these scenes of celebration?

Of course, the date provides a clue. Yes, the crowds who turned out that day had reason to be cheerful - the armistice had been signed and the horror of the First World War was over.

But the citizens of Leith had actually taken to the streets to welcome home hundreds of weary civilians who had been incarcerated in the notorious Ruhleben prisoner of war camp for the duration of the conflict.

They have been described as "forgotten victims" of the First World War. Almost 5,500 British civilians were held at Ruhleben.

The prisoners, who had been working in Germany, were rounded up by the authorities after Britain declared war.

Chris Paton
Chris Paton is building up a database containing the prisoners' details

They may have been treated as heroes on their return to Britain, but 90 years later the story of the Ruhleben prisoners is all but forgotten.

The genealogist Chris Paton, of Scotland's Greatest Story, hopes to change that. His great uncle was one of those prisoners.

Mr Paton is building up a database containing the prisoners' details. And he is hoping that the 90th anniversary of their return will jolt the memories of many of their descendents.

"The story of Ruhleben is a story which not many people really know about. People tend to commemorate the soldiers who fought during the war, without realising that there are other stories," he said.

"One of the big stories was the internment of British civilians who were in Germany when the war broke out.

"There are some 5,500 people who spent the next four years in a converted racecourse at Ruhleben, outside Berlin, for the rest of the First World War.

"They were merchant seamen, they were students, people on holiday, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

There's a woman who actually grasps the hand of a man onboard the ship and you almost get the sense she doesn't want to let go
Janet McBain
Scottish Screen Archive

That newsreel I mentioned is part of the Scottish Screen Archive, part of the National Library of Scotland.

Janet McBain, the archive's curator, believes the film gives us a powerful and emotional insight into that historic day in Leith.

She said: "There are lots of people out on the streets, grabbing the hands of the prisoners of war as they come past on the lorries.

"There's a woman who actually grasps the hand of a man on board the ship and you almost get the sense she doesn't want to let go. She's found him for the first time in so many years.

"You can see from the film the amazing popular excitement and joy that there is about these people coming home after four years and I think it's quite emotional actually."

It is hardly surprising that the Ruhleban story has almost been forgotten. Life in the trenches made conditions in the POW camp seem relatively comfortable.

The Ruhleban prisoners did not get the chance to serve King and country during the war, although many of them tried to escape in a desperate bid to join the war effort.

Neil Griffiths of the Royal British Legion Scotland believes we ought to remember the sacrifices made by everyone in wartime.

He said: "The extraordinary thing about history is that there are always forgotten stories and it's always important that we remember them. Sometimes it's almost a delight to find these tales.

"But it's a fact of life, and it's certainly a fact of war, that there are people who suffered that we've forgotten about today. But we must never forget."

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