The British historian Dr. Susan Barton has recently published a comprehensive history of Switzerland’s role as a host to injured soldiers made prisoners of war in the first world war.
Switzerland agreed to host soldiers from Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Officers and soldiers were interned in villages and towns throughout the country, including Gstaad, Rougemont, Château-d’Oex and Rossinière. GstaadLife spoke with Susan Barton to find out more about this period of Swiss history.
What nationalities were the prisoners of war who were interned in Switzerland?
Altogether nearly 68,000 wounded or sick officers and men were interned in Switzerland, 37,515 French, 4,326 Belgians, 21,000 Germans and 4,081 British. There were never more than around 30,000 interned at once, residing in hotels devoid of guests due to the war. Germans were based in the German speaking areas of Eastern Switzerland, particularly around Davos. French and Belgians were scattered mainly throughout the French speaking areas of the western regions.
When the British soldiers arrived, they were concentrated in areas popular with English speaking visitors before the war, the main centres being Château-d’Oex and Mürren but with smaller groups in other villages and towns according to employment, education and medical needs. The only place where both sides of the war came in close contact was around Lucerne, where there was specialist hospital treatment. The national groupings included many troops from the colonies of the belligerents, so included Canadians, Australians, Africans, Indians and Arabs. Host communities were selected because of their pre-war economic dependence on tourism, thanks to lobbying by the hotel industry.
I understand that prisoners of war were also stationed in Gstaad. Can you expand on this regarding numbers and nationality?
Despite Gstaad being a predominantly Swiss-German community, 83 French soldiers and 21 civilians added to the wartime population. At nearby Saanen there were 42 soldiers and 49 civilians, while at Rougemont there were 98 British soldiers of all ranks. The civilian numbers were probably the families of internees who were allowed to stay with them or visit for a holiday. Many of the French and Belgians were women and children refugees from the occupied areas.
Gstaad was also popular for winter sporting activities and British internees, officers’ wives and visitors would go over for toboggan racing. It was also a centre for ice hockey tournaments, especially popular with Canadian internees. The British team of mainly Canadians often beat some of the best Swiss teams, including the Rosey School of Gstaad.
Can you share some of the more interesting anecdotes or narratives from this period?
As the internees arrived by train in Switzerland they were overwhelmed by the welcome and kindness of the Swiss, who turned out to greet them at railway stations and showered them with flowers and gifts of chocolate, cigarettes and also useful items.
What surprises most people is the relative freedom enjoyed by internees. Those who could afford to do so could rent a chalet or apartment privately and have their families join them. For poorer soldiers, charities or collections back home paid for mothers, wives or fiancées to visit for a holiday.
A heart warming story is that of a Northamptonshire mother, grieving the loss of her son for a year, when she received a letter from him in Switzerland. Her local community raised the funds for her to go and visit him.
Many stories of courtship, weddings and new babies appear in the internees’ magazines. Sport played an important role in internment life, as a pastime and as a means of rehabilitation of the injured. Football teams could travel to away matches, against other internees or Swiss teams such as Young Boys and Servette. With downhill ski pioneer Arnold Lunn as an instructor, British internees in Mürren were the first to be taught and assessed using the new ski tests of the Ski Club of Great Britain.
The book is entitled Internment in Switzerland during the First World War. Dr Barton will be talking about her book at St. Peter’s Church, Château-d’Oex on Tuesday, 10 September at 6pm.
Contact of the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Further information about British soldiers interned in Château-d’Oex: https://interned-in-switzerland-1916.ch