The WWI Construction of Little Britain

Many would assume, upon hearing the term “Little Britain,” that it was something akin to Chinatown in New York City. This is not quite the case. In actuality, it was the creation of a group of British prisoners during the First World War. Stuck in their internment camp, they decided to make the best of their situation. To feel more at home, and establish a sense of community among prisoners, they created what became known as Little Britain.

The German internment camps created during the First World War saw their fair share of prisoners. To be precise, over five thousand Allied civilians were imprisoned in total. Held captive near Berlin, their situation was not nearly as bad as those imprisoned during WWII. So long as they did not try to escape, they were left alone. Little Britain was therefore created more out of boredom than out of defiance. It began with a system of governance. The prisoners elected from amongst themselves a set number of captains, who helped to keep things organized. They established order, and also made sure that daily needs were met, such as the implementation of a postal service.

They even named various parts of the camp after different sections and landmarks in England. They also hosted sporting events such as rugby games and golf tournaments, though these were naturally much smaller in Little Britain than they would have been back home.They also had schooling, as well as artistic and cultural events such as plays and orchestra concerts. Between their miniature government and their wealth of recreational activities, the prisoners were essentially a functioning society, the BBC News reports.

Of course, there was still some bad that came with the good. In their efforts to build a society approximating that which they were used to, they brought in some of their old prejudices. Anti-Semitism and racism against blacks were still factors in Little Britain. In fact, none of the black prisoners were allowed to be among the elected captains. Instead, a white captain from outside of their jurisdiction had to look after them. In addition, the camp guards themselves were anti-Semitic, so Jews who did not suffer ridicule from other Englishmen were often sent to less desirable camps.

Little Britain, with both its flaws and its more desirable attributes, was an example of how people are able to set up a society even when they are lacking in provisions. It makes something of a case study for politics, as well as modern prison societies. Though not everything in Little Britain was about theater and golf, it still provided a means for most prisoners to escape into a world of their own making, and mitigate the bleakness of their situation.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE