POW painting of Oldcastle Detention Camp
The Oldcastle Detention Camp 1914-1918
by John Smith
On 7th November 1914, an announcement byThe Meath Chronicle that “German Prisoners” were coming to Oldcastle, openly declared, what many people living in the Oldcastle district had for months suspected: the British War Office had acquired the local workhouse to detain German and Austrian civilians residing in Ireland.
Their intention was to hold them in this converted building until the war concluded. By early December 1914 local newspapers were reporting the steady arrival of German and Austrian men to the small north Meath town. They were brought to Oldcastle by “special train” and marched under armed escort, to the workhouse complex a mile away. The Oldcastle detention camp was the only permanent civilian POW camp in Ireland, detaining so called “enemy aliens”, although there were many more camps in the UK. The history of the detention camp at Oldcastle is unique and its story contributes to our knowledge of the First World War in Ireland.
POW Camp Headquarters
The Imprisonment of German and Austrian Civilians.
On 5th August 1914, the British Parliament passed legislation relating to the treatment of “enemy aliens” living in Britain and Ireland. Two days later, an order went out to the police, authorising them to “to arrest as prisoners of war, all Germans and Austrians aged between 17 and 42” i.e. men of military age. The police were instructed to apprehend civilians of German and Austrian nationality and hand these over to the military authorities who incarcerated them in a number of camps dispersed throughout the UK. There was a fear that some of these nationals would return to their native country and join armies who were at war with Britain. The military authorities were also concerned about the potential for civilians of enemy nations to engage in spying, sabotage and generally act as threat to British war interests. Not all civilians from Germany or Austria, living in Ireland, were immediately rounded up. Those who had contacts in high places and vowed to live in good conduct were allowed for a time, to live and work normally.
The first detention camps were temporary and often quite unsuitable. The military even hired passenger liners to imprison civilian and enemy combatants. These measures were only short term, “until permanent camps could be built on land”. The War Office was looking out for appropriate buildings and disused workhouses were ideal. They had much of the infrastructure required to hold hundreds of people: dormitories, kitchens, dining halls, water, washing facilities, an infirmary, store rooms, recreation yards etc. In Ireland many of the workhouses were built outside areas of large population and were surrounded by high walls: the Oldcastle workhouse was an example. These grounds were therefore easier to secure.
“Enemy Aliens” Arrive at Oldcastle
The Oldcastle workhouse, built in 1842, had by 1914, largely outlived its usefulness. Poor Law Minute Book records for this period show that an average of 50 people lived in the building at any given time: most of the residents were old or infirm. The Military inspected the workhouse facility on the 30th September 1914 and within a matter of weeks the Guardians were told to vacate the building, send the inmates to neighbouring workhouses and prepare the complex for a complete take over. According to the minute books, the workhouse was under the control of the War Office by early November 1914. Contemporaneous paintings of the workhouse building (many of them painted by the prisoners) show how the military enhanced the security of the camp. There were several wooden sentry boxes surrounding the exterior of the building. These allowed for an elevated view of the camp grounds. Barbed wire also ran along the top of the outer wall, and “elaborate” wire entanglements were placed at ground level beyond the camp wall. According to one witness, who visited the camp in 1915, soldiers “under arms” patrolled the camp. There is a painting from the period showing a uniformed soldier with a gun strapped over his shoulder walking about the camp grounds.
POW Camp 1917
The Prisoners Arrive
On 12th December 1914, The Meath Chronicle stated, “The long expected German prisoners arrived this week in Oldcastle and took up quarters in the disused workhouse”. According to this report, 68 Germans arrived by “special train”. This was followed by the arrival of another 26 civilians two days later. The steady flow of prisoners continued until late 1914, early 1915. On one occasion a trainload of 30 prisoners was escorted to the camp grounds by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. By February 1915, there were 304 enemy aliens at the Oldcastle detention camp. These numbers rose to 579 by June 1916. The Oldcastle workhouse followed George Wilkinson’s standard design, (most of the pre-famine workhouse in Ireland looked the same). It was a “medium workhouse” accommodating 600 inmates. The camp commandant, Major Robert Johnson, was eager to use every available space in the camp. He wrote to the Guardians on one occasion asking them to remove several chests containing tea from the surgery, noting the room was “urgently needed for other purposes”. In another letter he asked the Guardians to remove items from the workhouse church sacristy, a room he also wanted to utilize. Written accounts show that the highest recorded number of prisoners being held at the Oldcastle detention camp was 583 – the building appeared to be operating at full capacity. Over seven hundred internees passed through the camp, over the course of its four year history.
The internees came from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions. On 28th August 1915, The Irish Times declared “further arrest of German subjects”, among this particular group there was a “pork butcher” “a dealer” and a “hairdresser”. We also know that there were skilled jewellery makers, cooks, a butler and at least one clergyman in the camp. Some items of jewellery (two rings) survive, as does a large stone bust of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph. There were several naval officers and a count.
One of the inmates, Aloys Fleischmann, was a well-known musician and conductor. He continued to live and work in Cork until his arrest on 4th January 1916. His friendship with Colonel Kirkpatrick proved to be very important. The Colonel, along with other influential figures in Cork, the Lord Mayor and the Bishop of Cork, intervened successfully on his behalf to allow him to remain in Cork and avoid imprisonment. However, Aloys’ closeness to some republican friends caused him to be eventually arrested and interned at Oldcastle.
Rings made by a POW
There was a great deal of ingenuity among the German and Austrian Internees. The Anglo Celt reported that the prisoners “amuse themselves by making toys of all descriptions” adding, they were “adept at this type of business and have turned out very fancy toys with the aid of pocket knives”. This same account also informed its readers that one (unnamed internee) was sent to Mountjoy jail, for trying to induce a soldier to “take him in a newspaper”. Another prisoner was “punished” for sketching the streets of Oldcastle, on his way to the camp.
When the British battleship, The Formidable, was sunk on New Year’s Day 1915, a prisoner was able to inform a camp guard about the incident, before it had become officially known and reported in the national media. This left the camp “authorities puzzled”, and they were unable to explain how an internee had knowledge of this event before the “evening newspapers came to hand, with a sensational account of the disaster”.
Life inside the Camp
The camp inmates were allowed to write two twenty-four line letters a week. However, they were forbidden to make any reference to camp life. They were permitted to receive parcels and have two fifteen minute visits each month. Shortly after Aloys Fleischmann’s imprisonment at Oldcastle, he wrote a letter to his wife asking her to send him the following items: three blankets and a pillow, a warm knitted Jacket, waterproof boots, a wash bowl, a kettle and mug, cutlery, tobacco and books. The conditions in the camp must have been cold and extremely austere.
In June 1915, a journalist from The Midland Reporter visited the Oldcastle camp, he stated that he was “met by a large body of men” and described them as “fine strapping men”. He noted how many of them were strolling about the camp, sitting on benches, or leaning out the windows watching what was going on around them. He added that the prisoners had caused no trouble to the guards charged with looking after them. Boredom, monotony and general aimlessness were certainly a problem in these early days.
The above reporter wondered if it would be “possible to find useful work for them”, he was certain that this would suit the men better than have them “lolling their time idly sitting or walking about”. Aloys Fleischmann was also finding the days long and difficult. He described his state of mind as, “an existence without substance, without aim”. He had little in common with his fellow prisoners from all “corners and crevices of Germany and Austria, except the meaningless cycle of this restricted, desolate life”. The letters of Fleischmann underline the human tragedy that many of the prisoners were experiencing. Some of the men in the camp had wives, children and gainful employment before their imprisonment. They had to come to terms with their changed fortunes – something that must have been personally frustrating and difficult for them to comprehend. Four men were sent from the Oldcastle camp to a mental asylum in Mullingar over the period 1915-1918- is a telling point in itself.
A visit by Mr Lowry to the camp and his follow up report issued to the American Embassy in London on the 8th July 1916 offers us a snapshot of camp conditions at this time. The inmates had formed committees to run camp life, (e.g. a bakery and handicraft committee). There were one to thirty men in a room, sleeping on a “regulation camp bed raised three feet from the floor with a pillow and three blankets”. The dormitories were brightened up by flowers, “singing birds in cages hanging out the window” and “pictures and portraits of the German emperor, German generals, the king of Saxony and many photographs”.
The bath tubs had hot and cold water; the inmates washed their own clothes. Specially filtered taps provided drinking water. The 3 German bakers and 12 cooks looked after the inmates’ meals. The dietary requirements followed the “prescribed” regulation and contained: bread, biscuits, fresh or frozen meat, tea, coffee, salt, sugar, condensed milk, fresh vegetables, cheese, butter, peas, beans, lentil and rice.
There seems to have been more activity about the camp than was reported a year earlier. The prisoners had established tailoring and boot making shops. Others were engaged in wood-carving, toy-making and the study of languages. There were in-house concerts and dramatic performances. Two huts had been recently built for these purposes. The camp had two orchestras.
Mr Lowry also stated that the camp authorities made four acres available for the playing of field games and these were added to the existing exercise yards. Aloys Fleischmann conducted a choir and an orchestra in the Oldcastle camp. This must have provided a source of consolation for him in what, according to his own letters, seems to have been a very gloomy and depressing place. He copied the music for these performances by hand and was especially keen to provide music for Christmas Day – a time of the year Fleischmann found particularly difficult in the camp.
There were a number of audacious escape attempts from the Oldcastle detention camp, 1915-1918. Two prisoners, Carl Morlang and Alphonsus Grein, managed to break out of the camp and remain free for some days. Their story is worth telling. Grein and Morlang were merchant seamen before the war. It is not certain when they were imprisoned at Oldcastle, but they were certainly there by the summer of 1915.
The Meath Chronicle covered their escape extensively. On the night of 14th August at 9.30 pm, the prisoners were noticed missing at roll-call. After a search of the buildings, it was discovered that the thick barbed wire entanglements surrounding the camp walls were severed. The military authorities alerted all police stations, via telegram, asking them to keep a sharp lookout for the prisoners. However, the escapees did not enjoy their freedom for long, within days they were captured. A week after first reporting the escape, The Meath Chronicle gave a lengthy account of their adventures outside the camp.
Morlang and Grein left the prison and made their way northwards to Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan. Disguised as two clergymen, they then arrived at Denn, a few miles beyond the town. Here they entered a public house and treated all in attendance to free drinks. Morlang passed himself off as Rev. White from Templemore. The following day they were in Cavan Town. They entered the Farnham Hotel and stayed over-night.
The next morning they set out for the local train station but were captured by the local constabulary and returned to the Oldcastle camp. It must have un-nerved the camp authorities that both men had “plenty of money and were furnished with road maps”. This along with the acquisition of wire cutters and clerical attire led the military authorities to assume that outside help had been rendered to the two German internees.
Their suspicion was immediately directed towards Charles Fox, a local Sinn Fein activist, and a prominent business man in Oldcastle. Fox’s house and business were given an exhaustive search and he was subsequently arrested and brought to Arbour Hill prison, Dublin, by the R.I.C. A few days later Charles was released and he returned to Oldcastle. Upon his arrival he was given a hero’s welcome, a local brass and reed band was in attendance as well as a number of torch bearers, also “many people came in from the country to participate in the rejoicing”. According to one story surviving in the folk memory of the Oldcastle district, Charles Fox made the clerical clothes for the two German gentlemen, (he had a drapery shop in the town). When they were stopped at Cavan, a hand written note was found in one of the jackets, worn by the men, thanking Charles for his help. This may be true, but in any case, there was not enough to charge Charles and with the two escapees safely returned to the camp once more, the affair ended there.
Deaths in the Camp
Two of the inmates died during their time at the Oldcastle detention camp, each of the deaths were both tragic and controversial. On 17th September 1917, two prisoners, August Bockmeyer and Henric Kreutz, embarked on an escape. By 9.30 pm they had succeeded in getting over the outer wall of the camp. The soldier on duty, Private Robert Tiernan, saw a suspicious shape (i.e. Bockmeyer) on the wall and watched it for a moment “until it fell to the ground”. Tiernan ran out the gates of the prison and shouted at the running “object”, calling on him to halt. He called out “hands up” and then fired a single shot when the prisoner failed to stop. Bockmeyer lay on the ground seriously wounded and suffering a great deal of pain. Major Johnson had heard the shot and rapidly appeared on the scene. He ordered Bockmeyer to be carried on a stretcher into the infirmary and arranged for a roll-call of all camp inmates. He quickly discovered that another prisoner had escaped and returned to the infirmary to question Bockmeyer about this. Bockmeyer confirmed that Kreutz had “got out first and got away”. Dr Skelly, the camp doctor, told a subsequent inquiry that the bullet had penetrated the stomach, liver and hip bone. Bockmeyer died due to “haemorrhage and shock as a result of the bullet wound”. Bockmeyer’s account of the shooting was also given at the inquest. When he heard the orders to halt, Bockmeyer declared he “jumped up” and said “I am a prisoner, don’t shoot – he [Private Tiernan] shot me”. Bockmeyer died later that night and after a short search, Kreutz was apprehended 12 miles away at Castlepollard. The inquest into the shooting deemed Private Tiernan’s actions to be “quite justified” in the “discharge” of his duty.
Bockmeyer was the only prisoner killed attempting to escape the camp. No warning shot had been fired. A few months earlier in July 1916, a camp inmate had cleared the outer wall of the camp, in broad daylight and “started across country”. The prisoner, who was playing football with fellow inmates, separated himself from the other players and successfully climbed the wall and began running across the fields hoping to escape. The guards on both sides of the camp noticed him and fired warning shots over his head “to frighten him off”. This was unsuccessful, but the escapee was captured shortly afterwards and returned to the camp. There was no warning shot or a subsequent chase for Bockmeyer, who couldn’t have been very far from the camp grounds when he was killed.
Another German, Franz Xaver Seemeier, (Seemaier?) died in mysterious and unexplained circumstances in January 1917. Two very different accounts of his death are given and these only add to the confusion. On 2nd February 1917, The Meath Chronicle gave a very brief account of a “Football Ground Fatality” at the Oldcastle Camp. According to its report, “a German prisoner aged 31” collided with another player when he jumped to catch a ball. He suffered serious internal injuries and died the following day. Seemeier was buried in the local cemetery. The Meath Chronicle does not reveal how it learned about this story; presumably it came from the camp authorities?
However, according to an account written by Aloys Fleischmann, there was another entirely and sinister cause of Seemeier’s death. In a document brought home by Fleischmann after internment, he wrote: “Franz Xaver Seemeier, prisoner in Oldcastle. On 28th January 1917 (at 5 pm), he was bayoneted by one of the guards when he was searching along the barbed wire fence for some small things he had lost – he was within the walls on the west side”. It seems incredible that Seemeier would be killed while searching for lost items along the camp fence. Did the soldier suspect he was trying to escape? It also seems unbelievable that the guard who bayoneted Seemeier to death, would be transferred and promoted to the rank of corporal shortly afterwards. Nearly 90 years after the death of Seemeier, we are no closer to discovering what actually happened and why.
Closing Down the Oldcastle Detention Camp
Before the War Office commandeered the Oldcastle workhouse, to use as a detention camp for “enemy Aliens”, there was a temporary POW camp at Templemore Co. Tipperary, (September 1914-March 1915). When this prison was closed down, the civilian inmates were transferred to Oldcastle. John Reynolds, in his brief history of the camp, makes reference to a secret R.I.C. dossier, where fears were expressed about attempts by local Irish Volunteers, to visit the camp and distribute “anti-recruiting and pro-German leaflets”. This R.I.C. report also mentions a plan by local Irish Volunteers to break into the camp and release the prisoners. These threats to camp security may have been the “impetus behind the decision to swiftly remove the prisoners to England” and Oldcastle.
By 1918, the Irish political landscape had changed. Sinn Fein was a dominant political organisation and the anti-conscription movement had reached fever pitch throughout Ireland.
On 13th April 1918, a large anti-conscription meeting was held in the square, Oldcastle. The guest speaker was Arthur Griffith, a leading figure in the Sinn Fein movement. The Oldcastle Board of Guardians decided to adjourn their meeting, so they could be present at the event. “Thousands” attended the meeting and people continued to “pour” into the town from the outlying districts, right up to hour of the speech itself. Shops were closed, the tricolour was raised and patriotic tunes were played. All this was taking place within 300 metres of the detention camp. However, one incident which took place on the occasion of this meeting must have caused a great deal of concern for the camp authorities. The Anglo Celt reported that before the meeting took place, a number of German prisoners managed to get on the roof of the camp “from which the meeting was visible”. They were described as “spectators”, having a good view of the mass meeting that was taking place a short distance away. A few weeks after this incident, the prisoners were removed from Oldcastle and sent to the Isle of Man. The military may have had serious security concerns, given the political climate at the time.
In 25th May 1918, the prisoners were taken from Oldcastle, by special train, to the North Wall (Dublin). There, they were put on a ship and sent to Knockaloe Camp on the isle of Man. The belongings of the 450 prisoners required 10 train wagons to carry their luggage: its cargo included a piano, double base violins, a grandfather clock and the property of a theatrical company.
The workhouse was returned to the Oldcastle Board of Guardians but it was never used again. During the War of Independence, a local I.R.A. unit burned the building in early May 1920. They feared it might be used by the military or the R.I.C during the course of the conflict with Britain. The two Germans, who died at the camp, were removed from Oldcastle and reinterred in a German cemetery at Glencree Co. Wicklow. A small plaque marks the site where they are buried.
- The Meath Chronicle 7th November 1914
- Aloys Fleischmann (1880-1964) Immigrant Musician in Ireland, Joseph Cunningham and Ruth Fleischmann, (Cork 2010). Chapter 3
- Prisoners of War in British Hands during WW1 – a study of their history, camps and their mail, Graham Mark (2007), PPs9-10 and PPs 148-149.
- Oldcastle Poor Law Minute Books 1914-1918 (Navan Library)
- The Meath Chronicle 19th June 1915
- The Meath Chronicle 12th December 1914
- The Irish Times 28th August 1915
- The Anglo Celt 26th December 1914
- The Meath Chronicle 9th January 1915
- The Irish Times 14th September 1916
- The Meath Chronicle 14th August and 21th December 1915
- The Meath Chronicle 23th September 1916
- The Meath Chronicle 1st June 1918
- The Anglo Celt 1st June 1915
- The Oldcastle Prisoner of War Camp 1914-1918, John Smith, Riocht Na Midhe – Records of Meath Archaeological and History Society 2010, Vol XX1