WWI centenary: A story of life from behind enemy lines

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The lives of British civilians living in Germany in 1914 were turned upside down when war broke out.

Batley resident Mike Whitehead has recalled the story of his great grand-uncle, who worked in the textiles industry in Germany at the time.

Most of Mr Whitehead’s family who worked in the country had returned to Britain before the conflict began, but Charles Frederick Priestley remained and was incarcerated at Ruhleben internment camp.

Mr Priestley was born in Batley in 1875 and worked as a master dyer for Messrs Naylor and Company, an English firm of woollen manufacturers based in Wittenberge, and had spent most of his life from the age of seven in Germany.

The Ruhleben internment camp was a civil detention centre, located six miles west of Berlin, which housed male citizens of Allied countries who were unfortunate enough to be working, studying or holidaying in Germany when war was declared.

A parcel packing depot was set up in Batley, allowing relatives of prisoners of war to send food and supplies to family members imprisoned overseas.

Mr Priestley became the head of the parcels department at Ruhleben, where inmates had a degree of autonomy, and exchanged letters with the depot in Batley about the condition and frequency of food supplies sent to the camp.

He became a key connection between the residents of Batley and their civilian family members imprisoned in Germany.

During the war there was pressure brought upon the government to offer an exchange of civilian prisoners, but these arrangements often encountered trouble and opposition from military officials, who were fearful of returning thousands of men capable of fighting back to Germany.

A man from London, who was a prisoner alongside Mr Priestley, said on returning to Britain that conditions at Ruhleben were not improving and the men would starve without the help of food parcels sent from home.

He said: “No stone should be left unturned to get an exchange arranged for us all.”

Mr Priestley was released from Ruhleben in the summer of 1918 and wrote from Holland that many prisoners who were supposed to be repatriated were still incarcerated there and in dire need of food and clothes because parcels had stopped being delivered when news of their impending release reached Britain.

On his return, Mr Priestley recounted stories of helping camp officials deal with a fire and mischief at meal times.

But other returning prisoners from internment camps spoke about toil and brutal treatment at the hands of their captors.

Charles Frederick Priestley was the son of Alderman Frederick Priestley and the brother of James Joshua Priestley, who was twice mayor of Batley in the 1950s.

He died on December 9, 1956, in Dewsbury.