Friday, March 06, 2015

The WW1 internees who curled at Murren

by Bob Cowan

In the early years of the twentieth century, mountain resorts in Switzerland became popular as winter holiday destinations. There was as yet no downhill skiing, but cross country, skating and curling were much practised. British visitors flocked to the resorts, many of which established curling clubs. St Moritz and Davos had led the way in the late nineteenth century, but other places soon became destinations where keen curlers could be sure of finding excellent ice in January and February each year.

In 1905 Sir Henry Lunn established the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club to popularize winter sports. Enthusiasts travelled with Lunn's company to such resorts as Adelboden, Montana, Villars, Wengen, Murren, and Engelberg. 

By 1914, there were eighteen Swiss curling clubs listed in the Annual of the Royal Curling Club. The 1913-14 Annual contains reports of competitions held in Morgins, Grindelwald, Adelboden, Leukerbad, and Murren. The last mentioned features in the old postcard at the head of this article. The postcard is postally unused, and so is difficult to date, but is probably from the 1920s. There is a large sheet of ice in front of the Palace Hotel, part for skating and part for curling.

In the 1914-15 Annual lists the Murren CC with 46 regular and 13 occasional members. The office bearers are shown above.

When the war began, tourism to Switzerland, albeit a neutral country, was much affected. However, that country was to play an important role during the war years.

An agreement between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government with the warring parties was signed in 1914. POWs who were too seriously wounded or sick to be able to continue in military service were to be repatriated through Switzerland, with the assistance of the Swiss Red Cross. By November 1916 some 8,700 French and 2,300 German soldiers had been returned home.

Further agreements were eventually signed concerning sick or badly wounded POWs who might still be capable of military work away from the front line if they were repatriated. If repatriation could not be countenanced, the agreements allowed for them to be interned in Switzerland, this aiding their recovery without furthering the enemy’s war effort. Groups of Swiss doctors visited POW camps to select potential internees. Once a POW had been selected, he would be brought before a board comprising two Swiss Army doctors, two doctors from the country holding him captive, and a representative of the prisoner’s own nation.

By the end of 1916, some 27,000 former POWs were interned in Switzerland, about half of whom were French, one third German and the remainder mostly British or Belgian. By the end of the war, nearly 68,000 men had been interned in Switzerland.

Much information about the British who were interned in Switzerland can be found in a book The British Interned in Switzerland by Lieutenant-Colonel H P Picot, published by Edward Arnold, London, 1919. It is available to download or to read online, here.

This website about Switzerland and the First World War is an excellent read.

One of the main centres for interned British was at Châteux d’Oex. The first interned British ex-POWs to reach Switzerland, about 300 officers and other ranks, arrived there on May 31, 1916. Some 700 British internees were eventually held in the vicinity. Leysin was used for British tuberculosis sufferers.

Another camp for British internees was at Murren, which held 600 men and 30-40 officers. This village was high up in the mountains, and difficult to reach for much of each year. Although the situation was beautiful, many of the internees were so badly ill or wounded that they were confined indoors when it snowed.

I was curious to find if the curling facilities, so prominent before the war, were used by the internees.

A first hand account of life at Murren was made by John Harvey Douglas, in a book published in 1918, entitled Captured: Sixteen months as a prisoner of war. This was serialised by a number of North American newspapers. Douglas was a Canadian officer who was captured after being wounded in June, 1916, during the Battle of Mount Sorrel (see here). His account of his experiences on the front line and as a POW is extremely interesting. He arrived in Murren with a party of nine officers and two hundred men. Although he was only to be there for a short time he does describe how the officers were all billetted in the Palace Hotel and the rest of the men in seven other hotels. They were all treated as guests, their board being paid for by the British Government. Although this was a small amount, apparently the hotel keepers were grateful for the income and it allowed them to keep their establishments operational during the lean war years. Douglas mentions that several of the officers had family members permanently with them. All the internees continued to receive medical treatment. Those needing operations were transferred to hospitals in the major cities, the expenses again being paid for by the British Government.

At Murren, a school was established, and several workshops, and a print shop. There were classes in foreign languages, and there were dances and dance lessons. Sport too played a part in keeping internees active. Douglas says, "Everything possible was done to entertain the men and make their lot more pleasant." Football was popular in the summer. In the winter a hockey team was organised from the fifty or so Canadians, even though all who played were handicapped by injury in some way or other. The internees got the local bob run back in operation. And skiing was enjoyed by those who were able. Douglas bought himself skis, and his first efforts resulted in broken ribs!

Tantalisingly, curling is mentioned just the once, before Douglas left Murren to go to Lausanne for further treatment on his arm injury. He writes, "Things were very pleasant in Murren; the skiing and curling were good, and I would have gladly stayed on til the snow left, but my arm was giving me trouble ..."

Douglas was eventually repatriated and his story of his journey back to Montreal and his family is moving indeed.

Recently I came across this photograph which purports to show 'English officers curling on the Palace rink'. This originated appeared in a publication of the Kandahar Ski Club in 2007, written by Andrew Gunz, but I have no other details of its provenance, or indeed when exactly it was taken.

But the very existence of this photograph suggests that there may be more evidence of internees curling at Murren still to be found. Perhaps, reading this, you can help? I would be interested to learn if there are further sources which elaborate on the activities of the Murren internees in the final years of WW1. Given recent efforts to make curling accessible to all, it would be interesting to know how severely injured soldiers coped with the sport and indeed, if this recreation helped in their recovery.

After the war, Murren again became a popular winter holiday resort. See here to read about its role in the development of downhill skiiing. And curling is still a feature of the resort in winter, here.

There is a useful timeline of British visitors to Switzerland here.

Photos from the author's archive. Thanks to Erwin Sautter for the extract from the Kandahar Ski Club Review.

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