Posted by: Aaron Lisec | October 26, 2009

The Swiss Step In: A Forgotten Episode from World War I

Interned German soldiers and their children, Ermatingen, Switzerland, 1917

Interned German soldiers and their children, Ermatingen, Switzerland, 1917

In the midst of the mass slaughter of the First World War, more than 100,000 wounded soldiers on the Western Front were plucked out of prison camps and transported to neutral Switzerland, where they spent the remainder of the war convalescing.  This lucky cohort, mostly French and Germans joined later by English and Belgians, benefited from the persistence of the Swiss Government, which broached the idea in October 1914, only two months into the conflict.  After months of negotiation and months more of planning, the first casualties crossed the Swiss border in May 1916.

Aboard the second train was a German soldier named Karl Kalkhofen.  A native of Neuried in western Germany, Kalkhofen enlisted at the start of the war and saw heavy action until he was wounded in the arm and taken prisoner in September 1915.   In March 1916, a team of Swiss doctors visited his prison camp and placed Kalkhofen on the list for transport.

Once in Switzerland, Kalkhofen and his German comrades enjoyed a warm welcome.  After the deprivations of a French prison camp the men were treated to bread and chocolate, beer and cigars.  The train stopped in little Alpine villages where churches rang their bells and the people gathered to see their German neighbors, who sang for the friendly crowds and answered questions about the war.

Kalkhofen spent much of the next two years on the grounds of a castle in Ermatingen, northeast Switzerland, on the German border.   In September 1917, his Swiss hosts arranged for children to visit their convalescent fathers.  Kalkhofen’s son Hans is among the children pictured above.  Hans stayed for six weeks, joined for part of the time by his mother.  The families stayed at Arenaberg, a nearby castle once owned by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

Kalkhofen recounted his wartime story in a journal, dedicated to Hans, that he illustrated with postcards and snapshots, probably near the end of his Swiss sojourn.  Nothing further is known about him.  For more on the diary, click on the picture.  For a contemporary report on the internment effort, published in 1917, see Samuel McCune Lindsay, editor, “Swiss Internment of Prisoners of War: An Experiment in International Humane Legislation and Administration,” available online through Google Books.

Thanks to Scot Shelton for translating the Kalkhofen journal.


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