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WAR CIRCUS: REUBEN CASTANG & RUHLEBEN CAMP.

REUBEN CASTANG

As a youth Reuben moved from London to work with the Hagenbeck’s, becoming an animal trainer. By the outbreak of war, his Chimpanzee act max & Moritz was was famous and he was onto his second generation of chimps. The Narrative here is extracted from his biography Wild Animal Man, by R. W. Thompson, 1934 Duckworth.

Other articles realting to Ruhleben Camp have been transposed retaining the language of the time. They are from various newspapers found in the British Libraries’ online archive, British Newspaper Archives; Tyne and Wear Archives, Fenwick Collection; The World’s Fair, the Showland newspaper held on microfiles at the National Fairground and Circus Archive, Univeristy of Shefield.

See also War Circus story realting to the Claude Ohmy (Smith) one of the Ohmy Family who was also interned in Berlin.

© IWM Art 529 Ruhleben camp 1916 by Nico Jungman

 

1914

In spring, I selected new chimpanzees, including seven year old Pedro who has assumed the mantel of my beloved Moritz, from Hagenbecks. I also made a short visit to England to appear with Hagenbeck-Cochran Wonder Zoo at Olympia. Then on the insistence of Nikitin I was convinced to tour Russia and the Autumn fair at Nijni Novgorod, so I have embarked for Europe.

Paraphrased from Biography Bibliog. Ref: T R

c. AUG 1914

   Reuben Castang: It is only weeks since I was presented with with Max and Moritz my two chimpanzees, June 1914, to Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Archduchess Sofie after a show in Budapest. It is with shock that I found out that a week later the Archduke was barbarically assassinated, in Serajevo. I am therefore in all likelihood to be the last circus man to have performed for their Highnesses.

   I am in Europe, on my way to Russia to tour, on the insistence of Nikitin, and I found myself in Austria when hostilities commenced. I had with me my two chimpanzes, another Hagenbeck animal keeper, German, and an assistant who is a black American man. First we were all caught up in chaos at Jejitz and the rail bridge was blown up by the Russians before we could cross the border. I have had to separate from my four companions as my Britishness is a danger to them and I have sent them on to try to get to the safety of Hagenbeck and Stellingen, in Berlin with his collegues. I am left to find my way through and to follow on, by rail or by any other means possible. Civilian life has ceased, and militarism rules Europe. No station master wants to give me permission to travel to Berlin, and the burgomaster is even more scared – they both wanted me out of town and kept sending me back down the line. Travelling without a permit is impossible. I have already seen Belgian trains showing the effects of the war. It is a good job I know how to find loop-holes and I have never been so fortunate to be fluent in German. When I get to Berlin I will see out the war under the protection of my good friends the Hagenbeck’s

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

  c. NOV 1914

   With Max, Moritz and the keeper safely on the way to Hagenbeck, I found myself in Silesia, and was shaken awake by soldiers, who marched me away to Retibor Gaol. I demanded to see the Governor, I was then marched though a spitting mob on the streets, thankfully I was allowed to telegraph Hagenbeck, and 2 days later I was once again taken from the gaol under guard to Hamburg in a requisitioned Belgian train. “It was a gruesome train; begrimed and scarred with the terrible battles already raging in Belgium.”

   Max and Moritz greeted me on arrival at Hagenbeck’s but I could see that they had suffered from the emotional separation from me, despite the care of the other keepers.

   I have assiduously defended Britain in a public place and a couple of days later I was rounded up with or other newly defined aliens and thrown into Stelling Gaol. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. It got worse as a week later I was moved onto a hulk on the river Elb and it was there that I received the awful news that Max and Moritz had died, that, my life’s work, has been ruined by something hideous that I just do not understand. I am a cosmopolitan and it seems that a number of rather decent and sane people have actually turned savage, much as an animal might at maturity. “Men all over Europe, goaded by women, were treating men in a way that would cause a savage outcry if applied to dogs.”

   I resent this powerlessness and care little for myself since I have lost my chimpanzees. Meanwhile I just exist. I had a foodless train transfer from the hulk to Berlin and have now arrived at the race course which has been adulterated into a prison camp, Rhuleben.

   At Ruhleben I have found myself among a community of aliens, British men who had been rounded up, from all walks of life. And a large group of West Africans. We are 5000 human animals in a big cage, particularly, ironic perhaps for me a Wild Animal Man.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. JAN 1915

   Life in Ruhleben is to be endured. I share a hut with 11 others, not a private moment is to be had. It is best not to snore or worse still remain unwashed as you will earn the hate of all. People under the vileness of the ordeal are “stripped bare of veneer, and showed themselves” the best and the worst is laid bare. Yet together we work towards a common good and a self-governing social state flowers behind the barbed wire.

   People here spend time in bettering themselves or entertaining others. I am in the thick of it all, and after the trauma of losing my animals and life I want to be fully a vital part of camp life. Getting involved in theatrical pursuits and all manner of clubs and societies is part of my life blood here. The concerts and theatrical efforts of the interned men are of the highest quality, Lamond the brilliant pianist is here and there are many actors, authors, playwrights,… All of the highest repute. So the camp is rich in talent.

   All these pursuits are a life affirming antidote to living in a prison and slum. Rehleben is now a socialist town, with all the usual institutions and and professions at work and play. All of these we earnestly undertake to keep us sane, and the laws of the camp were set to make sure that no one was more advantaged than the next, there is no room for vice.

The Germans have their own rigid strictures over the camp. “Infringements are punished by confinement in a separate enclosure within the camp, and outside prisoners willingly risk their lives to carry provisions to these sufferers.”

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. MAY 1915

   Carstang reports that his perfect spoken German and fame is of service to him: I am well known by the guards, and with the help of the Hagenbeck’s and their influence has helped me to conjure up bottles of whisky, through various ruses. Whisky is the most valued of objects in the camp.   I am also delighted that I have managed, thanks once again to Lorenz Hagenbeck, to get a collection of ferrets. They are great rat catchers and companions, and I carry them inside my shirt.

   It was with my ferrets that I was able to get outside of the camp regularly. I explained to the officer in command that, if the curse of the rats was to be properly eradicated, they would have to let him take a party of men and organise a hunt outside the camp, where the source was. As prisoners are already working outside of the camp on farms un-guarded this is not so far fetched an idea, anyway escapers would probably starve.

   These rat hunts are a great joy to me and my friends, and with a combination of good fortune, Hagenbeck’s on the outside and my fluent German I have been able to bring to the camp the most valued of man’s possessions into the camp – bottles of whisky. But all those who were bringing in these bottles were risking the fire of the sentries.

   When a bottle is opened at night, long after lights out, then one of the hut at least is enclosed the suppressed laughter and babble of men, as well as an atmosphere that would probably have exploded from the flame of a match.

   On rat hunts I have eluded the guards for several hours and brought back many treasures. One occasion while in the guise of a rat hunt party with friends I was able to make our guards drunk and enjoyed hours of freedom. But my greatest achievement was to obtain a piano, and before bringing it to the camp I organised for it to be filled with whisky, wine and rum so that it rattled with the slightest bump. The care with which we unloaded the piano at Ruhleben quite touched the hearts of our captors. “How these poor prisoners revered Lamond and the Beethoven sonatas he would play for them!” That at least was true and more lasting than the hidden reason.

   More recently my adventurous exploits outside the camp have been stopped, instead I have became more involved inside the camp as a focus of entertainments. I have put much of my energy into acting and mimicry, and I’m ready to do anything, event fight and wrestle for the general amusement of the men in the camp. Here friends batter each other to a pulp, and inspite, or because, of it their friendship holds. There is no other outlet for feelings, and fighting is very important in the scheme of things.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. JULY 1915

Following the success of a mock trial, a parliamentary by-election was proposed by Israel Cohen. Cohen, is a journalist, who had been working for a number of English newspapers in Berlin in 1914. Since there are no political at Ruhleben, party labels have been distributed in a more-or-less random fashion. Cohen said that as one reared in the city of Bright and Cobden, he should espouse the interests of Liberalism. The ‘Tory’ candidate would be Alexander Boss, whose portly figure and monocle seem most fitting, and the women’s suffrage cause – introduced, as Cohen puts it, “to impart the spice of humour into our womanless constituency” – fell to me Reuben Castang! Of course the election could not proceed without a returning officer, so we chose Walter Butterworth, probably the only genuine politician among us. He was a justice of the peace and Manchester Councillor. At a packed meeting Butterworth asked if the assembled wanted to propose independent candidates, but although Hendriksen was proposed as a sailor’s candidate, he declined and backed Cohen. Delbosq was put forward as a socialist candidate, but his proposal that “everybody in the camp should share all he had… with everybody else…” did not attract sufficient support for him to go to the poll.


   A packed meeting heard all the agents swear in; the camp paper’s report treated with appropriate cynicism; and the audience joined in with the campaign song “There was a cow climbed up a tree. Oh, you blooming liar.”
   Israel Cohen proposed that beer should be brewed, Alexander Boss that all taxes on beer, spirits, tobacco and tea should be abolished and imposed on mineral water instead, “Cohen promises you beer, I promise you champagne.” Meanwhile I, surrounded by ‘suffragettes’, put it to the electors that this was an opportunity to show how much they missed their mothers, wives and sweethearts and I promised them nothing if I got to the Commons.

   I am glad to say that the political elections were fought with more enthusiasm than in normal life. And the campaign continued in a well-mannered fashion. We candidates tub-thumbed at our constituents, and have been supported by able speakers. And so it was that the camp set about electing a Prime Minister of Ruhleben.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

& Stephen Brasher

  

c. AUG 1915

The election for Prime Minister of Ruhleben went on for some time. The candidates like all other occupants, from every other walk of life in the camp, have had the finest brains at their disposal, these brains gave their best. It is recognised here that each job is important to our community; a man is judged on his merits, and if he does the work of the – doctor or the dustman – for which he was chosen to serve. Otherwise he is an outcast. Highly paid doctors and health experts work harder for nothing here than they have ever for gold.

   A poster wall emerged on the side of Barrack 12, the best I think are:

“Conscientious Original Honourable Eloquent Natural. Bibulous Ostentatious Slippery Swanker” (Liberal),

and “Best Original Sensible Sociable/ Creeper Obnoxious Horrible Evil Nuisance” (Tory).

I wish I could show you some of the cartoons.

   When the votes were finally counted on 3 August, I had triumphed with 1,229 votes to Cohen’s 924 votes and Boss’s 471 votes. So I am now the elected Prime Minister of Ruhleben Camp. I feel the responsibility of the office but remember I promised nothing!

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. FEB 1917

   As the years pass I’m thinking again of my chimpanzees, this war cannot go on for ever. I have been talking to Charlie Buchan, an Elder Dempster skipper about returning to the West African jungles. It is good to have a plan for the future and this is my pledge. Meanwhile in Ruhleben, Food is running out in Germany, potatoes are more valued than gold, fats are non existent and even with the help of Red Cross parcels there was little enough to eat in the camp. Nevertheless it is better in than out from that point of view. Outside there is real starvation so I am always amazed that the parcels arrive intact. Mind you soap is unheard of and for six months I have not washed. Some people are being released now from the camp, interned prisoner swaps, I think it is quite possible that I have been held back, through sheer pettiness and peak, by my German captors, punishing me for winning the election.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. MAY 1918

   At the insistence of Hagenbecks, I have finally been released from the Ruhleben Internment camp in Berlin, they made the case that I would be of more use outside than in. My liberty is restricted to the Theirpark and the immediate surrounds. First I was put to work in charge of a chicken farm that once had been an ostrich farm managed by my friend, John Millen. I have to say it is not easy to breed chickens in these circumstances. Potato peelings and husks of bran are all I have, still the chickens did well. Then I was placed in charge of five scraggy elephants before they died. I am very grateful to be able to care for these starving beasts and I managed to improve their condition, enough even to managed to work them for Lorenz Hagenbeck before a German Audience.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

c. JAN 1919

   Now the war has ended there is scarcely a chimpanzee to be seen in the “civilised” world, and it will be necessary to take some time for new beasts to be caught. I have found a fellow London Cockney prepared to join me in an unarmed trip to the jungles of West Africa and will sail to Freetown aboard Buchan’s ship, on the Elder Dempster Line.

When the war ended one of the first luxuries Carstang reports is that of the lather of soap; the joy of plunging the arms up to the shoulders in soap suds. When old Ruhlebenites talk together, the memories of the men are pleasantly arranged to sift the good form the bad, “so that listening to them one might imagine the experience of a pleasant holiday. The other memory they keep buried deep and will not thank you to disturb it!”

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: T R

 

OTHER RUHLEBEN NEWS:

 

INTERNED BRITISHERS AT RUHLEBEN.

____

NOTICE AS TO THE DISPATCH OF PARCELS.

 

Press bureau, Tuesday, 7:45 PM

   Notice is given by his Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that clothes, food, tobacco, etc., intended for British subjects interned at Ruhleben should in future be consigned either to the United States Ambassador at Berlin or to Mr Powell, Captain of the camp. The dispatch of goods in bulk to any other persons cannot be permitted.    

22 /12/1915 Newcastle Journal

 

MUSIC HALL AND CIRCUS ARTISTES INTERNED IN GERMANY

“THORA” RETURNS HOME AFTER 13 MONTHS.

   Many of my readers particularly the elder of them, will doubtless remember Thora, who, as far back as 1889 and for many years since then, toured the principal halls in the kingdom with a remarkably clever ladder-balancing act. In later years Thora – who, of course, must not be confused with Thora, the ventriloquist – has been devoting his time to animal training, a business at which he has achieved considerable success, particularly with the training of chimpanzees ( says a writer of the “Liverpool Post” )

   He trained principally for the late Mr. Frank Bostock, for whom, he toured this country and America with the “almost human” “Consul the Great.” On the death of Mr. Frank Bostock he took up an engagement with Julius Seeth, a well-known Continental menagerie proprietor, with offices at Frankfort-on-Main, Germany, where he trained and performed chimpanzees for Mr. Seeth.

   At the time war broke out he was playing the Circus Schuman, Frankfurt and was interned together with other British subjects in the Ruhleben Camp. Ruhleben is one of the principal racecourses of Germany, and the accommodation offered to the prisoners consisted of horseboxes.

Now, after thirteen months or more in Ruhleben, the authorities have discovered that he is over military age, and have therefore, granted his release. When I met him the other day in Leicester Square, the hardy Yorkshireman, despite his fifty-one years, was not looking at all in bad condition.

   Of course, he has in the meantime paid a visit to his home and recuperated his health to a certain extent. He tells me that in addition to a number of artistes who are only known on the continent, there are still in Ruhleben several artistes known on this side, among whom are Alf. Jackson, of the troupe known as the Grecian Maids; the Brothers Stafford, Bert Bernard, of Karno’s “Mumming Birds” Continental Company, John ….. , S (not legible) King and Cray; George Scott, the comic juggler; the Brothers Morris, Alf. Pearson, horse rider; and Claude Ohmy, of Ohmy’s circus. Hackenshmidt, the Russian wrestler, according to Mr. Thora’s information, is a prisoner in Berlin, but is allowed out in the streets on parole.

   Mr. Thora, tells me a good story of what may justly be described as poetic justice. While the various “foreign” artistes were waiting for the internment camp to be prepared for them they were given a certain amount of liberty, subject of course to police supervision.

The manager of one of the principal music halls in Berlin was placed in a great deal of difficulty owing to native artistes he had engaged being called up for war. In order to “carry on” he was prepared to engage certain of the foreign artistes pending their internment and “bill them” as being Americans or of other neutral nationality, and had, in fact made preparations to do so.

   This information somehow came to the knowledge of a German artiste, who has several times played this country, he threatened to make a “stir” about it, and get the hall boycotted. The arrangements therefore were called off. Now here’s where the ” poetic justice” comes in.

Shortly after the German artiste who had raised objection set sail for America the ship was stopped when a little way out by one of our gun boats, brought to England, and the male passengers, including our objecting friend, are now interned in London.

Thora has not gone back to his old love, animal training, and is now “on the road,” driving his own comfortable little caravan about with him, and animal trainer to E. H. Bostock, of Glasgow, having joined them at the completion of their engagement at World’s Fair, Islington.

26/2/1916 The World’s Fair

 

RUHLEBEN. 

   Lord Robert Cecil’s statement in Parliament and the treatment of British civilian prisoners in the German internment camp at Ruhleben created a profound impression. It is evident that while every consideration is extended to interned aliens in this country the lot of British civilians in the German camp is deplorable.

   Representations made through the American Ambassador at Berlin apparently produced no improvement, and it is considered that Britain should now depart from her policy of pampering those whose nationality has necessitated their internment here.

BRITISH REPRISALS.

Loud cheers greeted the intimation by Lord Robert Cecil that in certain eventualities it will be necessary for the British Government to consider what steps to adopt with regard to the food supply of German prisoners in this country. Most members of Parliament consider that this ought to have been done long ago, but the British Government has resolutely set its face against the policy of reprisals being well aware that in and callous disregard of suffering this country could never equal the barbarous ingenuity of the Central Powers . The day of reckoning is approaching.      

27/6/1916 Daily Record

 

THE RINGMASTER.

ARCHIE PEARSON RELEASED.

   Mr. Archie Pearson, has returned to Britain. He was the Ring Master at Olympia, and one of the famous circus men of the continent before the war. He was in Germany with his son in August, 1914, and the two were interned at Ruhleben. The son owned some special circus horses, and these the Germans promptly seized for the Army.    

   Mr Pearson had luckily sent some of his savings to England while travelling on the continent, and as he was slowly starving in the prison on a diet of cabbage, it occurred to him that the bank with whom he had placed this savings might help him. He wrote to them, and they, glad to assist their unhappy client, arranged for a London firm to send him a fortnightly supply of biscuits. He doubts if he could have sustained life there without them.

     Thanks to his age, he was released when the exchange of interned persons began. He returned to England and has been able to put his knowledge and experience at the service of the British Government.    

Narrative relates to 1916 extracted from

19/12/1919 The Sheffield Daily Independent

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