An account of the opening of a recreational 'hut' by the British Red Cross Society, for British prisoners of war interned at Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland.

16 May 1919
British Red Cross Society

     In October 1916, Dame Katharine Furse (then Mrs. Furse) and Miss Elsie MacSwinney were sent out by the Society [British Red Cross Society] as escorts to the 1st party of Prisoner’s Wives visiting their husbands – British Prisoners of War – interned in Switzerland. On arrival in Chateau d’Oex they found that the interned men had no occupation, and that the Home Authorities had not provided recreation or instruction. The men themselves, having necessarily become somewhat demoralised from their long captivity in Germany, found nothing whatever to do the livelong day, and Colonel Earle – the Senior British Officer – complained bitterly that he was bringing home a cargo of loafers, and that the Government paid no attention whatever to his appeals that something should be done for the men – although these men had already been there for 5 months.

     A Y.M.C.A. Hut had been opened at Murren, and it had been suggested that a similar Hut should be opened at Chateau d’Oex. The difficulty about this was that out of the 500 men then interned at Chateau d’Oex, 100 were Roman Catholics, and their Padre announced that he would not allow them to patronise a Y.M.C.A. canteen. Colonel Earle maintained that it was useless to launch a Hut which would exclude one fifth of his men. Mrs. Furse then suggested that a Red Cross Hut should be opened on the lines of the Red Cross Recreation Huts attached to the Convalescent Camps in France. It was explained that these Huts were non-sectarian and could be used by everyone. At the same time, Colonel Earle agreed that it was a pity to fight with the Y.M.C.A. over the erection of the Hut, as the urgent need of the moment was a Hut of some kind.

     The escorts, therefore, promised to put this view before the Authorities at home, and after spending two nights in Chateau d’Oex, they proceeded on their journey to England leaving the first party of wives to be brought back by the escorts who were taking out the second party. In the train on the way to Lausanne, Mrs. Furse thought it better that Miss MacSwinney should return to Chateau d’Oex, and do any spade work she could towards getting a Hut for the men. Colonel Picot, the Society’s Representative at Berne, approved of the principle of a Hut, and the only question was – who should provide the funds? Three Press Representatives, who had gone out with the first party of wives, remained for some little time in Switzerland, and their services were enlisted to make known the urgent need of a Hut. No one who was on the spot could fail to see the vital necessity of a Hut of some kind which should act as a counter-attraction to the opportunities which existed for buying drink in unlimited quantities in every house in the village.
Miss MacSwinney discussed details with Colonel Earle, and chose a possible site – sketched out necessary accommodation, and the probably amount of equipment that would be required. After three weeks stay, she was summoned home to report progress, and to continue the work of her Department at Devonshire House, which could no longer be neglected. In the meantime, Mr. Twells Brex, the Daily Mail Correspondent, ‘wrote up’ the needs of the men in the Daily Mail, and almost immediately Mr. Creswell Gray (now Sir William Creswell Gray) of Yorkshire, offered to give £1,000 to the Y.M.C.A. Mr Gray was interested both in the Y.M.C.A. and in the village of Chateau d’Oex. The Y.M.C.A. Representative, who came to discuss the question at Devonshire House, definitely stated that his Hut could not be non-sectarian; Colonel Earle had begged that a Hut should be run on lines that would admit all his men; Mr. Twells Brex, therefore, travelled up to Yorkshire and laid the whole case before Mr. Gray, who consented to transfer the £1,000 to the Red Cross.

     It was about the first week of November that this decision was made, and the Hut was planned and built and opened by the middle of January, 1917. The work and materials were supplied locally, and Colonel Earle became Director-in-Chief of the building operations, aided by Miss Emily Simey, the V.A.D. officer sent out by Mrs. Furse. At Colonel Earle’s request, Miss Dyball, a V.A.D. and qualified shorthand typist, was also sent out by Devonshire House to give some of the men instruction in shorthand and typing. In January, two other V.A.D.’s were sent out to help in the Canteen, Miss Kerrick and Mrs. Jenkins; and a fourth helper was already on the spot in the shape of Miss Hill, a pre-war V.A.D. who was out in Chateau d’Oex visiting her brother, an interned officer.

     It would have seemed desirable that all the officers’ wives and the local British residents should join forces and help with the Canteen, in which case it would hardly have been necessary to supply a V.A.D. staff. Unfortunately, however, the large majority of the officers’ families and the local residents were not on speaking terms with each other. In addition there were no less than 5 different representatives of religion, also not on friendly terms with anyone else. This made a combined effort out of the question, and it was necessary that the staff should be self-contained.

     The success of the Hut was instantaneous. The men quickly appreciated the excellent food which they could buy at reasonable rates, and which supplemented the somewhat meagre fare supplied by the Swiss Authorities. Two months after the Hut was opened crime showed a decrease of 90% and drunkenness was practically nil. The men organised their own games and amusements, whist drives, debates, etc., and in addition, classes were started in wood-carving, toy-making and book-binding. A French class run by one of the officers had been in existence for some time. Later on, mountaineering expeditions were organised by Miss Simey. The authorities at home sent out Mr. Sewell as Senior Chaplain, and he quickly co-ordinated the efforts made by the various padres.

     A certain amount of food could be bought locally, but there were certain things which it was impossible to buy on the spot, and deficiencies were made up by the Prisoners of War Department at Thurloe Place, who forwarded consignments of margarine etc. The difficulties of transport were very great, and the Swiss frontier was frequently closed for 10 days at a time, and, therefore, the supplies were most uncertain. The O/C of the Hut always made a great effort to supply the food that the men liked – cakes, scones and puddings which reminded them of home – the piece de resistance being known as ‘Hut Duff.’ One of the British Interned Officers always acted as ‘Hut Officer’ and audited the accounts, copies of which were forwarded each month by the O/C of the Hut to the Commissioner at Berne and to Devonshire House.

     With the repatriation of the bulk of the original interned men in October 1917, it was found advisable to make some changes in the V.A.D. Staff. Miss Simey was recalled, and Mrs. Sewell (wife of the Senior Chaplain and a pre-war V.A.D.) was appointed as her successor. Mrs. Sewell had for many months been cooking 6 days a week in the canteen kitchen. Miss Elizabeth Boyle was sent out as Quartermaster – the remaining staff being Miss Kerrich and Miss Grant, who possessed a lovely voice, and her singing was immensely appreciated by the men. In the Spring of 1918, Mrs. Sewell’s husband was recalled and she had to resign her position as O/C of the Hut. Lady Ampthill then appointed Miss Clara Murray, a V.A.D. of considerable experience in various overseas areas. She proved a very great success, for she not only carried on the Canteen side of the Hut on the original lines, but she also managed to make friends with all the people who had unfortunately been left outside the Hut activities.

     The influenza epidemic of June 1918 swept over the village of Chateau d’Oex with very great severity. The Hut at the time was being run by Miss Murray, Miss Boyle and Miss Grant, assisted by the wives of various officers. The hospital arrangements made by the Swiss authorities were totally inadequate to cope with the spread of the disease. Miss Murray asked for permission to be allowed to supply milk puddings and nourishing light diets to the men who were sick, and a regular system was organised by which the diets were fetched twice a day by the orderlies. It is considered that this good food undoubtedly saved the lives of a large number of the men. Unfortunately Miss Boyle and Miss Grant both contracted influenza – Miss Grant having been working for 14 months without any leave – and the work of the Hut was carried on by Miss Murray helped by Mrs. Law, the wife of the dentist. Mrs. Law undertook the bulk of the cooking, and her help was simply invaluable.

     The most brilliant achievement of the Hut was undoubtedly the spontaneous effort made by the Hut staff on Armistice night. Aided by the British Officers, an impromptu dance was organised, and the men were dancing till 4 o’clock in the morning – gallons of tea being supplied as the only liquid refreshment. It had been feared that the men would break out and drink heavily, but it is understood that every single man was able to walk home.

     When the last batch of the men left for England in December, 1918, I think it could safely be said that Miss Murray had made friends with everyone all round – a very excellent thing in view of the fact that one would wish the British Red Cross Society to leave only friendly feelings behind it. Shortly before Christmas, a sale of some of the Hut equipment was organised by Miss Murray, and finally the Hut itself and its fixtures were presented to the Swiss Authorities for use as a Colonie de Vacances for children.