“It is difficult to write calmly about it for the simple reason that I have never before in my life seen such a welcome accorded to anyone, although for twenty-eight years I have been present at every kind of function in half the capitals of Europe. At Lausanne some 10,000 people, at 5am, were present at the station. At Fribourg the cheering is described as being quite deafening. At Zurich the scenes are described as not less enthusiastic than in French Switzerland.”
“I called for three cheers for Switzerland. I do not suppose since the beginning of the world cheers were ever given more heartily. Our men were simple astounded… Many of them were crying like children, a few fainted from emotion. As one private said to me “God bless you, sur, it’s like dropping right into ‘even from ‘ell.”
These words were penned on 2 June 1916 by Evelyn Grant Duff, Britain’s ambassador to Switzerland, following the welcome of British prisoners of war in Switzerland.
During the last two years of the 1914-1918 war, as part of Switzerland’s humanitarian policy, some 68,000 wounded and sick soldiers were transferred from prisoner of war camps to neutral Switzerland for internment. The prison transfers were made under the auspices of the International Red Cross (ICRC).
Soldiers were lodged in hotels and sanatoria in over 200 (mainly mountain) villages such as Davos, Murren, Château d’Oex, Leysin, Montana, Rossiniere, Rougemont and Les Diablerets. Internees included Germans, French, Belgians, British, Indians and Canadians.
On 30 May 1916, the alpine village of Chateau d’Oex welcomed 27 English officers and 488 English NCOs and soldiers, along with around 200 officers and soldiers from other nations.
On Sunday 29 and Monday 30 May 2016 the town is holding a centenary event. In preparation for the event they are trying to identify and learn more about the soldiers interned in Switzerland. If you have stories or other records that you would be willing to share, please send them to: stpeterschateaudeox(at)gmail.com.
The map below shows the numbers of people, rank and where they were interned.
Some stories are already well documented. Private Ernest Bunn, a New Zealand soldier, was captured by the German army in France after being wounded in the forearm by a grenade splinter. He was transferred to Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland in 1917. He says in a letter: “…having a fairly good time and I hope it will not be very long before I get back to New Zealand, for although this is good there is no place like ‘home’.” This hope was short lived as Ernest succumbed to the Influenza epidemic of June 1918. He died on 7 July 1918 at 5.45am at the Hotel La Soldanelle in Chateau d’Oex and is buried in St. Martin’s cemetery, Vevey, Switzerland together with two other New Zealand soldiers.
Another, Private Michael J. Boland, who served with the 1st Royal Newfoundland Regiment (Canada), was wounded and captured on 14 April 1917 in Monchy-le-Preux and imprisoned in three different prisoner of war camps in Germany. Transferred to Switzerland in December 1917, he spent time in the Interlaken hospital, where he received treatment for his wounds. He was then transferred to Château d’Oex where he stayed in the Hotel Torrent.