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Tom Leatherwood
Introduction to Hugo N. Dixon Memoirs

Hugo Norton Dixon (1892-1974) is known to the Mid-South community as a philanthropist, arts supporter, and the founder of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. But in 1914, in the weeks following the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Hugo Dixon was a 22 year old British national living in Bremen, Germany, who worked for the American cotton company, Geo. H. McFadden. Dixon wrote a journal that told the story of the war’s early days. Although the journal was written in 1916, it describes the period that followed German mobilization in August, 1914, and how that event affected the lives of those British citizens caught in Germany at the outbreak of the war.

The journal was divided into three volumes and written in French in typical student copy books. By 1916 when the memoir was written, Dixon, like almost all male British and Commonwealth citizens, was interned as a civilian prisoner at Ruhleben Camp, a former racetrack in the suburbs of Berlin. Because Dixon was of a suitable age to serve in the British army, he was confined for the duration of the war. One of the ways Hugo Dixon passed the time in prison camp was to study the French language. The journal was both an attempt to express himself in this new endeavor and to record a memoir of those events in 1914 which would have such a profound effect on his later life.

The opening weeks of the war are described with a growing sense of unease and dread by Dixon and his fellow British nationals. Eventually the group was imprisoned in the Bremen town jail where they lived for several months before their transfer to Berlin in November, 1914. Once at Ruhleben, the debonair and well-to-do Dixon lived with five other young men in a 12X12 foot horse stall in one of the barns that had been designed to hold race horses for the track. ‘Bar Seven, Box 22’ at the opening of Dixon’s journal refers to his “home” at the prison camp. He would remain there until after the Armistice in 1918. The journal itself ends abruptly before the prisoners’ arrival at Ruhleben. No one has any knowledge why Hugo Dixon left the diary unfinished. Dixon himself seldom referred to his wartime experiences in Germany, but the unfinished journal was among his effects at his death. It was eventually turned over to the museum by the Dixon’s first board chairman, Eric Catmur, who was a friend and business associate of Hugo Dixon. Catmur’s father had also been an internee with Dixon at Ruhleben.

While the art museum had the first volume of the diary translated as part of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ centennial celebration of Hugo Dixon’s birth in 1992, the project remained unfinished partly because of the fragility of the original document. In 2006, the Shelby County Archives scanned the original documents and created a digital file of the journals and related materials. With the assistance of University of Memphis French professor, William Thompson, who translated the original documents, the finished translation of the diary is now available on the website of the Shelby County Archives: http://register.shelby.tn.us.

For further reading about Ruhleben, see:
The Ruhleben Prison Camp: A Record of Nineteen Months’ Internment by Israel Cohen (1917).
The History of Ruhleben. A Record of British Organization in a Prison Camp in Germany by Joseph Powell and Francis Gribble (1919).
To Ruhleben and Back—a Great Adventure in Three Phases by Geoffrey Pyke (1916, new edition, 2002).
Ruhleben, A Prison Camp Society by John D. Ketchum (1965).
British Civilian Internees in Germany; the Ruhleben Camp, 1914-18 by Matthew Stibbe (2008)
Also see: http://ruhleben.tripod.com “The Ruhleben Story” website.

For additional digitized pictures and material available online see:
John Masterman Collection of Ruhleben Civilian Internment Camp Papers, 1914-1937 @ Harvard Law School Library.

(Information, references, and picture captions provided by Dixon former curator of education, Jane Ward Faquin.)