None of the Prisoner of War camps across Europe existed in complete isolation. Each camp had been created by one of the belligerent powers, but they were still supposed to adhere to wider international agreements. The 1907 Hague Rules, in particular, gave guidance for the treatment of captured enemy soldiers, which all governments were supposed to follow. The Swiss, as a neutral power in the First World War, worked to ensure that all camps operated within these legal boundaries. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was based in Geneva, also kept registers of those captured which proved crucial for loved ones seeking information about the missing.
Handforth was no exception in this respect. During the war, Handforth’s camp commandants had to welcome a constant stream of Swiss representatives. The first Swiss visitor to make the journey to rural Cheshire was a Colonel Dietrich Schindler who arrived in Handforth in December 1914, only a few weeks after the camp had opened. Schindler, a successful industrialist at home in Zurich, had been encouraged to visit Handforth by the British Foreign Office. Keen to refute German criticisms of British POW camps, the Foreign Office saw Schindler – well-respected and neutral – as the perfect person to accomplish this task.
Schindler arrived in Handforth on 19 December 1914 and immediately set out on a tour of the camp, visiting the main buildings and speaking to some of the – mainly civilian – internees held there. For the most part, Schindler’s report was favourable. He concluded by praising the camp’s leaders for their care of the prisoners and stated that “their treatment at the hands of the English officers is perfectly correct”. However, Schindler’s report did raise areas for improvement. He noted that the heating in Handforth was inadequate for warming the rooms and that meals were of a poor standard, although he suspected that this had more to do with the British “manner of cooking [meat and] vegetables” than the actual quality of the ingredients. Schindler also came across a group of prisoners who had been seized in Cameroon and then transported to Handforth. These men protested that their money and watches had been stolen on their journey to the camp. The British promised to investigate.
One German civilian prisoner – a Herr Böhringer – who had been released from Handforth in early 1915 rejected the optimistic picture that Schindler painted. In an article in a Swiss newspaper, Böhringer contradicted most of Schindler’s findings. The camp was only well run, he suggested, because the German prisoners ensured that order was maintained. The idea that the rooms were heated was also false. The common refrain by the prisoners to any visitors was always: “Help, help – we’re freezing!” According to Böhringer, the prisoners from Africa again had the worst of it, as they arrived in Handforth without warm winter clothing and thus suffered particularly badly through the winter.
After Schindler’s tour of Handforth in 1914, Swiss visitors continued to pass through the camp’s gates on a regular basis. Red Cross delegates came to observe conditions, as did representatives from the Swiss Legation in London. Most of these visits were performed by A. L. Vischer and F. Schwyzer who were both special attachés of the Legation. For the most part, their regular reports were wholly positive. After a visit in late 1918, for example, the report ended with the glowing comments: “Handforth camp deserves its reputation of being an exceedingly well-managed camp.” The final Swiss visitors came to Handforth in March 1919 even though the camp remained open until the year end. The reason for this, according to the German POWs, was that once Britain’s prisoners had been returned from Germany, there was no longer any need for reciprocal inspections.