The German community in Britain at the outbreak of the First World War was one of the largest ethnic minorities, numbering around 60, 000. Inevitably, the war led to greater patriotism and nationalism through media propaganda and government legislation. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 required all aliens over 16 to register and demonstrate a good character and knowledge of English.
Tensions boiled over in a series of riots against Germany’s role in the war and any Germans thought to be living in Britain throughout the duration of the war from 1914 to 1917. Perhaps the most notable of these came after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915. The sinking killed 1, 198 of the passengers on board and which sparked riots in Manchester and Liverpool before spreading to other parts of the country.
The riots themselves were described by local newspapers at the time as ‘unorganised’ with the participants varying from men, women and children. They may have been unorganised but the large crowds they attracted meant the police were often overrun for their duration and could not prevent German shop owners from being chased and beaten whilst their homes and shops were ransacked and looted. The lack of organisation was also apparent in the fact that some shops and families were mistakenly targeted as Germans.
Although not all those who took part in the riots were arrested some of the rioters were and faced custodial sentences. However, these sentences were often short (up to 28 days) and often came with orders to compensate the victims whose shops they had damaged. There were also instances of the victims facing charges as they defended themselves. One individual, Mr Bakewell in Goldthorpe, whose shop was attacked was arrested after five people were shot during the riots.
In order to protect resident Germans the British Government issued orders for the arrest and internment of all Germans following the riots. Around 30,000 resident alien German men were placed in internment camps over the course of the war. Yet the strain this put on resources, due to many being involved in war work also shows the positive contribution they had on the British war effort.
The riots aggravated the relations between British subjects and German aliens, regardless of whether the latter had been naturalised. The army used the riots as a way to recruit volunteers, claiming that signing up was the right way of counter the German threat. There was also pressure on those Germans who were already naturalised to issue a declaration of loyalty to the British Crown and their abhorrence of German methods of warfare.