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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Prisoners of War

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"PRISONERS OF WAR ( see 28.3 WY - The procedure laid down by international agreement for the treatment of Prisoners of War under the Hague regulations was tested during the World War under unprecedented difficulties. These arose not only from the passions and prejudices inevitably engendered in the course of such a vast conflict between the entire manhood of the nations concerned, but also from the facts that unexpectedly large numbers of combatants were taken prisoners, and that the captors had to deal with men of different nationalities, of varying characteristics and with widely different views as to the accommodation and food requisite for a prisoner of war.

Probably few people realized during the war how vast was the number of combatant prisoners taken by one side or the other, or how small was the proportion of the British prisoners to the whole number. Though the final figures cannot be given otherwise than approximately, it is certain that they amounted to several millions. To name only the principal belligerents (excluding Russia), Great Britain claims to have taken just under half a million, France just over that number, Italy nearly one million, Germany two and a half millions and Austria nearly one and a half millions. With regard to Russia the numbers have never been even approximately ascertained, but some idea of them may be gathered from the fact that Austria alone admitted to having lost to the Russians not less than one and a half millions. To the list must be added the prisoners captured by the Americans (48,000 in number), and by the Turks, Bulgarians and the other lesser belligerents. Of this vast host only about 200,000 (probably not much more than 2%) were British, and about 185,000 of these were in the hands of Germany.

When it is further remembered that sometimes in the course of a single operation tens of thousands of men, many of them wounded, were added to the number captured earlier, it will be understood how great was the strain placed on the captors' resources in the matter of transport, care and feeding. Moreover, prisoners were taken in almost every part of the globe in every kind of climate, and in conditions in which the means of supply and transport varied from being comparatively complete to being almost non-existent. Even if all the belligerent Governments had been actuated by the most earnest desire to apply strictly the provisions of the Hague Convention it was inevitable that there should be much suffering and, owing to the difficulty of effective supervision, cases of cruelty and ill-treatment at the hands of individuals.

It must be recognized that, speaking generally, the administrative problems in relation to the treatment of prisoners were not so serious in Great Britain as in most of the belligerent States, but it is satisfactory to be able to record that they were humanely and for the most part satisfactorily solved as they arose. It is on the other hand unfortunately true that, quite apart from the misery inseparable from prolonged confinement, numbers of British prisoners underwent gratuitous and grievous suffering, especially in territory merely occupied by the enemy and at some of the working camps in Germany, in Bulgaria and in Turkey.

While something is said below with regard to the treatment of prisoners by the Bulgarians and Turks, it is impossible here to attempt to deal with the whole area of hostilities and with the multitude of questions relating to prisoners which arose between the belligerents. This article, therefore, will deal chiefly with the lot of prisoners in Great Britain and Germany, and the application of the Hague regulations in those countries.

Though discussions arose as to the position of such persons as reservists and officers of merchant ships, prisoners of war may be divided into two main classes: (1) Civilian, (2) Combatant.

(1). Civilian. - It is quite certain that the framers of the Hague Convention had not in view the treatment of persons other than combatants, but such large numbers of civilians were interned during the war that the arrangements made for them must shortly be considered.

The internment of civilians in both Great Britain and in Germany was, as a system, possibly due to two accidental but different causes. In Great Britain it arose first from the widespread belief, justified probably only in a relatively small number of cases, that the German civilian population in England were either spies in the service of the German Government or an advance guard of a German army of occupation. After this feeling had died down, and release from internment had become general, the system had again to be resorted to after the sinking of the " Lusitania," largely in deference to wide-spread indignation at that outrage and for the protection of the Germans themselves. Even then, however, internment was not general. Every enemy alien had a right to have his case dealt with by an advisory committee, of which Mr. Justice Sankey was chairman and Lord Justice Younger was a member, and by this committee many exemptions were granted.

In Germany, on the other hand, the internment of civilians - ultimately much more indiscriminate than in the United Kingdom - resulted from popular indignation in Germany at the entry of Great Britain into the war.

Thus it was that in both countries - in England by end of Oct. 1914 and in Germany by Nov. 1914 - nearly every male enemy national of military age was interned, and the system, as applied to civilians, became established in both countries, although its working in Great Britain was later modified in the manner referred to above.

1 Accommodation

2 Management

3 Work and Recreation

4 Accommodation

5 Working Camps

6 Work

7 Pay

8 Food

9 Application of the Military Law of the Captors

10 Relief Societies

11 Recreation

12 Letters

13 Pay

14 Religious Exercises

15 Medical Treatment

16 Hospitals

17 Main Camps

18 German Working Camps

19 British Medical Arrangements

20 Repatriation

21 General Treatment

22 Oficers

23 Men in the Main Camps

24 Working Camps

25 Men in the Occupied Districts

26 Eastern Front

27 Western Front


The accommodation in both countries was bad in the beginning. In Great Britain some prisoners were at first placed on board ships, but this was found to be unsatisfactory for many reasons. Considerable numbers of aliens were sent to the Newbury race-course, where they lived in loose boxes without any beds and without any adequate sanitary or cooking arrangements; as numbers increased tents were added and various improvements made, but the place was never satisfactory, and it was closed soon after the weather broke in the autumn. It is only mentioned because it seems more than probable that, characteristically enough, Ruhleben (itself a race-course) was selected by the Germans for the internment of British civilians as a reply to Newbury. The problem of finding adequate accommodation was difficult in England where there were eventually some 29,000 Germans interned out of a considerably larger number not interfered with. In Germany the difficulty must have been even greater, as in addition to two and a half million combatants there were nearly 112,000 civilian internees of different nationalities to be provided for; of these only between 5,000 and 6,000 were British.' 1 There were in addition to German civilians interned in England a comparatively small number of internees of other nationalities and nearly 20,000 more in other parts of the Empire. The whole of the prisoners in German hands were of course confined in Germany or the occupied districts.

After the early unsatisfactory camps in England were closed, civilians were confined in large institutions of different kinds, but eventually far the largest number was placed in the Isle of Man, where there was created at Knockaloe a huge camp containing at last some 23,000 prisoners. There were also two " privilege camps " at Douglas and Wakefield, where those possessed of means could, upon payment, secure a certain amount of privacy and comfort, and employ as their servants other prisoners desirous of earning a little money. There was also Islington Workhouse, perhaps the best place of all, where enemy civilians with British-born wives, or some other claim to consideration, were interned.

In Germany the lot of those who were first arrested was worse than in England. They were cast into the ordinary prisons and treated like convicted criminals. After no long time, however, most of them were transferred to Ruhleben, which, with the exception of Schloss Celle, where a certain number of elderly civilians, whose status was somewhat uncertain, were placed, became the place of confinement for all British civilians.

Ruhleben was a race-course near Berlin, with stables, grandstand and all the usual appurtenances of a race-course. The prisoners were housed in the loose boxes and attics without at first any beds, though eventually ships' berths were fitted, six to a box. As the numbers grew, huts were added. The washing and sanitary arrangements, at first rudimentary only, were never satisfactory. No arrangements were made by the Germans for the housing of the prisoners according to their vocational or social affinities - a real boon in the case of civilians. They were allowed, however, ultimately to some extent to sort themselves.


At first in both countries the camps were conducted on military lines, but eventually the interned persons were left to manage the internal affairs of the camps very much by themselves. A camp captain was elected by them, and captains of huts or other divisions. The camp captain was the official medium of communication with the authorities.

Work and Recreation

It was recognized in both countries that civilians might not be forced to do any work beyond what was necessary for the orderliness of the camp. This was a doubtful privilege, and the prisoners' want of occupation led to difficulties in maintaining discipline. In the latter stages of the war, at all events in England, a small proportion of prisoners volunteered to work in order to escape the ennui of camp life, and for some i,50o out of the whole number, useful work was found, mainly in agriculture. No British civilians did any work outside the camps in Germany.

But much was done by the prisoners themselves. Workshops were organized and equipped with the assistance of the Y.M.C.A. (British and American), and other similar organizations. The difficulty in England was to find a market for the produce of the workshops, owing to the objections raised to the prisoners competing with British workmen. This was overcome by sending the articles manufactured to neutral countries.

Besides this form of manual occupation, classes were formed and lectures delivered, and students were enabled to continue their studies so far as their circumstances permitted, and a small number were employed in administrative work.

Medical Care. - Provision was made in England for the civilian prisoners by small hospitals in each place of internment, for the treatment of minor and urgent cases, while some who had been residents in Great Britain before the war were treated in outside institutions.

At Ruhleben a lazaret to which any prisoners could go was established at the Emigrants' Railway Station, close to the camp. The place had previously been used by a low class, and was filthy. The sanitation was bad, and the accommodation of the roughest description, while the attention given to the patients was, to say the least, perfunctory; a doctor came once a. day, and there were no nurses or orderlies. After the first disorganization was remedied, there was what was called the Revier Barracke, with a waiting and consultation room, in which the doctor examined those requiring advice. The place had accommodation for emergency cases and those suffering from accidents, and persons were kept under observation till it was decided what should be done with them. From here patients were drafted either to the lazaret above mentioned, or to Dr. Weiler's Sanatorium outside but near the camp, established at the suggestion of the American ambassador for the better treatment of the prisoners, in return for a substantial payment made either by the British Government, or by the patients themselves.

Besides these there was the Schonungs Barracke, a place for convalescents and the ailing. Though the building was provided by the German Government, the place owed its existence and all its amenities to the self-denying labours of Mr. Lambert, himself a British prisoner. It proved a real home of rest for those who were not ill enough to require hospital treatment.

One great defect in the arrangements made for the sick prisoners here was that the German Government, as in the camps where combatant prisoners were confined, provided no diet suitable for them. The ration was the same as for men in good health. A proper diet was provided in Dr. Weiler's Sanatorium in return for the substantial payment made by or on behalf of the patients, and in the Schonungs Barracke by Mr. Lambert with the assistance of friends in England.

Lastly, one further fact should be mentioned. In a few exceptional cases persons were allowed to proceed to places far removed from Berlin to complete " cures " which had been interrupted by the outbreak of war.

The position with regard to the care of sick civilian prisoners may be summed up as follows: The German Government provided some, but inadequate, accommodation for the very poor, and did not put any great obstacles in the way of prisoners who could themselves afford, or for whom the British Government or others were willing, to pay for better treatment.

(2). Combatant Prisoners. - In considering the application of the Hague Convention to the combatant prisoners, it is impossible to deal with all the subjects mentioned in it. It is proposed to deal at length only with the principal matters, viz. accommodation, food, the application of the military law of the captors, and after touching on a few less important subjects, to consider how the great general principle enunciated in Article 4, that prisoners must be " humanely treated," was acted on.


German officers in Great Britain were interned in large country houses and public institutions adapted for the purpose, to which, as necessity arose, additions were made, usually in the form of wooden huts. The necessary furniture and everything reasonably required for messing, as well as fuel and light, was provided free of charge. In Germany, however, the housing was in many cases bad and unsuitable. British officers were confined in the casements of fortresses, as at Ingolstadt; in the men's barracks, as at Crefeld; in disused factories as at Halle, or in huts which had been previously occupied by the rank and file of other nations, as at Holzminden. The best accommodation was in some of the hotels, as at Augustabad, where, until the place became crowded, conditions were comfortable. The British prisoners had to provide, at their own expense, cutlery and everything required for the table, as well as fuel and light, which last caused considerable hardship in winter, for some of the camps were established in summer resorts slightly constructed and at a high altitude.

The actual position of the German places of confinement was undoubtedly chosen in some cases with ulterior objects in view. Thus, the quarters provided right in the middle of the Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik at Ludwigshafen, and in the centre of Karlsruhe, were undoubtedly chosen in the hopes of warding off air attacks on those places or for the purpose of involving nationals of the raiders in the results.

The men's camps fall into two classes - the large main camps and the working camps.

In both countries the arrangements in the main camps were similar. The camps consisted of groups of huts, either attached to some barracks or similar place, or quite independent, with the necessary cook-houses, baths, latrines and administrative block, all surrounded by a barbed wire fence. There were frequent and justifiable complaints of overcrowding in the German camps. At Wittenberg, for instance, there was, when the camp was full, a population of from 15,000 to 17,000 on an area of about io acres. There was usually a building set apart for religious services and recreation in the form of concerts and theatrical performances. The sleeping accommodation consisted of bunks arranged in two or sometimes three tiers. The camps were divided by barbed wire into compounds containing about 1,200 prisoners - camps within a camp.

Working Camps

The housing of the prisoners sent out to work is more difficult to deal with comprehensively, for it depended so much on the locality and nature of the work, quite apart from the goodwill or otherwise of the employer. According to the German regulations, there ought to have been five cubic metres of internal capacity for each prisoner of war. This regulation was by no means always observed. The accommodation provided in Germany varied from a single very-well-lit and ventilated bedroom in a farm to crowded filthy quarters in verminous draughty buildings in mines, quarries and brickyards. In the larger working camps, buildings were sometimes erected for the express purpose of housing the prisoners, and, though not infrequently overcrowded, were generally suited for this purpose. These buildings were sometimes of brick, more usually of wood, set up somewhat above the ground level. In E. Prussia, however, and in a few other places, a construction common in the neighbourhood was used. The huts were sunk into the ground and were in fact something like large lined dugouts roofed over. They were not satisfactory for considerable numbers, but had the advantage that they were in that bleak district warmer in winter than if they had been erected wholly above ground. In other cases, the prisoners lived in the quarters which at many mines and large industrial works the employers provided for their own bachelor workmen. Such quarters were usually satisfactory. The situation of these quarters, of course, depended on the conditions existing locally, and the nature of the work. In mines they were usually in the mine compound, in some places they were situated at a distance from the actual place of working, and thus was added to the day's labour a walk of occasionally as much as 5 km. each way - a serious addition if the work was severe. But in the majority of cases there were no workmen's quarters, and it was impracticable to build barracks for only a few prisoners. Accommodation was then provided in village recreation halls, inns, theatres and similar places. They were not well adapted for the purpose, but where a little goodwill was shewn on both sides, were often made reasonably comfortable.

In a few cases, at Kiel and elsewhere in that neighbourhood, the prisoners lived on board ship where the accommodation, according to the neutral reports, seems to have been satisfactory.

In the places dealt with above, good provision was usually made for bathing, personal washing and laundry; in many mines and industrial works the men were able to get a hot shower-bath daily. In some places, on the other hand, the quarters provided were disgusting. To take two instances out of many which might be given. At Fangslause, attached to Doberitz, where the men were engaged in refuse sorting, the barracks consisted of a wooden building divided into two rooms, which were very dirty, in a verminous condition, and overrun with rats and mice. There were no arrangements for bathing or washing; the only opportunity the men had for washing being afforded by a canal near by. At another place, a coalyard, the men were housed in an archway under one of the main lines running into Berlin, and bathing arrangements were nil. In Great Britain, prisoners of war sent to work were either housed by the military authorities or, in some cases, when engaged in agriculture, by the employer, who was bound to supply housing accommodation, straw for filling palliasses, cooking utensils, crockery, facilities for washing and artificial light. As in Germany, it was not always found possible in England to house prisoners near their work. Any time required to reach and return from their work in excess of one hour was deducted from the hours of labour. One rest day a week was allowed in both countries.


The construction placed during the World War by the belligerents upon Article 6, which enables the captors to employ the labour of prisoners of war and to authorize them to work for the public service or private persons, probably caused more ill-feeling than any other cause, for the result was to reduce hundreds of thousands of men temporarily to virtual, if not nominal, slavery. In the war of 1870-I the Germans took some 400,000 French as prisoners. They were permitted, but in no way forced, to work in factories and elsewhere. During the World War, with many exceptions, it is true, practically all able-bodied prisoners, except officers and non-commissioned officers, were ultimately forced to work.

Early in 1915 the British prisoners in German hands were invited to volunteer for work outside the main camps. They refused almost to a man. Then by degrees pressure was applied, and soon men who refused were punished for their refusal, and, eventually, as mentioned below, a formal pronouncement on the subject was made by the German Military Courts.

Meanwhile, a question arose as to the employment of noncommissioned officers. As early as February 1915, the German Government suggested certain privileges for superior noncommissioned officers, and eventually an agreement was come to, that non-commissioned officers should not be compelled to work, except as superintendents, unless they volunteered to do so.

A camp was formed for non-commissioned officers at Grossenweder floor, in the notorious X. Army Corps district, and steps were taken to obtain volunteers for work by withdrawing all privileges and forcing the men to march on parade for nine hours a day. The men did not volunteer and eventually the conditions were improved.

The question of the nature of the work which could be properly demanded of prisoners of war was early found to be a difficult one. In a war of nations such as the World War every able-bodied man replaced by a prisoner is a potential soldier, and, in these circumstances, any work in the enemy country might be said to be " indirectly connected with the operations of war," especially in cases in which the prisoner was engaged in any step in the manufacture or transport of any one of the multitude of articles necessary for an army in the field.

The position first taken up by the German authorities was that so long as prisoners did not actually handle the finished product - arms, ammunition and such like - there was no infraction of the rules of international law. This, however, did not really cover the whole ground, and the matter was eventually formally considered by the German Military Courts, and the following principles were laid down: (I) The work on which a prisoner of war may be employed can only be judged on the merits of each particular case.

(2) It is illegal to employ prisoners of war in the manufacture of munitions intended for use against their native country or its allies.

(3) They may be employed in agricultural or forestry work, as well as on military property, e.g. the improvement of parade and drill-grounds and of rifle ranges.

(4) They may be employed on preparation work, e.g. the transport of coke or of ores for the manufacture of shells, because there is no direct connexion between such work and military operations.

(5) They can onl y claim exemption from such work as stands in direct relation to military operations in the area of hostilities. These principles were accepted by the British War Office and the commanders-in-chief of the British armies, and seem on the whole to have been fairly acted on by the German authorities except behind the lines on the eastern and western fronts, though in some cases individual commandants attempted to force men to take part in the actual manufacture of such things as shells, parts of fuzes and the like.

There seem to have been a large number of them employed in labouring work, handling the actual material for guns, shells, etc., in places where munitions were made, and some cases in which they had to take an active part in the manufacture of the finished article certainly did occur. At Krupp's Germania wharf at Kiel, prisoners were employed in riveting ships, including the outsides of submarines, while at Mannheim a number of British were made to work in the manufacture of sulphuric acid in the middle of a large munition factory.

The authorities naturally reserved to themselves the right to say what work the prisoners could be forced to do, but, at all events in the early years of the war, they promised to give to the prisoners certificates that they had been forced to do the work to which they objected in order to protect them against proceedings in their own country. The promise seems to have been very seldom kept.

Setting aside work directly or indirectly connected with the operations of war there seems to have been no kind of work which prisoners were not called on to perform. They were employed in every kind of manual labour, including work in mines, from skilled engineering to scavenging. This last seems to transgress the principles laid down in the German War Book, that " these tasks " (to which prisoners can be put) " should not be prejudicial to health nor in any way dishonourable." In Berlin prisoners were sent to work in a slaughterhouse; at three places they were obliged to do scavenging in the public streets, while at two places at Kiel, and at four places near Berlin they had to collect and sort the rubbish of the town. The visitor of the protecting Power says in his report of one of the places at Kiel where only British prisoners were employee. " the work the prisoners are called on to perform is of a particularly revolting character." In Great Britain, the principles above stated having been accepted, prisoners were employed in accordance with them, but none were employed in mines, nor were such degrading tasks as scavenging and refuse-sorting imposed on them. A large number were employed in France in various capacities not directly connected with the operations of war, and, after the Armistice, in general salvage work.

The organization of the working camps was much the same in both countries. Each working camp was connected with a main camp, which was the centre for all administrative purposes and upon its books the prisoners were borne.

In Germany the working camps were divided into three classes: - (a) those which the representative of the protecting Power might visit freely and see the men at their work and in their quarters; (b) those in which he might see them in their quarters but not at work; and (c) those in which he was admitted neither to the work nor to the quarters but was allowed to see one or more prisoners outside. It has been suggested that this classification was due to the influence of some of the great industrial magnates who objected to their works being visited by outsiders, but, however this may be, the third class was a very small one, and the prohibition with regard to the second and third classes does not appear to have been very strictly enforced.


The provisions of the Hague Convention with regard to pay are too vague to be of any real value.

In the II. Army Corps district the German regulations, which may be taken as typical, seemed to contemplate a payment by the employer of the customary local wages, of which the military administrative department took three-quarters for board, lodging, guarding, etc., and the prisoner was credited with one quarter, which he received in token money. In practice, a prisoner working on the land generally himself received 30 pf. a day, in mines from 75 to 90 pf., and in industrial works from 50 pf. to even several marks a day. In some cases a premium was paid to prisoners who did more than the minimum.

Prisoners of war in British hands, when employed by the Government, received the same rate of pay as that given to British soldiers as working pay. When employed by private persons or corporations the employer in England was obliged to pay the full current rate of wages to the Government by whom the prisoner was paid. Piece-work or task-work was adopted where possible and extra pay given where the task was exceeded. The rates were so adjusted that a man of moderate industry could earn the equivalent of time-work earnings, and a very industrious man could earn more. Time-work was paid at rates which ranged according to circumstances from is. 4d. to 8d. a day. These sums were credited to the prisoner, but power was reserved to the commandant to decide the amount actually issued to the prisoner.


Article 7 imposes on the captor State the duty of maintaining its prisoners, and provides for their being treated as regards rations, quarters and clothing on the same footing as its own troops. This article is difficult to understand; it is not clear whether prisoners are to have the same rations as soldiers in the field or at home; or whether they are to be placed in barracks with the same space and conveniences as the captor's soldiers. How this last matter was actually dealt with has been already explained. Whatever may be the true construction of the article, none of the belligerents observed the letter of it with regard to food. Difficulties arose, not merely from the steadily decreasing supplies, owing to the submarine war on one side and the blockade of Germany on the other, but also from the difference in the kind of food appreciated by the subjects of the two countries. At a time when the Germans interned in England were receiving the full peace-time rations of the British soldier, they were complaining of the insufficiency and unpalatable nature of the food. On the other hand, the British prisoners - even when supplies were sufficient in Germany - complained of the brown or black bread, and of the soup, which is liked by the continental working man.

In England, after a short time, no rations were issued to officers. Canteens were established, and subject to regulations for the prevention of undue luxury, the German officers could provide such food as they wished, which was prepared for them by cooks of their own nationality.

In Germany it was different. Rations were issued, though not always partaken of. The British officers, at all events after the war had continued for some time, lived almost entirely on supplies obtained from home. The rations in Germany were issued according to a scale based upon a scientific analysis of the composition of the food given, which showed a daily average in grammes of albumen, fat and carbo-hydrates, and the number of calories. These, as determined by the Kriegs ministerium for the last week in Sept. 1916 at Parchim Camp, averaged daily 75.6, 2 4.5, 368.4 and 2,019.4 respectively.

It perhaps throws some light on the sufficiency of this ration that in July 1918, nearly two years later, it was agreed between the representatives of Great Britain and Germany, who met at The Hague, that the combatant prisoners of war should receive as far as possible the same allowance of rationed articles of food as the civil population, and that in no case should the daily calorific value fall below 2,000 calories for non-workers, 2,500 for ordinary workers, and 2,800 for heavy workers.

It may be doubted, however, whether at any time in German camps the prisoners received even these moderate amounts of food; and as the supplies became more difficult to obtain, they probably received considerably less, even in the working camps. Even if they did, such things as fish roe, soya flour, soya oil, buckwheat and " blutwurst " do not appeal to a British soldier, however admirable they may be from a scientific point of view as articles of food, especially when they are all boiled together and given in the form of soup.

In England the scales were not drawn up in exactly the same way. If we take the principal articles of food, up to the middle of 1916 the German prisoners received a daily ration of 12 lb. of bread, 8 oz. of fresh or frozen meat or 4 oz. of preserved, 2 oz. of cheese and 1 oz. of margarine. By Dec. 1917, the ration had been much reduced. The bread ration was 13 oz., for 4 oz. of which broken biscuit was substituted when obtainable. Meat was given on three days a week only, but a ration of 10 oz. of herring was added on two days. The 2 oz. of cheese and 1 oz. of margarine were given till Oct. 1918, when both were reduced. In the case of non-workers, the bread in Oct. 1918 was reduced by a quarter of a pound, the cheese omitted, and the margarine further reduced. In England, as in Germany, the prisoners had to share in the privations of the civilian population.

In both countries the rations were supplemented by parcels of food which were sent to the prisoners. At first they were sent from England by individuals and associations, but before long great abuses arose. Some British prisoners received large numbers of parcels, not infrequently far beyond any possible require ments. Others received nothing, and there can be no doubt that in not a few cases gross fraud was practised on sympathetic persons. Early in 1915 the Prisoners of War Help Committee was established in London. It tried to coordinate the work of the different associations and individuals, but failed as it had no powers, and was dissolved in Sept. 1916, when the Central Prisoners of War Committee of the British Red Cross and Order of St. John was officially established and without its authorization no individual or body could send a parcel to a prisoner.

Amongst its functions were (r) to authorize committees, associations and approved shops to pack and despatch parcels to prisoners of war, (2) to control and coordinate the work of all such committees, associations and shops, and (3) to act as a care committee for all prisoners who for any reason were without a care committee, for all civilian prisoners, and, after Oct. 1917, for all officer prisoners.

Under the presidency of Sir Starr Jameson, Bart., and, after his death, of the Earl of Sandwich, the committee of which Sir P. D. Agnew was vice-chairman and managing-director, not only organized the whole of the despatch of parcels of food and other things to the prisoners of war by 181 care committees, 81 local associations and 67 shops, but packed and despatched parcels to individual officers and men, numbering, at the date of the Armistice, no less than 47,500. Three parcels of 11 lb. weight were sent each fortnight to every prisoner and contained, together with 13 lb. of bread sent once a fortnight from Copenhagen or Berne, sufficient, without other food, to maintain a man doing reasonably hard work. Officers did not come under the scheme till the autumn of 1917.

At first the scheme was very unpopular, because it interfered with the power of individuals to send what they liked to their friends, and in April 1917, a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament was appointed to enquire into it. The report was published in June of that year, and while paying a high tribute of praise to the work accomplished made certain suggestions which did much to allay the discontent, as they provided for the introduction of the personal touch into the parcels. In its main features the scheme continued till the end of the war.

Besides the despatch of parcels to individuals the Committee sent food, either in bulk or in the form of emergency parcels, to the larger camps in Germany, for newly captured prisoners.

Though it is obvious that the despatch of parcels of food on the great scale indicated above relieved the German Government of a very great responsibility, yet it must be recognized that credit is due to the German nation for the fact that all but a small percentage reached the addresses to which they were sent, notwithstanding that they contained articles unobtainable in Germany, except by the very rich.

Though it is true that the parcels arrived, it is also true that in some camps the German commandants as a punishment delayed or prohibited for some days or even weeks their issue to the addressees, and that there were complaints as to the way in which the censoring of the contents of the parcels, necessary of course to prevent the introduction of prohibited articles, was carried out. Latterly, however, in all good camps the parcels were opened in the presence of the addressee, and the tinned food was stored and not opened till it was required.

Owing to the increasing shortage of food in Germany, and to the fact that the rations in England for a long time were maintained at a reasonable level, the number of parcels sent to German prisoners was far smaller than that sent to British prisoners. At first a considerable amount of food was sent into the German prisoners' camps in England from their relations and friends residing in Great Britain, but when the shortage became acute it became necessary to prohibit this practice.

The Hague Convention also requires the captor to treat his prisoners as regards clothing on the same footing as his own soldiers. The German Government claimed that it strictly observed this article and forbade the sending of clothing by the British Government. The article was not observed at all in some German camps, and great trouble was caused by the claim, in at all events some army corps, that boots were part of a sol dier's military equipment, and that the captors were entitled to take them. The clothing in any case supplied by the Germans was quite insufficient, and arrangements were made by which an adequate supply was despatched according to a regular scale. Some of it went astray and some was stolen, although a good proportion reached the addressees. In England clothing was issued when necessary to enemy prisoners, other than officers, on a regular scale, which provided for them having a sufficient change of clothing, while in both countries officers made their own arrangements for the supply of the necessary clothing.

Application of the Military Law of the Captors

Article 8 enacts that prisoners of war are subject to the laws, regulations and orders in force in the army of the captor State, a provision which gave rise to a good deal of trouble, owing, in England, to the difficulty of carrying it out strictly - while in some cases, as in Bulgaria, punishments were allowed - such as flogging - for ordinary breaches of discipline - which were quite alien to British ideas of what is permissible.

The German military law is in general far more severe than the British, and there is this further great difference, that in Germany officers as well as men may be summarily sent to cells or awarded other severe punishments for trivial offences, while in the United Kingdom, strictly, any offender above the rank of private should have been tried by court-martial, a provision amended during the war by the substitution of military courts.

In another respect the German code is more severe in that all sentences of arrest involved solitary confinement, while one of close arrest, which was limited to four weeks, meant that the prisoner was confined in a dark cell, with a plank bed and bread and water diet, though these aggravations of the punishment were omitted on the fourth, eighth and subsequently every third day, the prisoner receiving the ordinary camp diet on these days.

One punishment officially termed " field punishment," but more generally known in England as the " post punishment," caused a great outcry in that country and much resentment among British prisoners in Germany. It is provided in the German Manual of Military Law that the punishment is to be inflicted in a manner not detrimental to the health of the prisoner, who is to be kept in an upright position with the back turned to a wall or a tree in such a manner that the prisoner can neither sit nor lie down. These last words were construed to mean tying the prisoner to a post; sometimes his feet were placed on a brick which was removed after he was securely tied, and sometimes his hands were secured above his head. Apart, at all events, from these aggravations, this punishment was in strict accordance with the military law of the captors; indeed it corresponds to the field punishment No. r authorized by the British military law and described in the rules for field punishment for offences committed on active service made under Sec. 44 of the Army Act. These rules authorize the keeping of the offender in fetters or handcuffs or both, and when so kept he may be attached by straps or ropes for a period or periods not exceeding two hours in any one day to a fixed object during not more than three out of four consecutive days nor more than twenty-one days in all.

In Germany all prisoners are liable to be treated as " in the field," i.e. on active service.

In one respect, viz. the punishments for attempted escape, the German military law was less severe than the British, the greater severity of the latter having apparently arisen from a misunderstanding of the expression " peines disciplinaires " in the second paragraph of the 8th Article of the Hague Convention. This seems to have been understood on the Continent as a punishment which could be awarded summarily: that is, arrest, open, medium or close, for a period not exceeding six weeks. In Great Britain the punishment was limited to 12 months' imprisonment; in Germany it was far less for the simple offence, though it was frequently added to by the addition of charges for damaging Government property, and the like. The matter came under discussion between the British and German Delegates at The Hague in 1917 and 1918, and an agreement was arrived at by which the punishment for a simple attempt to escape was to be limited to fourteen days, or if accompanied with offences relating to the appropriation, possession of or injury to property to two months' military confinement.

In addition to the summary punishments, there were, of course, in both countries the punishment of death and imprisonment, which could only be inflicted by court-martial. In some cases the German code lays down minimum punishments of great severity, and in many of those cases, in which the infliction of very severe punishments properly raised a great outcry in England, the German court-martial had no option but to pass them. The British military law on the other hand has only one offence - murder - for which there is a fixed punishment; for others it is " such less punishment as is in the Act mentioned." In one respect the prisoners of both countries never were satisfied. Neither understood or appreciated the procedure of the other. The British never understood the long delays, sometimes it is to be feared deliberate, which occurred in bringing them to trial for alleged offences, and during which they were kept under arrest, nor, owing to their ignorance of the German military code, could they understand the very severe sentences necessarily passed by courts-martial (which seem usually to have been conducted with fairness), nor the right of the prosecutor to appeal against a sentence which he considered to be inadequate.

On the other hand, the Germans never appreciated the British procedure, nor could they understand the absence of any right of formal appeal from a sentence, for which ample provision is made in Germany, even against the award of a disciplinary punishment, a right which, oddly enough, by Sec. 52 of the Regulations relating to it, the accused shared with the prosecutor " only when the sentence has been carried out." Parole. - Articles 10, II and r 2 deal with the subject of parole. In the World War no combatant prisoners, with one exception, were allowed to leave Germany or Great Britain on parole, or to reside outside the camps. The only cases in which questions arose were with regard to the temporary parole given when officers left their camps for a walk, and the parole given by those who were interned in neutral countries. According to the custom of the British Army no officer ought to give his parole, it being his duty to escape and rejoin his unit if he can, nor can anyone below the rank of officer give a parole. In both countries, however, officers were eventually allowed to go out for a walk in parties accompanied by an officer, each giving in writing a temporary written parole that he would not attempt to escape, nor during the walk make arrangements to escape, nor do anything to the prejudice of the captor State. The parole was given on leaving the camp and returned on reentry.

The case of those interned in neutral countries was different. The British officers of the Royal Naval Division interned in Holland after the fall of Antwerp were permitted to choose their own residence in Groningen on parole, the men being interned close by. This privilege was withdrawn for a time, and the officers were interned in a fortress, but it was restored later.

As time went on, the Netherlands Government permitted officers to return to England and Germany on parole, on proof of the serious illness of a near relative, a concession which was afterwards extended so that regular periods of leave were enjoyed by both officers and men, the former giving a formal parole and the latter a promise to return on the expiration of their leave, while the British Government gave its assurance that the men would not be employed on any work to do with war, and would return at the end of their leave. Similarly, the Danish and Norwegian Governments granted leave to British and German combatants interned in their countries.

No parole seems to have been taken from those officers who were interned in Switzerland or Holland under the agreements made in 1917 and 1918 with the German Government.

Relief Societies

Article 15 deals with societies for the relief of prisoners. An immense amount of valuable work, impossible here to particularize, was done by such societies. The American branch of the Y.M.C.A. especially did much for the prisoners in England and Germany, being permitted to work on the following conditions, substantially the same in both countries.

A building or tent might be erected in the camp with the consent of the general officer in command of the district or army corps, but nothing might be sold in it nor could any one be employed there other than a prisoner. A member of the association might visit the camp once a week for a definite time. He might hold services, provide materials for games, entertainments and employment, arrange instructional courses, provide books (subject to censorship) and writing materials other than writing paper and envelopes. Nothing might be given to or received by a prisoner without the commandant's consent.


No express provision is contained in the Hague Convention relating to the occupation of prisoners in their leisure time, but much of the good work done by the societies had to do with the recreation and education of prisoners. In both countries, and in nearly all camps, provision was eventually made for sufficient space for recreation and exercise, but this was not the case at first. At Halle, for instance, a German camp for officers, established in a disused factory, the only place for exercise was the space enclosed by the three buildings, in which some Soo officers lived. It measured about ioo yards by 50, and in winter was a morass of water and mud; in summer deep in dust. In some of the men's camps the space was very confined, and organized games of any kind were impossible. But later things improved, and in most provision, sometimes at the prisoners' expense, was made for sufficient room for tennis, football and other games.

In England, facilities were provided by the War Office. To take two typical instances, it may be said that at Donnington Hall for German officers, there was a considerable space in front of the house, and at Dorchester, for men, there was a large field where any games could be played.

As time went on, walks outside the camp were permitted for officers on their giving a temporary parole, and in Germany, in some of the larger working camps, the men were allowed out for walks on Sunday.

With regard to educational facilities, in England both officers and men made their own arrangements, as they did in Germany, with the full concurrence of the authorities. At Munster, for instance, the general officer commanding excused all students from work, and much was done by some of the prisoners in the organization of classes and lectures. The neutral organizations, such as the American and Danish Y.M.C.A.'s, also did a great deal in this direction, as did certain of the German civilians in the neighbourhood of the great camp at Gottingen. Professor Stange and some of his colleagues interested themselves in the prisoners and organized the educational work in the camp, and he himself had an office there where he was accessible to prisoners, and assisted them with his advice on educational matters. He used even to obtain the requisites for games through the Red Cross in Switzerland. Unfortunately for them, all the British prisoners were ultimately removed from Gottingen, which had become something of a model camp.

Some of the larger employers were also very considerate in this respect, providing recreation halls and fields for playing games, and even musical instruments. At Mulheim the Dutch visitor found the employers had paid the expenses of the prisoners' Christmas festivities.


Article 16 was observed by both countries, except that at one time in some of the camps in Germany customs duties were charged on the contents of parcels, but this seems to have been due to some misapprehension, and was soon abandoned. Prisoners were as a rule allowed to write two letters a month and a postcard every week, and, in addition, a postcard in the prescribed form acknowledging the receipt of a parcel. But later in the war a " first capture postcard " was introduced, by which on a printed form a prisoner was allowed to notify to his relatives his capture, his state of health and his address.


Article 17 provides for officers receiving the same rate of pay as officers of the corresponding rank in the army of the captors. This provision was not observed by the German Government, who paid subalterns 60 marks a month and other ranks rather more. Accordingly, the British Government declined to carry out the terms of the article and paid the German subalterns 4s. a day and other ranks 4s. 6d., naval officers being paid according to their relative rank. Out of this an officer was required to pay for his food, laundry and clothing, a deduction being made if he was in hospital (where, of course, he was provided with everything necessary). By an arrangement made later the German Government was allowed to make a small addition to these daily rates of pay. Medical officers employed in the care of sick and wounded prisoners of their own nationality received the full pay of medical officers of corresponding rank in the army of the captors.

Religious Exercises

Article 18 is designed to secure to prisoners complete liberty in the exercise of their religion, and during the World War no real complaint was made on either side.

In the United Kingdom German pastors who had been resident in the country were allowed to hold services in the camps, but difficulties arose and the permission was withdrawn. Thereupon some pastors elected to be interned, with a view to ministering to the prisoners. Later, however, the permits were issued in a modified form, and English and American clergy and laymen and members of the Danish and Swiss Student Christian Movement were allowed to visit the camps, the necessary funds being provided by the American Branch of the Y.M.C.A. The Roman Catholic prisoners were usually attended by the priest of the district in which the camp was situated and every facility was given to them. Where no German-speaking priest was at hand the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster charged the German priests of his archdiocese to visit the camps every now and then in order to enable the prisoners to go to confession and to hear a sermon in their mother tongue.

In Germany, at first, the Rev. F. Williams, who had been in charge of the English Church in Berlin, was allowed to visit the different camps and hospitals. But this permission was withdrawn and the prisoners were left to conduct their own services, to which, except at Grossenweder Moor, no objection was raised. A few British chaplains were captured, and did good work until they were repatriated. Great assistance was given also by the American branch of the Y.M.C.A., and by Archdeacon Nies, an American clergyman at Munich, until the United States came into the war.

The German clergy also did what they could for the prisoners in many camps and hospitals. Some of them were spoken of very warmly by the British prisoners.

The needs of the Roman Catholics were more easily met owing to the presence among the French prisoners of many priests who did excellent work, and the Bishop of Paderborn (afterwards Archbishop of Cologne) did much for the prisoners. Moreover, Father Crotty was sent from Rome and was permitted to minister at Limburg and Giessen, partly perhaps because he was an Irishman, and it was hoped his influence might be useful to the Germans.

In the German working camps there was no regular provision for religious services, though Mr. Williams seems to have visited some of the larger places, and in one district a German pastor is said to have travelled around the small camps and ministered to the prisoners. There was a standing order of the Kriegsministerium that, at all events in the country districts, the prisoners should be allowed to attend the local churches. This, though of value to Roman Catholics, was not much use to the Protestants, owing to the difficulties of language.

At Zossen the Germans built a mosque for Mahommedan prisoners, and generally arrangements seem to have been made to avoid hurting religious and caste prejudices.

Medical Treatment

Up to this point an attempt has been made to show how the provisions of the Hague Convention were applied in Great Britain and Germany. But this Convention does not deal with everything which affects the well-being of prisoners of war. The Geneva Convention of 1606 requires the belligerents to respect and take care of the wounded and sick without distinction of nationality, and leaves them at liberty to agree for the restoration of wounded left on the field, the repatriation of wounded after rendering them fit for removal or after recovery, and for handing over the sick and wounded to a neutral State to be interned by it till the conclusion of hostilities. What was in fact done must be considered under three heads: the attention given (I) in the regular hospitals, (2) in the main camps and (3) in the working camps.


In Germany at first there seem to have been inadequate arrangements made for the reception of seriously wounded prisoners, but later well-arranged and well-equipped hospitals were available, the principal being in Berlin, at Cologne and Paderborn, though of course there were a large number elsewhere. As time went on and the pressure on Germany became more and more acute, the supply of medical requisites became deficient, bandages were made of paper, drugs and anaesthetics were less plentiful, but, though naturally British prisoners would fare worse than the wounded Germans, there is no evidence that the former were intentionally deprived of anything necessary for them if there was an adequate supply.

The conduct of the German doctors to the prisoners in the regular hospitals is one of the bright pages in the sad history of the World War, and is worthy of their great profession. Most of the returned British prisoners reported that the doctors were kind and humane, while many of them spoke of them in warmest possible terms and told how the doctor had said that when a prisoner was wounded or ill he no longer looked on him as an enemy, or how, though he hated the English, he did his very best. There were exceptions, who formed a very small minority. The large majority of German doctors worked hard, often with infinite kindness, in the interests of those in their charge, and unreservedly placed such knowledge and skill as they possessed at the disposal of the prisoners.

The nursing in Germany was carried out by orderlies, by trained nurses or by sisterhoods. It seems to have varied very much. In some cases it was good and kind, in some indifferent, and in some rough and bad. But there appears to be no reason to think that in any case it was intentionally less good than circumstances permitted.

Main Camps

The same satisfactory account of the medical arrangements in the main German camps cannot be given, even after the first disorganization was overcome. There was in each camp a lazaret providing accommodation for a number proportionate to the number for which the camp was designed, but the arrangements were often very incomplete.

There seem to have been a large number of Russian doctors employed in the German camps, while in a few, for short periods, English medical officers were employed - though in all cases a German seems to have been responsible. The nursing was in the main done by prisoner orderlies, many of whom of course were quite untrained, though they seem to have done their best. It is impossible to generalize as to the conduct of the German medical staff in hundreds of camps over a period of four years, but the general impression produced by the evidence is that the staffs were humane and did all they could.

There is reliable evidence that the nature of the food provided in the German camp hospitals, as distinguished from the regular hospitals, where, until supplies became very short, it seems to have been satisfactory, was quite unsuited for invalids. A sick prisoner was a non-worker, and therefore received the ordinary camp ration, less io per cent. This was even the case in the typhus camps, where the requisite milk and light food for the fever-stricken patients had to be provided by the British and Allied medical officers themselves.

There seems to have been insufficient care, at all events in the early stages of the war, to prevent the spread of tuberculosis by the segregation from the healthy of those suffering from that disease. Later, however, steps were taken to effect this, and more than one place was established exclusively for tuberculous patients, while the arrangement made for their internment in Switzerland did still more to deal with this evil.

It must not of course be said that this mingling of the sick and healthy was deliberate. It was probably due to want of thought, an excuse which cannot be made for the policy adopted by the German Government of mixing all the Allies together, although this was bound in the circumstances to lead to an excessive amount of illness. This policy was quite deliberate. Mr. Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany, in 1915 raised the question with the German authorities with regard to officers, and reported: " I was told that this was a political move ordered for the purpose of showing to the French, British, Belgian and Russian officers that they were not natural Allies." The commandant of the Gardelegen camp tried to enforce the observance of this regulation during the height of the typhus epidemic at that camp, but his direct order was deliberately disobeyed by the British doctors, with excellent results.

Though this policy did not produce any ill effects upon the health of the prisoners in the officers' camps in Germany, its results, assisted by the insanitary condition of many of them, were disastrous in the main men's camps. Typhus is endemic in Russia, and the Russian prisoners, herded together with those of other nationalities, spread the disease till in some camps appalling epidemics were produced. At Ohdruf, Langensalza, Zerbst, Wittenberg and Gardelegen the fever raged with great virulence. At Wittenberg the camp was overcrowded and insanitary, the washing arrangements were nothing more than troughs in the open, which, with the supply pipes, were during the hard winter of 1914 frequently frozen. In these circumstances, a serious epidemic broke out in Dec. 191 4. As soon as this was recognized, the whole German staff, military and medical, left, and never came inside again till Aug. 1915, by which time all the patients were convalescent. For his services in combating the epidemic Dr. Aschenbach, the German principal medical officer, received the Iron Cross. Many Allied and British medical officers had been improperly detained in Germany after their capture, and were dispatched to take the place of the German doctors, who (it is charitable to believe, in obedience to superior orders) had deserted their charges. In Feb. 1915, six British medical officers were sent to the camp which they found in a state of misery and disorganization. Of the six, three died of the fever, as did several French and Russian doctors. Notwithstanding the fact that there seem to have been ample supplies of medical necessaries available, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient drugs and dressings was extreme. There was not even any soap till one of the British doctors obtained a supply at his own expense from England, nor, till April 1915, were beds or bedding for patients requiring hospital treatment

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Prisoners of War'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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