Prisoners of War 1914-1918 : Download original documents

British & German Prisoners of War:  Section 1                               

 

British Prisoners of War

The British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had its initial encounter with the German Army on Sunday 23rd August 1914, at the Belgium mining town of Mons. The B.E.F. was unable to halt the invader and could only delay it. The British were pushed back into France, with more desperate fighting on 26th August at Le Cateau. Eventually they were forced across the River Marne. During the 14 days of the retreat, the British newspapers had been full of reports of skirmishes, but not until Wednesday 2nd September was mention made of British prisoners, when a brief communique from, "the British HQ at the Front" was referred to, which gave a return of the casualties, of "one of the Cavalry Brigades and three of the Divisions, less one Brigade..." On 2nd September, the communique appeared in The Times, it said,

"BRITISH LOSSES: First total of 5,127 killed, 36 officers and 127 other ranks, wounded, 57 officers and 629 other ranks; missing, 95 officers and 4,183 other ranks ... The missing are those not accounted for and may include unwounded prisoners and stragglers as well as casualties."

 

 

The image on this early propaganda poster was probably inspired by an incident mentioned in the book, The Quality of Mercy . The poster was a subtle way of inviting women to join the nursing services to prove they were different from their German counterparts.

First Prisoners

It seems the first eye‑witness account about British prisoners, might have come from a British civilian. On 3rd September 1914, The Times published a long letter from A. J. Dawe, who, with his traveling companion Henry Furse, escaped through occupied Belgium. They said they had seen British prisoners of war. Dawe recalled that on 29th August, while waiting on the platform at Louvain Railway Station, a German soldier told them a story that was clearly based on rumors (either that or something worse). Dawe said,

"that morning 330 English prisoners had been shot because they were found to have in their possession dum‑dum bullets. As far as I could make out from the German soldier, the English had attacked a troop‑train going up to Brussels and 400 altogether had been taken prisoner, the 70 that still remained alive we certainly saw, for they came on with us in the train to Aachen..." 

 

The Quality of Mercy. This 15-page booklet (c.1915), said to be "an official report based on the statements of 48 officers and 77 N.C.O.'s and men " tells how German soldiers and civilians mistreated Allied prisoners arriving in Germany in the early months of the war. James W. Gerard later said, "In the first days of the war it was undoubtedly and unfortunately true that prisoners of war taken by the Germans, both at the time of their capture and in transit to the prison camps, were often badly treated by the soldiers, guards, or civil populations."   

 Item code: POW-009          

Price £1.99

Prisoner of War Camps in Germany and Austria
 
At the outset of the Great War 1914-1918, the Germans had been confident of an early success and were actually shocked by the huge number of prisoners they had taken. They had made no plans for holding large numbers of captives and the majority of their PoW camps were hastily built and were mainly inferior in every way. In the first six months of the war most men held captive in German camps had very little to occupy them. However, by the summer of 1915, working camp had been established and men were sent to labor in mines, factories, forests and farms

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You can print-out this extremely useful map from the PDF file. It shows the location of a large number of the main POW camps in Germany and Austria during the 1914-1918 conflict. 



Map of the Prison Camps in Germany and Austria by Mrs Pope-Hennessy. (c.1917) In addition to the useful map (illustrated above) which shows the locations of the main camps, over 180 are listed in this handbook, together with brief details of each one. The guide comprises of 14-pages plus the map.

Item code: POW-006


Price £ 2.99
 


Good camps & bad camps

As the war progressed, life in the German camps varied a great deal and was largely determined by the attitude of the commandant and his staff. The overall administration of camps was not centralised and that often caused problems too.

Germany was divided into military districts, each corresponding to an army corps. Corps Commanders acted as military governors of their district and administered and supervised among other duties, the running of prisoner of war camps in their area. (The central Ministry of War apparently had no jurisdiction over the running of the camps whatsoever.) For this reason, the conditions and regime of camps varied greatly. For example, good camps were considered to be Friedrichsfeld, Parchim, Soltau, Dulman, Wahn, Wunsdorf and a number of other parent camps. The contrast between the above camps and those at Minden, Limberg, Wittenberg, Schneidemuhl, Langensalzen and others was, said a camp inspector, "the difference between day and night, between heaven, relatively, and hell absolutely."

Between these two extremes, "existed a series of camps such as those at Muchendorf, Alten-Grabow, Giessen, Dyrotz, etc., where conditions were neither good nor very bad…" 

After capture, men were sent to camps in Germany in the area administrated by the corps that captured them. The corps commanders had absolute power in selecting sites for camps, obtaining food, construction material, electricity, and commandants and guards. The result of this decentralisation meant that the German Ministry of War in Berlin had difficulty in enforcing the standard it had promised to maintain.


 

Great Britain's Humane Treatment of German Prisoners of War. (c.1918) This pamphlet is an extract from a volume of  The Great War. The 10-page chapter has a number of photographs of German PoW's engaged in farming and forestry work and also at 'play' and perhaps answered the question put by The War Illustrated about Britain's treatment of prisoners. Extracts from some of the White Paper reports by the American camp inspectors in the UK, are also included in the chapter.

Item code: POW-018         

Price £1.99

This card, published by the 'Regent Publishing Co. Ltd.' ‑ probably in October 1914 ‑ reflected the anti‑German frenzy prevailing at the time. It showed the camp at Frith Hill and printed along the top edge in bold lettering were the words "GERMAN PRISONERS IN A BARBED WIRE COMPOUND, WHERE MOST OF THE GERMANS IN THIS COUNTRY OUGHT TO BE."

A message on the back of the card reads: "This camp is at Frimly  3 miles from here. I saw a dozen German prisoners today near here & gave them a cigarette each. They seemed quite happy & included some young lads. J-R."

By the time the card appeared in the shops, many alien civilians were already behind barbed wire. Some were interned in a large warehouse in Edmonton, where Osbert Sitwell, a young Guards subaltern found himself  "glaring at inmates whose faces seemed familiar." One eventually said to him, "Which table would you like tonight, Sir? "

 

This unstamped card carried the initials '0. H. M. S.' and was mailed from Cardiff by 'Miriam' on 13th June 1915, to her husband 'Mr. J. Davis' intemed in Handforth camp. Mr Davis was prisoner number 278 in 'No.5 Concentration Camp.' The card carries a red unboxed `P. C./W./HANDFORTH' camp cachet. Miriam wrote, "Dear loving husband, just a line to let you know that I & the children are quite well..." Mr Davis may have been a nationalised Briton, who was included in the 1914 round‑up of 'undesirables'.

Civilian Internees

A few days after hostilities began in August 1914, alien nationals living in the UK were ordered to register at the nearest police station. During the following weeks some of the public became hostile towards them, and on 21st October The Times announced 'ALIEN ENEMIES, CLEARANCE ORDER AT BRIGHTON'. The paper said, "The Chief Constable of Brighton has served a written notice on every German and Austrian residing there, to quit the town within a few days."

In the same issue, readers were informed that many German waiters in London had lost their jobs,

Announcements were made that no German or Austrian subject remains "in employment of the Savoy, Claridges and Berkeley Hotels, the Strand Palace Hotel, the Frederick Hotels, Messrs J. Lyons and Co, and the Palmerston Restaurant, E. C."

The Daily Mail asked its readers to refuse to be served by those unfortunate men and insisted "if your waiter says he is Swiss ‑ ask to see his passport."

By 22nd October parts of the country seemed to have been in a state of panic, spies and fifth column agitators were everywhere, or so it seemed. The Times carried a headline saying, "THE  ALIEN PERIL, WHOLESALE ARRESTS IN THE COUNTRY, STRONG ACTION BY THE POLICE'", and announced that,

"Drastic measures are now been taken to lessen the damage arising from the presence mi this country of such large numbers of alien enemies, wholesale arrests were made yesterday in many cities and towns by the police."

In Coventry, there were arrests of alien enemies of military age, including all the waiters at the Kings Head Hotel, who were interned in Newbury camp. In Reading, the cells at the police station were full of Germans and Austrians of military age. In Bradford, the police were taking German and Austrian aliens into custody. Hundreds of Germans were arrested in Manchester in accordance with Government instructions, including, "many well‑known men."


The Worst PoW Camp in Germany

Treatment of prisoners and the conditions they endured in the camps varied a great deal. American ambassador James Gerard, chief of the camp inspectors, said, "Undoubtedly the worst camp I visited in Germany was that of Wittenberg."

The Horrors of Wittenberg. An official report (1916) submitted to the British Government regarding the devastating typhus epidemic at Wittenberg camp. It started in December 1914 and lasted until May 1915. The evidence in the report came from prisoners who survived the epidemic. This is a 32-page document.

 Item code: POW-007

       

Price £2.99

Read the full story of the typhus epidemic in the camp, in the eBook The Horror of Wittenburg.

This sketch, illustrates the layout of the camp at Wittenburg, where a lack of basic amenities - such as fuel for stoves, prisoners having to wash outside in water troughs and a lack of mattresses in the camp hospital - all contributed to the serious outbreak of a typhus epidemic in 1914. The main entrance to the prison camp was unique in relation to other camps. To enter it, prisoners, staff and visitors had to cross a bridge that had been built over the barbed-wire fence. The bridge can be seen in this contem- porary sketch of the camp

The image on this sepia-coloured postcard  - titled 'Convoi de prisonniers'  - first appeared in the British publication The Sphere. A convoy of German soldiers on a French road guarded by British soldiers.


 

Two postcard versions of the same image.The first card is French and the second is British from a well-known series of cards with yellow borders - published by the 'PHOTOCHROM COMPANY'. The caption on the British card reads, "English Soldiers Escorting German Prisoners for Shipment to England." 


This photographic postcard (mentioned in the text) from a series published by John Drew of Aldershot, shows some of the first German prisoners on their way to Frith Hill camp. The card was mailed on 20th December 1914, from Farnham to Worcester by 'Private T. Edkins, 44th Field Ambulance, RAMC, Tweseldown Camp.' He wrote "I believe we are going away from here soon." 44th Field Ambulance was a unit of the 14th Division and landed in France on 22nd May 1915.


Another postcard in the John Drew collection this one was mailed from Aldershot to Macclesfield on 24th February 1915. Among these prisoners stopping for a break at Frimley, several are wearing Picklehaube helmets - much prized by British soldiers as souvenirs. Could the figure in the center of the picture be a German civilian policeman? 


German Prisoners of War

First prisoners

Among the first published photographs of the war, were a number depicting German PoW's marching to French ports under armed guard and others at the dockside waiting to be shipped to England. The British papers carried many of these pictures and on 3rd October 1914, several of them appeared in The War Illustrated under the headline, "Britain's New line of imports from Germany." A caption below a photograph reads, "German prisoners marching between our soldiers with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets on a French quay."


Prisoner of war camps in the UK

It seems that the first German prisoners were brought to England in August 1914, and put in a hastily converted army camp in Dorchester. It became a permanent POW camp, as did two others established that month, at Queens Ferry and Lancaster.

Other camps set up in August were at Horsham, York Castle, Bradford Moor, Olympia (London), Edinburgh and Fort George, some were temporary and closed before the end of the month. In September, more were opened including one at Frith Hill, near Frimley.

The arrival at Camberley railway station of some of the first prisoners to go to Frith Hill was witnessed by Michael MacDonagh of The Times. On 23rd September he said he saw, "a couple of hundred of the rank and file with about a dozen officers". He was told the men had been captured on the Aisne, and among them he noticed "Imperial Guards and Uhlans". Some were wounded, and, "the soiled state of the uniform of all" he said, "and their unkept appearance generally, betokened hardship undergone".

The captives were marched off under armed escort to Frith Hill PoW camp, three miles away and as they went through the village of Frimley a local photographer recorded their passing. A few days later some of his pictures were published as a postcard series by John Drew of Aldershot.

A crowd of local people gathered, more out of curiosity than hostility, and some of them, said MacDonagh, "warmed into friendliness to the point of giving them [the PoW's] cigarettes, apples, cakes and bottles of ginger beer, which the prisoners accepted very thankfully. Only the officers stood apart and refused. Several of the men spoke English very fluently, they professed to be very cheerful, asserting that the war would soon be brought to an end by the fall of Paris before the advancing Germans." he said.

MacDonagh thought the prisoners' words were arrogant and, "a poor return to make to their hosts for the kindly way they had been received". The War Illustrated thought so too, and shortly afterwards carried photographs of the captives, and asked readers, "Are We Too Kind to Our German Prisoners?"

During November and December 1914, The War Illustrated Carried more pictures of German PoW's, under headlines like, "German Eagles with Clipped Wings" and "Still they come! Christmas visitors from the Fatherland".

On 26th December the Illustrated published a photograph of German prisoners arriving in England, and seemed to be annoyed at the decent way they were been treated. The caption said, "Types of German prisoners who arrived at Southend with what look suspiciously like Christmas hampers in their possession."

Another photograph showed some of the one thousand German prisoners "marching through Southend recently, on their way to detention ships at the mouth of the Thames." The Illustrated hoped the prisoners would not annoy the sea-gulls too much with "Deutschland uber Alles" or "Die Wacht am Rhein

 

 Internees in Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace was first used in the Great War as a refuge for displaced Belgians. It then became a permanent war‑time camp for alien civilians. Like the British internees in Ruhleben, the German civilians in Alexandra Palace eventually settled down to make the best of things. For example, many fine musicians were incarcerated there and formed themselves into a 45 member orchestra. They gave many public performances. Other inmate set up studios for painting and sculpting. There was a well‑provided gymnasium and playing fields for a number of sports activities. The internees also had the use of a 2,000‑seat theater. At any one time there were about 3,000 people interned at the Alexandra Palace; by the end of the war 17,000 men had been through the camp.


A Christmas picture postcard for 1917. This sepia-coloured card was produced for internees at Alexandra Palace to send to relatives and friends in Germany. A London 'Bobbie' points a gift-laden Santa in the direction of the Palace.

 

 ALEXANDRA PALACE ‑ LONDON. The internees there were accommodated in three large halls. Each contained a 'Battalion' of about 1,000 men, who were further divided into 'Companies, and then into 'Corps'. The caption at the bottom of the card identifies the unit these men belonged to.

 


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