Prisoners of War 1914-1918 : Download original documents

 WW1 Prison Camp Money

 Work and pay in German camps

According to the rules of war - officer prisoners did not have to work.  On the other hand, enlisted men were required to do so if asked by their captors. From the parent camp, they were assigned to Arbeitskommandos (Labor detachments) in agriculture or industry. Detachment strength ranged from 10 to 2,000 men. Prisoners worked on government-funded projects such as road and bridge construction, railway track maintenance and renewal, and land reclamation work.

Large industrial companies in Germany hired British and Allied PoWs from the regional Army Corps Commands to work in steel factories, quarries and coalmines. Smaller employers hired them as stevedores, garbage collectors, foresters and in small groups as farm hands. Prisoners usually lived near the place of their employment. James Gerard said, "There were in Germany about one hundred central camps and perhaps 10,000 or more so-called working camps in summertime throughout the country."


"British prisoners returning from work."  some shielding their faces with shovels. They were returning to Doberitz camp. There were 78 cards in this official Red Cross series, and PoWs from several different countries were represented. The scenes included general views of the camps. Photographs of prisoners at work, recreation, roll-calls, hospitals and even camp cemeteries.

POW Notgeld (Lagergeld)

Notgeld, German for 'emergency money' or 'not money' was issued during, and after the Great War when there was a shortage of coins and banknotes. The German state bank gave permission to towns and villages to issue their own currency from 1914 until about 1923.


Notgeld, were also issued in prisoner of war camps. The Geneva Convention ruled that officer PoW's did not have to work, but other ranks were required to if asked. Those who did work were paid not with official German currency but in prison lagergeld.

Cottbus camp

This 1 mark note was issued in Cottbus camp. It was situated on the outskirts of the busy town of the same name located on the river Spree. The town had 48,600 inhabitants.There were wool, linen and yarn factories there. The camp was on rising ground with the buildings radiating out from a central guard tower. It was also a coal-mining district and under the command of the 3rd Army Corps. The prisoners worked in the factories and mines in the area.


Prisoners were paid at a rate, determined by their level of skill and agreement between government or private employer and Army Corps Commands. The lowest paid were farm workers, from 16 to 35 Pfennigs a day. Small industries paid 30 to 50 Pfennigs a day, while those in heavy industry received from 75 Pfennigs to 1 Mark a day. For the highly skilled and professional PoW the rate was between 2 and 3 marks a day.


Dobeln camp

This 10 mark note was issued to officers at Dobeln camp. The town was small with a population of 19,600 and the camp was established in barracks built of brick and about a mile from the railway station. The area was under the command of 19th Army Corps.

Many PoW's in Germany were pleased to escape the boredom of life behind barbed wire in the parent camp and welcomed the change of scenery and the money they earned at the working camps. The money often supplemented their food rations until food parcels arrived. Although some prisoners complained about working in heavy industry, where cruelty was sometimes inflicted on them, those working on the land and on farms often ate at the same table as their employer and slept in his house and became part of the family. They were often better fed than many city dwelling Germans.

The photographic postcard on the left, depicted Allied PoW's (English, Scottish and French at least)  and others in civilian clothing with a variety of  'land-implements'.  A German officer and two soldiers pose with them for the picture.The photographic postcard on the right, taken and produced by a local German photographer, depicted a working party of four British PoW's from an unknown camp and two farm hands. They are overlooked by an elderly German guard.

Working prisoners did not receive their pay in official currency, as it was feared that if they could accumulate large sums of money through working, they could bribe guards to help them escape and then pay their way through Germany - to freedom. Instead, prisoners were paid in Lagergeld (camp money). This was paper money (often specially printed for individual camps) which could only be used to purchase goods at the camp store or credited to a prison bank account.

Graudenz camp

This 5Pf note from Graudenz camp carries an official hand-stamp of the camp and was one of the less attractive of the 3,000 or so varieties of PoW camp money issued during the war. Graudenz was a strong fortress town of over 40,000 people on the Polish frontier and situated on the right bank of the Vistula. British officers were sent there from March 1918. There were American PoW's there too. This note was issued just 9 weeks before the end of the war.



German POW's in Britain

Although British PoW's held in German camps were put to work early in the war, it seems that German prisoners held in British camps were not.

It was quite late in the conflict before German PoW's were put to work outside the camps, although calls for them to do so had been made by several prominent people, including Lord Northcliffe, who in 1916 said, "The authorities in England seem to hide our German prisoners. In France they work, and in public ... the sooner German prisoners are put to work and help to shorten the war the better."

By 1917, an increasing food and labor shortage forced the British government to put the men to work. By summer, a PoW labor army of 70,000 men had been formed. Split into gangs of about ten men, 30,000 PoW's traveled from farm to farm helping to bring in the harvest. Others were involved in construction work, quarrying, repairing roads, forestry and re‑claiming waste land,


This photographic postcard  depicting German prisoners working in a quarry - carries no identification except a pencil caption on the reverse which reads simply "South Coast".


 A message from General Ludendorff

In 1918, an extraordinary document signed by General Ludendorff, was said to have fallen into British hands. In September of that year it was published in the Morning Post and part of it read, "Capture at the hands of our inhuman foes, in view of their unexampled brutality of treatment, which is now proved beyond question in so large a number of cases, merely means being slowly tortured to death."

During the German Spring Offensive of 1918, copies of the order had been circulated among "the German rank and file on the battlefield", and it was, said a British source, intended to "nerve the German soldier to fight strenuously to the last ‑ to die rather than be taken prisoner. Many German soldiers were found to be in absolute terror as to what would happen to them in captivity."

In their letters and cards, PoW's frequently talked about their life in and outside British camps. Their relatives and friends ‑ even with censorship of their soldiers' mail ‑ would soon have realized that stories of British brutality to PoW's ‑ was untrue.


A German officer in Colsterdale Camp in Yorkshire wrote, "If the postcard which I wrote has not relieved your deep anxiety, this letter shall do so. There is not the slightest cause for complaint regarding our treatment."  

This letter-sheet was mailed by a German officer in Colsterdale Camp. Before it left for Germany it was examined and carries a "OPENED BY CENSOR. P.W. 970" label on the reverse. It also carries a Cologne recieving mark

A prisoner in a camp hospital in the UK wrote to a friend in Berlin, '"I always underestimate England", he said, "the treatment is excellent, from the first moment of my captivity I have been treated splendidly'" He finished by saying, "You need not worry, As I write, so it is."

During the last months of the war, many civilians in Germany were suffering terrible hardship. A prisoner in Shrewsbury camp in the UK, had relatives in Kiel, who still managed to send him a food parcel. He wrote back to them, "Send me nothing more, for I live ten times better than you do!"


     German Prisoners Working in France

Not all German soldiers captured on the Western Front were sent to England, some were recruited into labor companies and put to work behind the British lines. This photo‑card was sent to Potsdam on 10th July 1918 by "Willie Taesler' of Sr. 54 Prisoner of War Company in France."  Willie was not identified on the card.


This French postcard shows German prisoners clearing debris from the streets of a French town and guarded by British soldiers.


No release for German prisoners

While Allied prisoners of war in German camps were released very soon after the Armistice and most were home by Christmas, the same could not be said for prisoners held by the Allies. Many enemy PoW's had to work as forced labor until 1920 on reconstruction and other tasks. And even then, they were only released after "many approaches by the I.C.R.C. to the Allied Supreme Council."  Some German prisoners of war held in Russia did not get their freedom until 1922. The two postal items shown below,  confirm the late release of enemy prisoners of war.


This card was mailed from Berlin on 15th February 1919, to a prisoner in the "Augusta G.G. Reg., No.4 Prisoner of War Coy, in France."  This German prisoner was still receiving mail from Germany in February 1919, via the G.P.O. in London.


 This cover, sent by a British soldier with "No, 400 PRISONERS OF WAR COMPANY." in France, to his wife in London was endorsed in pencil 'O.A.S'. (On Active Service) It also carries a "ARMY POST OFFICE S.107." date-stamp. Notice also the date - 25th September 1919. .Ten months after the war had finished, this PoW labor company was still in existence and presumably its charges still working as prisoners of war.




                                                       Back to top