Like the experiences of Allied prisoners in Turkey and Germany during the First World War, the stories of POWs from the Central Powers are largely unknown.
POWs in Russia
It is estimated that 2.5 million soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Army and 200,000 German soldiers were prisoners of Russia.
Location of Russian POW camps
Thousands of Austrian prisoners were taken by Russian forces during the campaign in 1914. They were first housed in emergency facilities in Kiev, Penza, Kazan and Turkestan.
Later, ethnicity came to define where the prisoners were interned. Slavs were not to be put in prisons farther east than Omsk in south-central Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan. Hungarians and Germans were sent to Siberia. Prisoners were also housed in barracks according to ethnicity in order to manage them more easily for the purposes of labour.
Location played a difference in the experience of the prisoners. Those who laboured in Murmansk, in Russia’s far northwest, had a far worse time than those kept in the southern parts of the Empire, for example.
POW labour in Russia
The tsarist state considered POWs to be a valuable resource for the war economy. Prisoners worked on farms and in mines, they built canals and 70,000 were used to construct railroads.
The Murmansk railroad project was considerably harsh and Slavic POWs were generally exempt. Many prisoners suffered from malaria and scurvy, with deaths from the project totalling around 25,000. Under pressure from the German and Hapsburg governments, tsarist Russia eventually stopped using prison labour, though after the February Revolution of 1917, some prisoners were employed and received wages for their work.
Imprisonment in Russia was a life-altering experience
Personal reports of POWs in Russia during the First World War include accounts of shame due to poor personal hygiene, despair, resolve and even adventure. Some read voraciously and learned new languages, while some even married Russian women.
The Revolution of 1917, coupled with poor camp conditions, had the effect of radicalising many prisoners, who felt abandoned by their respective governments. Communism fomented in prisons on both sides of the conflict.
POWs in France and Britain
There were about 1.2 million Germans held during the war, mostly by the Western Allies.
The worst place to be a prisoner was probably on the front, where conditions were understandably poor and risk of combat-related death high. Both the British and French used German prisoners as labour on the Western Front. France, for example, had German POWs work under shellfire on the Verdun battlefield. French North African camps were also considered particularly severe.
The British Army in France used German prisoners as workers, though it didn’t use POW labour on the Home Front beginning in 1917 due to opposition from trade unions.
Though being a POW was never a picnic, German prisoners in British camps may have fared best, generally speaking. Survival rates were 97% compared to, for example, around 83% for Italians held by the Central Powers and 71% for Romanians in German camps. There are accounts of numerous works of art, literature and music produced by German POWs in Britain.
A few German women living in Britain during the war were imprisoned due to suspicions of espionage and sabotage.
Prisoners as propaganda
Germany used sometimes-false depictions of the poor conditions in Allied POW camps to inspire its soldiers to fight to the death instead of be taken prisoner. Britain also spread rumours about the persecution of Allied prisoners by the German government.
The Western Allies organised repatriation of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners after the Armistice. Russia was in the throws of the Bolshevik Revolution and had no system to deal with former prisoners. POWs in Russia, like those held by the Central Powers, had to find their own ways back home.