The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners in the Great War

Peter Curry

4 mins

17 Oct 2018

Image credit: Commons.

During First World War, a total of around 7 million prisoners were held by both sides, with Germany imprisoning some 2.4 million.

Though information on World War One prisoners of war is scarce, there are some historical records.

For example, there are around 3,000 reports on British and Commonwealth prisoners, including officers, enlisted, medical officers, merchant seamen and in some cases civilians.

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Human rights conventions regarding war

It is generally accepted that the rules of the Geneva Convention, or at least those pertaining to prisoners, were more or less followed by all belligerents except the Ottoman Empire.

The Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions define the human rights of wartime prisoners, including those who are wounded and non-combatant.

Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not of the individuals or corps who capture them. They must be humanely treated. All their personal belongings, except arms, horses, and military papers, remain their property.

—From Chapter 2 of the Hague Convention, 1907

Officially, the exception to the treaties outlining the fair treatment of prisoners during the war is the Ottoman Empire, which did not sign at the Hague Conference in 1907, though it did sign the Geneva Convention in 1865.

Yet simply signing a treaty was no guarantee that it would be followed.

While Red Cross inspections in Germany sought to ensure liveable conditions at camps, many prisoners were used as forced labour outside of the camps and kept in unhygienic conditions.

They were often treated harshly, poorly fed and beaten.

From the start of the war, Germany found itself in possession of over 200,000 French and Russian soldiers, who were housed in poor conditions.

Things improved by 1915, even as the number of detainees more than tripled, growing to include prisoners from Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania and Serbia. There were even Japanese, Greeks and Brazilians among their ranks.

Austrian prisoners of war after the Italian conquest of Forcella Cianalot in the Val Dogna. Credit: Italian Army Photographers / Commons.

By November 1918, the amount of prisoners held in Germany reached its height, with a massive 2,451,000 prisoners held captive.

To cope in the early stages, the Germans had commandeered private public buildings to house POWs, such as schools and barns.

By 1915, however, the number of purpose-built camps had reached 100, often with POWs building their own prisons. Many contained hospitals and other facilities.

Germany also had a policy of sending French and British prisoners for forced labour on the Western and Eastern Fronts, where many died from cold and starvation.

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Germany also had a policy of sending French and British prisoners for forced labour on the Western and Eastern Fronts, where many died from cold and starvation.

This practice was in reprisal for similar actions by France and Britain.

While prisoners of various social backgrounds were kept together, there were separate prisons for officers and enlisted ranks. Officers received better treatment.

For example, they were not required to work and had beds, while the enlisted worked and slept on straw sacks. Officers’ barracks were generally better equipped and none were located in East Prussia, where the weather was decidedly worse.

POWs in Turkey

As non-signatories to the Hague Convention, the Ottoman Empire treated its prisoners more harshly than the Germans did. In fact, over 70% of POWs held there died by the end of the conflict.

This was not however, exclusively down to cruelty against the enemy, as Ottoman troops only fared marginally better than their prisoners.

Turkish prisoners captured at Ramadi being marched to a concentration camp, escorted by men of the 1st and 5th Royal West Kent regiment. Credit: Commons.

Food and shelter were lacking and prisoners tended to be kept in private houses rather than purpose-built camps, which there are few records of.

Many were also forced to do hard labour, regardless of their physical condition.

A single 1,100 km march of 13,000 British and Indian prisoners through the Mesopotamian area around Kut in 1916 resulted in some 3,000 deaths due to starvation, dehydration and heat-related illnesses.

29% of Romanian prisoners held in Germany died, while 100,000 of a total 600,000 Italian detainees died in the captivity of the Central Powers.

Personal accounts of Australian and New Zealand POWs survive, painting grim pictures of harsh work building railways and suffering from brutality, malnutrition and waterborne disease.

There are also accounts of Ottoman camps with where prisoners were treated well, with better food and less strenuous working conditions.

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Austria-Hungary

One notorious Austro-Hungarian camp was in Mauthausen, a village in north central Austria, which later became the location of a Nazi concentration camp in World War Two.

Conditions there caused a reported 186 prisoner deaths from typhus each day.

Serbs held in prisons in Austria-Hungary had very high death rates, comparable to British POWs in the Ottoman Empire.

29% of Romanian prisoners held in Germany died, while 100,000 of a total 600,000 Italian detainees died in the captivity of the Central Powers.

In contrast, Western European prisons in general tended to have far better survival rates. For example, only 3% of German prisoners died in British camps.