‘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…’
Chapter II of the Hague Convention, ratified 18 October 1907.
To ensure that signatories to the Convention followed its guidance, the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, arranged inspections of POW and internment camps across Europe and around the globe.
Photographic records were made of conditions within the camps. A selection of these rarely seen images is shown here, illustrating camp life in England during the war. Many are captioned in German, the majority language of Switzerland.
Prisoner of War Camps
From the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, German prisoners of war (POWs) began arriving in England.
Initially, the number of POWs held in England was relatively small; there were fewer than 7,000 in 1915, but that number rose to around 100,000 by the end of the war in November 1918. The Prisoners of War Information Bureau identified 563 places of internment in England. Most POWs were German.
To begin with POWs were detained in tented camps, disused industrial buildings and military barracks. The War Office even temporarily used nine trans-Atlantic liners, moored off Ryde, Gosport and Southend.
Later, many POWs were accommodated in large secure camps of specially constructed wooden huts, many holding thousands of men. The bigger camps generally had amenities including a kitchen, canteen, theatre, chapel, workshops and wash houses.
Days started with a roll call. High points were mealtimes and the delivery of letters and parcels – under the Hague Convention POWs were allowed to send and receive mail free of charge.
Married POWs with children suffered particularly badly from being separated from their families. Those working on the land or in factories did sometimes strike up friendships with local girls, even though such fraternising was harshly punished. Boredom was rife and even in the best run camps some captives suffered mental health issues, later categorised as ‘barbed wire disease.’ Escape attempts were frequent, with men quickly recaptured.
Sport and other activities helped relieve the tedium of camp life, as did education and theatre. Handforth camp in Cheshire had its own library of books sent from German charities.
POWs and Employment
Both Britain and France used German POWs as labour behind the lines on the Western Front. At first POWs rarely worked in Britain due to objections from the trade unions who were concerned that British workers’ rates would be undercut. The few who were employed included bakers, tailors and shoemakers.
From 1917, the government decided that regular POWs could carry out unskilled work to fill the labour shortage. Officers were exempt. The men were mostly employed in agriculture and forestry but also in quarrying, land reclamation, factories and construction, earning 1.5 pence every day and higher food rations. By the end of 1918 nearly 67,000 were employed,including 1,356 civilian internees.
The pre-war 1911 census had identified around 53,000 Germans who had settled in England and Wales.
With the outbreak of the First World War and the passing of the Alien’s Restriction Act, these innocent civilians were classed as Enemy Aliens. They were required to register at their nearest police station.
Men aged between 17 and 55, were interned in places that included Olympia and Alexandra Palace in London, and Newbury Racecourse in Berkshire. Those who were naturalised British citizens and all women and children remained free.
The Isle of Man became home to the greatest number of civilian internees. A small camp holding 2,300 prisoners was established at Douglas on the site of a former holiday camp. The largest camp was at Knockaloe which housed 24,500 internees by the end of the war.
Before the war there was relatively little anti-German sentiment in Britain. Hostilities saw anti-German riots break out and various companies with German-sounding names took out adverts to clarify that they were, in fact, British. The Royal Family changed the family name from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor, to distance themselves from their German heritage.
Prisoners of War Information Bureau
Immediately after war was declared the British government established a Prisoners of War Information Bureau at 49 Wellington Street in London’s Covent Garden. It was here that a register was compiled of all POWs and civilians interned across the British Empire. Lists were sent to enemy governments and the Red Cross. Much of the Bureau’s work was answering letters and telegrams from POWs’ and internees’ relatives regarding their whereabouts and well-being.
International Committee of the Red Cross
The ICRC reminded belligerent states of their humanitarian obligations under the Geneva Conventions and employed hundreds of people at the International Prisoners of War Agency to discover the whereabouts of prisoners, send care parcels and forward letters. The agency created a database of five million index cards that contained information about two million prisoners; searchable records that exist today.
The ICRC also arranged inspections of POW and internment camps across Europe and around the globe. These visits were usually made by the neutral Swiss, but also by others including American diplomats and high-ranking politicians. They were intended to improve the treatment of prisoners, as well as undermining sensationalist propaganda claiming that the enemy was brutally treating its captives.
POW Illness and Death
POWs and civilian internees in Britain were generally correctly treated, with poor accommodation and inadequate food often due to war shortages, rather than mistreatment. The death rate among POWs was around 3%. This was in stark contrast to the experience in central and eastern Europe where beatings and malnutrition were common.
The pictured war memorial at Fordington Cemetary in Dorchester commemorates the 45 German POWs who died during the First World War while interned at Dorchester camp, most from Spanish Flu which spread through a series of camps in Britain during 1918 and 1919. The pandemic killed up to 50 million people worldwide, more than twice as many as died in the entire war.
The End of the War and Repatriation
German POWs held in Britain were not released at the Armistice of 11 November 1918, which ended the actual fighting. They remained in captivity until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919, the peace treaty that ended the state of war. Their repatriation took place at the end of 1919.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Legacies of the First World War
Building for Total War 1914-18
Hardback by Wayne Cocroft, Paul Stamper