Life behind the wire: rare images of Prisoner of War Camps

‘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.

German prisoners of war (POWs) sat at long tables set for a meal
German prisoners of war (POWs) at mealtime, Feltham camp, Greater London. © International Committtee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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.

Canvas tents in varying sizes
Tented POW camp, probably Frith Hill, Frimley, Surrey. Note the gardens round the tents. Courtesy of Wayne Cocroft.

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.

Aerial view of POW camp with temporary housing seen and a large open area with lots of people in situ
Dorchester POW camp, Dorset, one of the first permanent camps. © ICRC.

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.

A group of German POWs stand for a picture
German POWs, Dorchester camp, Dorset. © National Army Museum.

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.

A group of German POWs sit at a table playing cards
Prisoners playing cards, POW barracks, Southampton. © ICRC

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 at a sports ground, with a footbal net in the background, some are lazing on the grass and others are stood chatting
POWs relaxing at Dorchester camp sports ground. © ICRC.

POWs and Employment

POWs sit in a cobblers workshop, surrounded by materials - their expressions are solemn
Cobblers workshop, Douglas camp, Isle of Man. © ICRC

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.

Three POW bakers stand near an oven, two holding bread
Bakers at Feltham camp, Greater London. © ICRC.

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.

POWs march with armed guards alongside residential properties
A POW labour attachment leaving their Shrewsbury camp, Shropshire, and being escorted to work accompanied by armed guards. © ICRC.

Civilian Internees

The pre-war 1911 census had identified around 53,000 Germans who had settled in England and Wales.

POWs work the land in front of Alexandra Palace
Main entrance to the internment camp, Alexandra Palace, London. © ICRC. At any one time around 3,000 men were interned here, among them many musicians who formed an orchestra that gave public performances.  By the end of the war, 17,000 men had passed through the camp.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Anti-German feeling

Crowds of rioters breaking the windows of a shop
Crowds of rioters breaking the windows of a German-owned shop in East London following the sinking of the British liner Lusitania off Ireland on its passage from  New York to Liverpool, 7 May 1915. © IWM HU52451.

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

A woman looks at paperwork next to a huge stack of suitcases and bags
POWs’ personal belongings stored at the British Museum. © IWM Q27710.

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.

Interneed sat at a table playing chess
Internees playing chess at Knockaloe camp, Isle of Man. © ICRC

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

A military hospital ward with German POW officers recovering in beds
German POW officers recovering in a military hospital, Dartford, Kent. © ICRC.

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.

A stone German POW war memorial set into a grass verge.
German Prisoners of War Memorial, Fordington Cemetery, Dorchester, Dorset.  Erected 1919 and listed Grade II. It was designed and crafted by the prisoners themselves.   The inscription reads: ‘HIER RUHEN DEUTSCHE KRIEGER IN/ FREMDER ERDE DOCH UNVERGESSEN/ 1914 DORCHESTER 1919’ – Here rest German soldiers in foreign soil yet unforgotten. © Sebastian Fry.

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

English version of the Treaty of Versaille - front cover image
English version of the Treaty of Versaille, Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany. © Public Domain.

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.

Further information

Legacies of the First World War

Building for Total War 1914-18

Hardback by Wayne Cocroft, Paul Stamper

Buy now

6 responses to Life behind the wire: rare images of Prisoner of War Camps

  1. A fascinating look at POWs and their camps. It must have been incredibly boring, you can see why people wanted to escape or could have mental health issues. Also points out the difficulties for governments to look after prisoners properly in a time where the welfare of POWs became higher priority.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. keithbracey says:

    Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    As we approach Armistice Day 100 years after the end of the Great War we look at German Prisoner of War camps in Britain over a century ago

    Like

  3. T. Petrie says:

    Thank you for writing about this topic. My German grandfather was interned in the UK during WWII and it took me many years to find out anything about where he was held because the Prisoner of War office in the UK only manages British POW’s and does not provide info about who they held on their ground. I was finally able to find out that my grandfather was held in Scotland after someone at the National Scottish LIbrary took pity on my search and found a newspaper clipping about my grandfather. He was a minister and the article talked about how he was allowed offsite of the camp to preach in local churches. That was a huge help. Is there any chance you would do an article of WWII POW’s in Britain?

    Like

    • Thank you for your comment, and well done on your successful search for information about your grandfather. We’d certainly look to feature articles in the future about POW’s in WWII

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks