What was the reality for prisoners of war in World War One? Dr Heather Jones looks beyond the propaganda to consider the facts around prisoner mistreatment, labour and death rates across Europe.
The image of prisoners behind barbed wire gazing at the camera taking their photograph is a striking one. Prisoners of war were central to the propaganda machine in the First World War, with belligerent states keen to circulate photographs that showed that they were treating their captives well. How a state treated its prisoners was taken as an indication of its level of cultural development and modernity – and all states accused their enemy of mistreating its prisoners.
The image of prisoners of war behind barbed wire in the prisoner of war camp was one of the most widespread images of the war. However, it was also rather misleading as by 1915 states and armies had started to think differently about how best to house and treat prisoners. The large prisoner of war camp on a country’s Home Front was only one place that prisoners were held. From 1915 on, Germany began to send prisoners to live and work in small working units in agriculture, forestry or mining – industries badly short of manpower due to the war effort. Russia and France also began to use prisoner labour on a massive scale: in Russia, working conditions varied very widely, with the worst occurring during the construction of the Murman railway during which an estimated 25,000 out of the 70,000 mainly Austro-Hungarian and German prisoner of war work force died. Britain, however, delayed using widespread prisoner labour on the home front until 1917 because of trade union opposition.
Prisoner labour was key to the war effort of many states. Overall by 1916, across Europe most non-officer prisoners of war, whom it was legal for the captor to put to work under international law, were working, some returning to the prisoner of war camp at night, others lodged under guard near to their place of work. For those housed outside the camp conditions could vary considerably. While prisoner of war camps were inspected during the war by the International Red Cross
, working units outside the camp were rarely inspected. The worst camps, however, were those run by armies near the front line. By 1916, the British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies were all keeping permanent units of prisoners as forced labourers for the army at or near the front. These men had to work under shellfire and live in desolate, unhygienic conditions. In some armies, such as the German army in 1918, they were frequently beaten and badly fed.