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Prisoners of War: The Forgotten Heroes

Updated: Feb 11

British PoWs being marched off to captivity

It is estimated that between 7 to 9 million prisoners of war were taken in the First World War. In ‘Black Bread and Barbed Wire, Michael Moynihan puts the British Prisoners of War at 6,482 officers and 163,907 other ranks. The official British statistics for all theatres including all services put the numbers at 192,848. The Falkirk District roll of PoWs can be found in the Falkirk Herald of December 1918. By December 1916, 81 were PoWs plus three internees and by the Armistice the number of PoWs had risen to 360 this increase was due to the German spring offensive of 1918.

Seated on the right is Pte John Muirhead, 2 Bttn A & SH from Stenhousemuir, Falkirk District.. He is with PoWs from Belgium, France & Russia

The number of allied prisoners captured by the Germans by Christmas 1914 totalled 500,000. By comparison, the British contingent was small for the same period. In ‘Violence Against Prisoners of War Heather Jones quotes official figures for the early months of the war with British prisoners taken in August 1914 totalling 8,190. A not insignificant figure given that the British casualties for August were 14,409 and set this against the fact the BEF numbered 90,000 men on 22 August 1914. By December 1914, the Germans claimed that British PoWs totalled 492 officers and 18,824 Other Ranks. Of these, 15,313 had been taken prisoner between August and 31 October 1914. By March 1915, the Germans had added a further 369 men taken as PoW this low figure can be attributed to the move to trench warfare. By the end of the war the Germans held some 2.5 million allied prisoners of war. In the case of British PoWs half of all British PoWs captured during the First World War were captured during the Germans Spring offensive of 1918.   


Malnourished British PoWs

In the Second World War British PoW’s totalled 192,319 and we are regaled by escape stories and tales of daring do, always the experience of the officers, that we are familiar with through cinema films such as the Great Escape, The Wooden Horse, Colditz Story and others.. In ‘The War Behind The Wire’, John Lewis-Stempl reminds us of the words of Captain Horace Gilliland, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who was taken prisoner at Ypres in 1914, and later escaped his captives in 1917, he wrote in his diary that: ‘I wonder if the people at home ever realize that the prisoners in Germany number amongst their ranks some of the greatest heroes of this war…’ These ‘heroes’ battled starvation, forced labour, inhuman treatment, beatings and maltreatment to come home to tell their stories.


For many of the men taken prisoner they experienced an element of shame and humiliation and to be unarmed at the mercy of the enemy. To have surrendered was seen, by them, as having failed and to have let down their chums, their regiment and their country. After the war, many officers were asked to write accounts of their capture and how the circumstances arose. The officers being treated here with an air of suspicion were happy to submit these written reports and they were exonerated. The Other Ranks were not asked to write reports after all they were under orders. The experiences of the First World War prisoners of war (plus the civilian internees) are experiences that have been treated as a side show, marginalised and largely forgotten in the narrative of the war by historians. The notable exceptions can be found in my Sources and Further reading at the end of this blog.

Treatment of British POWs - The Experience of Falkirk District men

Follow the link for the stories of eight men from Falkirk District. I have selected the accounts from dozens of stories. Their stories contain tales of near starvation, beatings, forced labour, and the flagrant disregard of the international agreements on the treatment of PoWs. All of the accounts are from Other Ranks.

The Rules of War – Hague and Geneva Conventions

The main purpose of taking prisoners was to remove them from the battlefield thereby degrading your enemy’s ability to continue to fight. The prisoners being legally protected by International law. To incapacitate your enemy also extended to non-combatants, civilians. It was Henri Dunant, a Swiss citizen, who founded the International committee of the Red Cross after witnessing the conditions of the wounded from the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He arranged the first Geneva Convention attended by delegates fro the major powers of the day and the aim was to improve the conditions of wounded soldiers however, there was no discussion on how prisoners were to be treated on the battlefield. In 1870 an office for the International committee of the Red Cross was established in Basle, Switzerland and this office processed lists of soldiers wounded and missing. A subsidiary office was set up in Berlin during the Franco-Prussian War and this office and the office in Basle dealt with over 60,000 enquiries concerning French PoWs.


In 1899 a conference was held in The Hague, the first Hague Conference, which saw the introduction of the Regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War laying down the code of conduct between belligerents. These were really just guidelines with the clauses full of loop holes, omissions, and open to interpretation. The British included the clauses in their Manual of Military Law and the Germans in their War Usage. Both agreed that prisoner’s interrogation was not restricted to name and rank, that the prisoner was not required to give answers to questions. Prisoners could not be punished for giving false information and that any means to obtain information was permissible so long as it was done in a humane fashion and not under duress. The Germans stated in their War Usage that it was ‘cowardly murder’ to shoot a prisoner who gave false information however, it was acceptable to shoot a civilian guide under military orders who did the same. Wounded soldiers were to receive the same care as the captor’s own wounded and as they were incapable of fighting became non-combatants.


The Hague Convention of 1907 was designed for a war where PoWs would be given their freedom or parole having given their word that they would not take up arms. They would be given freedom to live as civilians within their captor’s country or they could be exchanged. They were permitted to keep their personal belongings, and the prisoner was not confined within a camp, unless this was absolutely necessary. They were to be paid a wage or salary depending on their rank, and they were not to be employed on work that was directly related to the captor’s war effort. The Hague Rules also expressly forbade the killing of enemy soldiers who were defenceless and had clearly surrendered. The British Manual took this approach: ‘A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his means of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reasons of their consuming his supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain liberty though impending success of their own army.’ The German Usage of War was less constrained: ‘Prisoners can be killed in cases of extreme necessity when other means of security are not available and the presence of prisoners is a danger to one’s own existence.. Exigencies of war and the safety of the State come first and not the consideration that prisoners of war must at any cost remain unmolested.’ We do know that PoWs were shot by both sides during the First World War however, there is no evidence to show that PoWs were murdered on the orders of commanding officers or higher command. On the other hand, civilian prisoners, deemed to have been terrorists or assisting the enemy, were murdered by the German Army, particularly in Belgium.

Civilian Violence towards PoWs

By allowing PoWs their parole, The 1907 Hague Convention was predicated on the assumption that the civilian population was not subjected to propaganda of the day stirring up hatred of combatants. By 1914 the PoW had gained the legal status that was very similar to that of a non-combatant. Certainly, this pre-war romantic notion of the defenceless PoW as a non-combatant does explain why the accounts of the mistreatment of PoWs created such outrage in 1914 and 1915 and helped in the mobilisation of the home front and public anger at the enemy on both sides. The hatred was as a result of the nationalism, hysteria in the popular press, and the blurring of the lines of what was a legitimate enemy and the dehumanisation of the enemy at a local level. This resulted in the civilians at home being called upon to act against the threats to the nation and to stop spies and saboteurs. The Geneva Convention and The Hague convention set out the rules of how PoWs were to be treated however, they contained little on how PoWs should be treated when being transported across enemy territory to the PoW camps and exposure to the civilian population. Another factor was the number of prisoners a country captured, in the case of Germany they had by far the largest number of PoWs and this played a part in the violence against the PoWs by the civilian population. The number of prisoners passing through the towns and cities of Germany meant that they would inevitably come into contact with the civilian population and their hostile reaction.


British PoWs were surprised by the reaction the local German population to them. The German authorities did little to keep the civilian population apart from the PoWs and in some areas the German military encouraged the local population to come out and view the PoWs. In his memoirs Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Bond wrote of the hostility to British PoWs arriving in Torgau in 1914 recalling that: ‘the whole mass of people seemed to be trying to get at the prisoners.. There was one old woman who distinguished herself by the violence of her denunciations and the directness of her aim.. with three well delivered spits! .. Old German women can spit! At the camps German civilians and school children were brought to view the prisoners behind the wire, like viewing animals in a zoo, and some astute camp commandants charged the civilians for the privilege. Indeed Lieutenant F.W. Harvey a veteran of seven camps and the prisoner’s unofficial poet, began one of his famous poems with the lines: ‘Walking round our cages like the lions at the Zoo, We see the phantom faces of you, and you, and you…’ In 1915 the British government, in seeking evidence of this mistreatment for post-war war crimes trials but also recognising the propaganda value, established the ‘British Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners of War’ and this committee interviewed repatriated PoWs, those who had escaped or had been interned in Switzerland about their experiences. In the spring of 1918 the committee produced a report on the German transport of British PoWs in 1914 the report was headed ‘Report on the Transport of British Prisoners of War to Germany August to December 1914’. It contained seventy-six extracts of interviews mainly with officers and quoted faithfully from the original interviews and described the hostility to British PoWs in thirty-eight German cities and towns during their journey. These included Brunswick, Wittenberg, Frankfurt, Cologne and Hanover. The vast majority of the incidents cited occurred in September and October 1914. One incident were Scottish soldiers in kilts were dragged off the train and called women and kicked. Officers on their way by train to Torgau feared for their lives when their carriage was attacked by drunken Uhlans and railway staff. A wounded other rank described how civilians threw stones and struck the wounded with sticks when the guard opened the doors of their carriage at a station. Much of this anger and violence was fuelled by anti-British propaganda and was further exacerbated by PoW trains pulling into stations that were already crowded with soldiers waiting on trains to take them to the front and being seen off by family members. The crowds on seeing the PoW trains then vented their anger.

The Camps

Gardelegen Camp

The federal nature of Germany created a decentralised PoW system that had large variations depending on the district in which the camp was located. The country was also organised around twenty-four semi-autonomous military districts each of which was under the command of an Army Corps commander and they in turn appointed a Deputy Commanding General who represented him while he was serving in the field. As well as administering the Army Corps districts these Deputy Commanding Generals were also responsible for the PoW camps within each of their districts with twenty-one camps within twenty-four of the districts. An attempt was made by the Prisoner of War Department of the Prussian Ministry of War to introduce guidelines to standardise PoW policy across all twenty-four districts. However, each of the Army Corps commanding generals reported directly to the Kaiser and they resisted these attempts. They interpreted the regulations as they saw fit and they personally appointed camp commandants who took their lead from their commanders.

There were three categories of camps. Officers were sent to one of seventy-five Offiziersgefangenenlager and they did not have to work. Other Rank (OR) prisoners were sent to one of eighty-nine Kreigsgefangenenlager or, in one of the thousands of work camps across Germany these work camps being attached to the Kreigsgefangenenlager for administrative purposes. These camps were reported by Inspectors to be satisfactory with the exceptions being Gardelegen, Wittenberg and Minden. From 1915 onwards, British OR PoWs were kept in Arbeitslager and Arbeitskommandos with the exact number of these camps unknown. They varied in scale and in scope and contained anything from a single prisoner on a farm to thousands of men working in mines or in factories. The coal and salt mine work details were the most notorious.


Substitute Labour

IWM Q 31278 Private D. W. Finch of the 9th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, a POW returned from Germany. The private was taken prisoner on the 27th May 1918, and then sent to work on railway buildings behind the German lines

As early as 1915 OR PoWs were being used as a substitute labour and their use was expanded as the went on so much so that the German economy was utterly dependent on captive labour. The PoWs being placed in work camps across Germany and used in agriculture and industry. These economic demands led to British PoWs being placed in areas where labour was required and this resulted in PoWs being subjected to harsher conditions. Some British PoWs were used as human shields against allied bombing raids on German cities being positioned in cities such as Mannheim, Freiburg and Karlsruhe. From March 1918, British OR PoWs were used as labour behind the German front line, this was in reprisal for German PoWs being used directly behind their front line. These tit for tat reprisals had been a feature since May 1916 when 2,000 British PoWs were sent to Poland in reprisal for German PoWs being employed behind the front line by the French. By 1918, the British had established 303 labour companies in France and Belgium employing German prisoners which represented a massive labour force containing 177,000 German ORs. In contrast German labour in the UK was 64,000.

PoWs tied to a post as punishment

By mid-1918 the British public certainly felt that British PoWs were being harshly treated by the Germans and the government was criticised for not adopting reprisals against the German PoWs which it was felt would induce the Germans to treat British PoWs better. The government was also criticised for the failure of the second Haig Agreement, signed in July 1918, to improve the treatment of British PoWs. The Hague Conventions legitimised the use of OR PoWs to work and both sides used those rights to compel OR PoWs to work. In contravention of war time agreements OR PoWs also found themselves within thirty kilometres of the front line helping the enemy with their labour moving shells, digging trenches, building roads and loading trains. Being in this fighting space placed them in physical danger that many had endured before their captivity and certainly had no reward if anything it risked dishonour. In a speech in the House of Commons General Croft stated that: ‘day-by-day and month-by-month these compatriots of ours have been forced to load up the munitions which are going to kill our men.

The Role of the Red Cross

It was a diplomatic conference held in Washington in 1912 that gave the authority to the Red Cross to act as the official intermediary in aiding PoWs. With the outbreak of the war in August 1914 the Red Cross set up a Central Agency in Geneva and this had sub offices with responsibility for each of the belligerent nations. The British office had a staff of eighty-three which worked in shifts around the clock. There were four principal departments one responsible for compiling information about the PoWs and passing on the news about their whereabouts to their families, a second dealt with the letters, parcels, and money, a third was responsible for supervising the conditions of the PoW camps, and a fourth with the repatriation and welfare of internees in neutral countries.


The most important and immediate task was to obtain a list of all PoWs from both sides with some nations more efficient than others at providing this information. The administrative work load was enormous with over one hundred typists employed full time. A standard information card was produced and issued to the various governments; on it, prisoners completed their essential details – name, rank, home address, PoW camp address, etc.


The work of the Central Office in Geneva was co-ordinated with PoW information bureaux in each of the belligerent’s capitols, the British bureau was located at Wellington Street in London. The director was a senior Civil Servant initially Sir Paul Harvey and then from 1915 Sir J.D. Rees and by the Armistice there were over 300 hundred staff. The main task of the British bureau was to maintain a complete register of all the alien enemies interned in any part of the then British Empire.


Red Cross Parcels

By December 1914 there was an enormous flow of parcels to the British PoWs located in the various PoW camps. At first the system was erratic this was mainly due to prisoners being moved from camp to camp and an attempt to centralize the effort under the auspices of a Prisoners of War Help Committee was a failure due to a lack of official support. Once the Red Cross had assumed control for the distribution of the parcels the administration improved and the system was more efficient. The British central depot was located at Thurloe Place in south Kensington where 70 people were employed with the task of providing each PoW with one 10lb parcel and 13lb of bread every three weeks. The parcels were sent to Switzerland for distribution with one Geneva based haulage company appointed by the Red Cross handling some two million parcels between September 1914 to November 1918.


Regimental and Local Prisoner of War Welfare Associations

The Red Cross were at the top of a massive pyramid that encompassed many volunteers and volunteer agencies at home with many prisoners of war welfare associations formed by local groups and various regiments.  A very good description of the work of a regimental association can be found in the ‘Regimental History of the Royal Scots 1914-19 written by Major John Ewing. The Royal Scots Association was the first in Scotland to set up a Regimental Care Committee, which regularly forwarded three parcels per fortnight to each PoW connected to the Regiment. By 1918 there were 84 officers and 2,283 Other Rank Royal Scots PoWs. Financial appeals were made to the public and the sum of £62,000 was raised, although Major Ewing emphasised that this sum, although substantial, did not meet the considerable costs of meeting the needs of the PoWs with many using private means, they became known as the ‘adopters’ to augment the fund. ‘It was ascertained that the upkeep of each man required £36 per year, and that the total annual cost of supplying prisoners with food amounted to 1s 6d per head of the total population of the regimental district.


The work of the Care Committee could not have been achieved without the support of a large force of volunteer workers who worked from the depot based at 20 Royal Circus in Edinburgh. Each week the volunteers packed and sent off 2,283 boxes to the PoWs with what was in each box regulated by the Central Committee for Scotland who also set out the mode of addressing the box and inside the box was a post-card with a number corresponding to the number of the parcel, and this card was sent home by the recipient of the box. Ewing noted that the stock book recorded that ‘the stores that passed through the premises and which amounted to an annual value of over £50,000.’ He also noted that the volunteers were mostly women who worked from ‘9.30am to 6.30pm’ each day.


East Stirlingshire Prisoners of War Fund

For the men from Falkirk District they were grateful to the work of the East Stirlingshire Prisoners of War Fund. The fund had been established in early 1915 and was based at 69 West Bridge Street, Falkirk and the chair was Mr Fred Johnston J.P., secretary was William J Gibson with the Ladies Committee convener a Mrs ‘James’ Fairlie, Watling Lodge, Falkirk. The fund covered the Parishes of Falkirk, Grangemouth, Polmont, Larbert, Airth, Denny, Dunipace, Slamannan, and Muiravonside.  By May 1916, over two thousand parcels had been despatched with the weekly average being fifty parcels at a cost 5s 6d each. The number of post-cards and letters received from the prisoners exceeded 600. Care was taken by the committee to ensure that they did not overlap the work being done by the Regimental Associations. Where an acknowledgement is not received after a reasonable amount of time the Committee made enquiries to find out why and if the intended recipient was not receiving their parcel they stopped sending them. Very view parcels were not received and those parcels not received are returned from Germany to the Committee or, a comrade an acknowledgement is received from a comrade as the recipient has been moved to another camp.

Extreme right Pte Cummings, A&SH, second right Pte Lothian, Scots Guards. Falkirk District men who received parcels from the East Stirlingshire Fund

The cost of sending the parcels was covered by fund raising, one of the fund-raising schemes was the collection and sale of old bottles, others involved community groups such as the Choral Union, Boy Scouts, and the Boys Brigade. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies also co-ordinated collections. The funds collected and donations received were regularly highlighted in the columns of the Falkirk Herald. The parents of Private James Clark, 10th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, from Slamannan, received a letter from their son, who was repatriated in May 1916, and this was featured in the Falkirk Herald. He wrote that had it not been for the parcels received from the Committee ‘he could not have lived to see his home again.’ By the Armistice, in November 1918, the East Stirlingshire Prisoners of War Fund had helped 346 PoWs in Germany, 2 in Bulgaria, 12 interned in neutral countries a total of 360. The number of men repatriated was 199, with 10 recuperating in hospital, 12 died in captivity, and remaining to be repatriated 139. The total weight of ordinary parcels sent was 1-ton 16cwts per week at a cost of £210.The total number of parcels packed for the local prisoners of war was 21,116, and the contributions to the fund totalled £13,500.  

A Welcome Home

With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the tenth clause demanded the immediate repatriation of all allied PoWs. On the 30 November the Falkirk Herald was reporting on the comparatively small number of men to have returned to the District and gave their names and addresses. The British would seek to use the PoWs to apportion blame and seek recriminations the Falkirk Herald heading to their article of 30 November was ‘Stories of Ill-Treatment in the Hands of the Huns.’ In the occupied war zones of Belgium and France 56,000 British Other Rank PoWs were simply turned loose and left to walk to freedom, as in the case of Falkirk District man Private George Miller. By the end of 1918 some 14,000 British PoWs remained in Germany, 139 of them from Falkirk District.


On 7 December 1918 the Falkirk Herald printed an article in support of  a public entertainment event to thank the men who had returned home ‘What could be more fitting to rejoice over than the safe return to their home of men who have come through so much hardship and peril? They deserve a right hearty welcome if ever men did…They noted that not all the men would have been repatriated and to hold off the celebrations until they all had they thought that ‘There is an appearance of lack of the warmth and spontaneity in a welcome which is delayed, and a consequent lessening of relish on the part of those to whom it is extended.

On the 28 December the paper printed a report of the celebrations at the Town Hall under the heading of ‘WELCOME HOME! REPATRIATION OF PROSONERS OF WAR. EAST STIRLINGHSIRE MEN ENTERTAINED AT FALKIRK’ In attendance were two hundred repatriated former PoWs and their relatives, in all 370 were in attendance, to accept the ‘hearty welcome home from a grateful community’ the reporter thought that it ‘constituted an event which was not merely of great topical interest, but which will remain as one of the outstanding features of local war-time history.’ As it was the Christmas season the dinner served was a Christmas dinner with the hall decorated with flags and bunting as well as holly and pot plants. The men and their families also attended a pantomime in the afternoon. Each man was given a pipe or a cigarette holder and the men were waited on by the East Stirlingshire Prisoners of War Fund volunteers. The paper printed an extract from the tenth clause of the Armistice terms pertaining to the immediate repatriation of the PoWs and wrote ‘We can imagine the joy, the unspeakable joy, of our men when the gates of these horrible dens were opened and they regained their freedom.’ The Chairman Fred Johnston J.P. quoted the last two verses of Robert Burns poem ‘Soldiers Return’ The work of the East Stirlingshire Prisoners of War Fund volunteers was recognised particularly that of William Gibson and Mrs Fairlie, with the event concluding with the repatriated PoWs receiving their Christmas parcels which was on the point of being sent out when the Armistice was declared. Along with each parcel the men received a commemorative card bearing their name.


Copy of the card given to each PoW at Welcome home event and formed the cover of the souvenir programme

Hold Out to the End of the War

Next to the report of the Welcome Home event was a small report on the death in a PoW camp in Germany of Signaller Peter Kidston, Highland Cyclist Battalion attached to the Black Watch. He had been a postman prior to enlisting. His elder brother had been killed in action on in November 1916. His parents lived at 73 Pleasance Road, Falkirk. Peter had been taken prisoner near Bapaume on 21 March 1918 and died of dysentery in a camp near Munster on 8 September. He had written a number of letters and post cards to his parents and in his last dated 30 August he stated that he had not received any letters or parcels sent to him. He always assured his parents that he was in good health and that he hoped to be able to hold out until the end of the war.


Sources and Further Reading


·         The Prisoners 1914-18 – Robert Jackson

·         Prisoners of the Kaiser, The Last POWs of the Great War – Richard van Emden

·         Black Bread and Barbed Wire – Michael Moynihan

·         Violence Against Prisoners of War in the First World War – Heather Jones

·         British Prisoners of War in First World War Germany – Oliver Wilkinson

·         The War Behind The Wire – John Lewis-Stempel

·         Britain and the Great War – J M Bourne

·         British Civilian Internees in Germany: The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18 – Matthew Stibbe

·         Regimental History of the Royal Scots 1914-19 - Major John Ewing

·         British Newspaper Archive - The Falkirk Herald

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