World War I POWs: Country Trends


Figure 1.--Here are Austrian-Hungarian POW. we are not sure about their specific ethnicity. The POWs are at Kiappeselga in 1915. We do not yet know just where Kiappeselga is located, but it looks like Siberia. After 1915, conditions in Russian POW camps, especially food deliveries deteriorated. Source: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection. Library of Congress.

An estimated 8 million men were held as POWs in camps during World War. As a result of the Geneva Convention (Hague Rules), the princiles as to how POWs should be treated were well established and agreed to by the combatant countries. Each country generally attempted to do so. The survival rate of World War I POWS was, as a result, much higher than in World war II. The International Red Cross and neutral nations conducted inspections. The primary outlier was the Ottoman Empire. There were, however, nothing of the widespread barbarity exhibted by the Germans, Soviets, and Japanese during World War II. There were wide variations, primarily the result of the difficult situation and food shortahes which developed in Russia and the Central Powers as the War progressed. The greatest number of POWs were held by the Russians (2.9 million). The situation for POWs was particularly bad in Russia. Many were held in Siberian camps. The problems experienced by Russian POWs reflected the declining consitions for civilians, particularly food shortages. Poor nutrition eventually bturned to actual starvation. An estimated 25 percent of the POWs held by the Russian died. Food was a major problem. Large numbers also perished from smallpox and typhus. Mannutrition and diswease are of course related. Large numbers of the Russian POWs were from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the ethnicity was quite varied. Germany held 2.5 million prisoners, the largest numbers were Russians. Some Allied POWs reported harsh treatment. The British and French held about 0.7 million POWs, mostly Germans taken in the final months of the War when the Allies launched the war-winning Hundred Days Campaign. The United States held only 48,000 POWs, also Germans taken in the final months of the War. A few were shipped to camps in America. The Ottoman Empire had an especially poor record of treating POWs. The Ottoman Turks were a major exception to the humane treatment of prisoners. Prisoners of war were used by both sides for propaganda purposes. Each belligerent nation wanted to show that they were treating their captives humanely. The level of care was used as an indicator of the country's level of cultural level. And each belligerant nation accused enemy nations were mistreating the POWs they held.

The Allies

Britain and France as a result of the course of events on the Western Front took relatively few German prisoners. The Germans launched the War by invading Belgium and northern France (August 1914). During this fighting, it was the Germans who took most of the prioners. Once the trench system froze the Western Fint, relatively few POWs were taken on the Western Front (October-November 1914). This did not change until the last few months of the War. The greatest number of Allied POWs were held by the Russians and were mostly Austro-Hingarians (2.9 million). The situation for POWs was particularly bad in Russia. Many were held in Siberian camps. The problems experienced by Russian POWs was not a national decesion to mistrat POWs, but the declining conditions for civilians, particularly food shortages. Poor nutrition eventually turned to actual starvation. An estimated 25 percent of the POWs held by the Russian died. Food was a major problem and bcame an increasing problem as the War continued. Large numbers also perished from smallpox and typhus. Mannutrition and diswease are of course related. Large numbers of the Russian POWs were from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the ethnicity was quite varied. The Russians took fewer German prisoners, largely because for the most part they did not fare as well against the Germans on the battlefield. The British and French used German POWs for forced labor. The French even made Grman POWs work in areas being shelled. The Allies transported some of The German POWs to prison camps in North Africa. The British and French held about 0.7 million POWs, mostly Germans taken in the final months of the War when the Allies launched the war-winning Hundred Days Campaign (August-November 1918). The United States held only 48,000 POWs, also Germans taken in the final months of the War. A few were shipped to camps in America.

The Central Powers

Germany held 2.5 million prisoners during World War I. Allied POWs were held in Austrian, Bulgarian, German, Hungarian, and Turkish prison camps. There were 180 of these camps in Germany and Austria-Hungary. The largest numbers of Allied POWs were Russians. The Austrians held mostly Russian POWs. Treatment dependended somewhat on nationality. The Austians and Germans tended to treat the Serbs harshly. Some other Allied POWs reported harsh treatment. But for the most part the Central Powers tended to treat allied POWs relatively humanely. There were international inspections of Central Powers POW camps. The Red Cross played an especilly impotant role. James W. Gerard, United Stares Ambassador in Berlin, oversaw the investigations until the United States entered the war (April 1917). Life in Central Power prison camps was undeniably difficult and got more difficult as the War progressed and food shortages developed. German and Austro-Hungarian authorities made an effort to follow international law and promote the health and welfare of POWs. There were exceptions. Some reports suggest that the Germans did not treat British POWs correctly early in the War. Unlike World War II, such repots seem were relatively few in mumber. After the beginning of the War, they were mostly due to individual camp commandants and not mational policies. A more serious problem was German reprisals for preceived British and French mistreatment of their POWs. This resulted in the Germans using Allied POWs for forced labor on the Eastern Front, sometimes in horific conditions. The Ottoman Turks were a major exception to the humane treatment of prisoners. The Ottoman Empire had an especially poor record of treating POWs. Some 16,600 British and Indian officers and men were captured by the Ottomans. Their fate and conditions under which they were head greatly concecened the British and Indian Governments. Some 11,800 British soldiers, mostly Indians, were tken prisoners after the 5-month Siege of Kut, in Mesopotamia (April 1916). Many were already weak and starving when they finally surrendered and 4,250 died in Turkish captivity.







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Created: 4:05 AM 8/11/2010
Last updated: 10:18 AM 5/5/2016