We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
For the German prisoners of war in Souilly, a French commune in the Meuse near Verdun, life behind enemy lines hadn’t been much better than their previous life in the trenches.
Operating as unpaid laborers, the German POWs dug trenches and roads eleven hours a day, seven days a week. A dysentery outbreak in the camp months earlier had decimated their ranks, as French supplies and medical care struggled to meet the prisoner’s needs. Even the basic safety of the prisoners was willfully neglected as POWs were forced to perform their roles right on the frontlines, often under German shellfire.
News of such treatment had been suppressed in France – the army’s Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle (who hadn’t taken much care with his own men’s lives in Verdun), brazenly lied to Paris about the practice – but news had trickled back to Germany. In response, the Germans publicly announced that newly captured French POWs would no longer be transferred back to Germany but kept on the frontlines as quasi-human shield laborers. If the French would move their German prisoners further back, and not expose them to gunfire, the Germans would do the same. With German authorities allowing French prisoners to write letters home, detailing the conditions they faced at the front under their nation’s own artillery fire, public pressure quickly mounted in France to move the German POWs.
On March 27th, 1917, the French government agreed to Germany’s demands, despite objections from London and Nivelle. By June of 1917, no POWs remained at the front on either side. It was a small gesture of deescalation in the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of POWs in the Great War.
European history had given relatively little insight into how to manage the problem of hundreds of thousands of enemy prisoners for an indefinite period of time. Prior to the wars of the Napoleonic era, most armies were made up almost exclusively of professional soldiers, providing a sort of collegial basis for the treatment of those captured on the battlefield. Prisoners were usually quickly exchanged via the “cartel” system, which placed monetary values on prisoners based on rank. Thus those who surrendered would often find themselves soon back with their armies, having been traded for a man of equal rank, money, or both. Continue reading