Barbed Wire Disease

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.


German POWs in France

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.  

As it did with military tactics and strategy, the Napoleonic wars provided a revolutionary basis for the treatment of prisoners of war – in some cases, for the worse.  The Revolutionary French Army’s initial elimination of rank meant there was no distinction in the treatment of enemy soldiers or officers, often with officers being subject to more abuse than the rest of their men.  Napoleon put thousands of enemy combatants to work, subjecting the POWs of those nations he thought were particularly troublesome to his conquests into conditions that often worked them to death.  Spanish POWs were singled out, with as many as 38 battalions worth of Spanish prisoners being put to work across Europe.  Unwilling to feed his Spanish prisoners, thousands died before Napoleon shipped 20,000 off to England simply to be rid of them.

Not all who surrendered to Napoleon’s armies faced the same horrific conditions.  Many enemy soldiers were subject to the same gentlemanly treatment of the bygone era.  As the wars dragged on, and more and more Frenchmen were captured, treatment of enemy POWs improved, if only to avoid retaliation.  In both France and Britain, many prisoners essentially gave nothing more than their word they would not escape in return for serene lives under the watch of disinterested guards at farms and small towns scattered across the countryside.  Those officers of means could pay their way out of captivity, or at worst, pay to live like minor royalty while technically being a “prisoner.”

British and Australian troops captured at the Somme marched through German-held territory

Still, the practice of abusing enemy prisoners via forced labor had been consecrated.  The Hague Convention of 1907 would attempt to address such abuses with continued reliance on 19th century notions of warfare, including allowing enemy prisoners to be free on their own recognizance.  The Hague would allow for enemy prisoners to perform labor, provided the prisoners were treated humanely and the work was not in service to the captor nation’s war effort.  But the Great War would see all the major combatants struggle to adhere to the standards the Hague had put in place – for both soldiers and civilians.


For a war that was suppose to be over by Christmas, few preparations had been put in place to handle a massive influx of prisoners.

For Germany, engaged on a two-front war from the earliest days of the conflict, the temporary quarters used to house prisoners became inadquate as soon as September of 1914.  By then, Germany already held 125,000 French POWs and 94,000 Russians – most of them from one battle, at Tannenberg in East Prussia.  Schools, barns, hangers, anything that could house large numbers of men was hurriedly drafted into service for Berlin’s prisoners of war.

German civilians in one of Britain’s internment camps pose for a group photo

The overflow of prisoners would begin to force Germany to adopt creative measures to relieve the pressure.  Thousands of prisoners were shipped off to neutral neighbors such as Holland and Switzerland, where care in some cases proved to be even worse as it was dependent on payments from the home nations of the POWs to provide food and supplies.  219,000 POWs would actually be exchanged during the war, often based upon health, and later, upon the age of the prisoners and the length of their captivity.

Such charitable acts were few and far between.  As the war dragged on, conditions and treatment in the POW camps deteriorated.  “Reprisal camps,” as mentioned earlier, would expose French and British prisoners to not just artillery fire but deprivation and abuse.  Stories after the war from reprisal camps at Sedan told of prisoners being executed, with often those POWs who were sick or wounded being shot or stabbed and then robbed for what few possessions they had left on them.  German authorities would deny such accusations and the post-war trials for such actions left few happy – former Entente prisoners claimed the sentences were too light while the German press viewed the entire endeavor as punitive and without evidence.

France and Britain housed fewer POWs but differed greatly in terms of policy and treatment.  Britain never housed more than 458,000 prisoners of war in total, at locations spanning the Empire’s many colonies, and almost half that number – 200,000 – would arrive in Britain in the final months of the war as Germany’s armies flirted with collapse.  For Britain, the larger concern was the fate of the thousands of enemy aliens within the Kingdom’s borders.  Nearly 57,000 Britons were of recent Germanic decent, and while these immigrants saw themselves as British, Berlin’s aerial attacks and unrestricted submarine warfare only intensified Britain’s anti-German sentiments.  Tens of thousands of civilians, including many British citizens, were rounded up and placed into internment camps for the duration of the war.

A fairly standard layout for most prison camps after the first camps were usually pre-existing structures

France would hold only under 400,000 German prisoners during the Great War, but the Third Republic’s handling of their POWs would become a major scandal.  Uncomfortable with the prospect of tens of thousands of Germans behind the front, even in prison camps, the Service Général des Prisonniers de Guerre devised a solution in the fall of 1914 – ship German prisoners off to North Africa.  Many German POWs would find themselves in what previously had been France’s infamous penal colonies, where back-breaking labor and torture were common.  In Morocco, the French Governor Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey looked to make an example of his German prisoners to his Moroccan subjects.  Germany had intervened in the Agadir Crisis in Morocco in 1911, looking to stake their territorial claims in an incident that had nearly led to war.  Lyautey wished to show the Germans and Moroccans the strength of French military power by humiliating and torturing his German captives.

25,000 German POWs would die in French hands.  Some would be the result of unchecked malaria outbreaks.  Others would be victims of the “tambour”, where a prisoner, placed in a stress position, had certain body parts deliberately exposed to the sun until the flesh was baked or the prisoner died of exposure.  The fatalities would be joined with an unknown number of German African civilians from captured German colonies and tens of thousands of members of social or ethnic groups the French found undesirable.  Ethnic Germans from Alsace-Lorraine, enemy alien men of military age, Roma, prostitutes with STDs – all would find themselves at the French camps.

News reports of the abuses – and German “reprisal camps” against French prisoners in retaliation – would bring about the end of the North African camps, as the prisoners would be transferred back to the French mainland.  But problems would continue on all sides.  The fatality rates would be even worse for the war’s smaller powers.  Nearly 20% of Italian POWs died under Austro-Hungarian guard.  And 29% of Romanian prisoners died in Germany from a combination of disease, malnutrition and abuse.

The original caption suggest these are Austrian troops punishing Russian soldiers by placing them in a stress position.  It looks far more like they’re punishing Russian civilians


For the average prisoner – whether they were in German, British or French hands – the greatest enemy wasn’t abuse, illness or death.  It was boredom.  Or as one Swiss POW camp inspector referred to it – “barbed wire disease.”

The initial role of enemy POWs in Germany served little more purpose than entertainment for the locals.  Captured Entente soldiers would be marched through German towns on display, with German civilians particularly interested in looking at the prisoners from British and French colonies.  German schoolchildren would be led to the various POW camps to watch the prisoners as if they were occupants in a perverse zoo.

Lives in the camp maintained the regimented schedules of soldiers – early breakfast, roll calls and military discipline in reports and activities – but with relatively little structure by comparison to their days as active combatants.  Distractions of any kind were highly sought after.  Books, sports, theater – anything that might kill the multitude of hours between meals and sleep led to a number of POW orchestras, plays and sports leagues (sometimes playing against other camps).  Civilian camps were only slightly less structured, as prisoners were expected to feed themselves with supplies provided by their captors.  Accommodations were usually better, with wealthier civilians able to purchase luxuries such as tobacco or even upgrade/expand their facilities with the camp’s permission.

British troops work on a German farm

But as the war dragged on, whether soldier or civilian, most prisoners were expected to work.

100,000 civilians from France and Belgium alone were forcibly moved by the Germans from the frontlines into prison camps.  Any civilian aged 14 or older (male or female) would find themselves drafted into the Zivilarbeiter-Bataillone (civilian workers’ battalions) that provided free labor for German farms and industry.  Tens of thousands of civilians would be transferred to the Eastern Front, working in what are now Lithuania and Latvia.  Conditions would be gruesome, especially as Germany starved from the British blockade.  And as the nation committed itself to the Hindenburg Programme of “total war,” the civilian workers’ battalions would find themselves working alongside Russian POWs on constructing Germany’s newest fortifications – all in violation of the Hague Convention.

German POWs in British hands found themselves subject to better treatment but also myriad rules and restrictions on their labor.  With so many Britons at war, fears increased in London that summer harvests and basic material labor would run short.  Providing German labor seemed a natural solution, but ran into political opposition as labor leaders worried that introducing free POW workers would undercut employment opportunities and drive down the market rate for skilled workers.  German prisoners would eventually find themselves put to work, but at hours similar or less than British civilians and only when local employers could demonstrate they had been unable to fill their employment needs.  And the German labor wouldn’t turn out to be free – employers had to pay German soldiers a rate of 1.5 pence a day, the equivalent of £4.78 today.

German soldiers mine a British quarry

France had no interest in paying their German prisoners for their labor – or even returning their prisoners after the war.  270,000 German prisoners were moved into the regions devastated by trench warfare after the Armistice, with most kept prisoner until 1920.  Hundreds of German POWs were injured, often by buried shells, and more took their own lives out of depression as their captivity stretched into years.  Only with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and massive demonstrations in Germany in protest to France’s POW policy, did Paris finally allow their prisoners to return home.


For too many prisoners, their return home was not welcomed.

While British POWs each received a facsimiled handwritten message from King George V, they received little public recognition.  Italian and German POWs returned home to the financial ruin of their nations and their new social status as pariahs.  Russian POWs were sometimes simply dropped at the border or just dismissed from the POW camps without any means to travel.  French prisoners or war were excluded from any honors, wounded or not, and even docked back-pay.  Average French soldiers would receive 20 francs a day; prisoners would only receive 15.  Over 1.26 billion frances were technically owed to France’s POWs, and despite legal efforts in 1920s, veteran prisoners would receive nothing.  Such practices weren’t unique to France – most nations underpaid their former prisoners, if they paid them at all.

An estimated 9 million men were taken as prisoners of war during the entire conflict.  Exact numbers on those who died in captivity are disputed but could easily rank close to 750k-1 million

In most cases, the former POWs were simply forgotten.  The United States would attempt to recognize their POWs with a Prisoner of War Medal…in 1986.

3 thoughts on “Barbed Wire Disease

  1. What is the difference between a POW being worked to death by his captors and a conscriptee being worked to death by his countrymen?

  2. Semantics, MP. One is “being exploited as a slave to the victor” and the other is “being exploited as fodder by the elites”. One is shameful, the other is glorious!

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