The men behind the wire: British POWs in the First World War

Joseph O’Neill lifts the lid on a hidden story of POW maltreatment.


British prisoners of war murdered, beaten, starved, worked to destruction, their emaciated bodies a mass of suppurating ulcers, their enlarged eyes bewildered by their suffering: these are the images we have of those unfortunates who fell into the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War. Few realise that this was also the plight of many of the 171,720 Tommies and their officers captured on the Western Front during what we are inclined to think of as the more gentlemanly war of 1914-1918.

Few of those who take up arms consider the possibility of being taken prisoner. For most who found themselves in the hands of the enemy, it seemed that the military authorities too had given the matter little thought. Becoming a prisoner was never mentioned during training, and talk of it was taboo.

© David Bilton / A British serviceman heads into captivity. What would be his fate in German hands during the First World War?

Most of those who became prisoners did not make a conscious decision to surrender. As many as a third had been wounded and were incapable of putting up further resistance. Many others were exhausted by forced marches, intense artillery fire, gas attack, or the loss of their officers in chaotic and disorienting battle. Others had simply run out of ammunition and found themselves cut off and outflanked. Most were ordered to surrender by their NCO.

One such was Private J T Milburn, who was buried alive during a German offensive. When he was dug out after six hours, he was surrounded by Germans, one of whom would have run him through but for the intervention of an officer.

Sidney Godley, the first VC of the war, surrendered after the Germans had riddled him with bullets. There are countless examples of men cursing and protesting when their senior officers ordered them to lay down their arms.

If the surrendering Tommy ever believed that in holding up his hands he was choosing the easy way out, he was soon to discover otherwise. It is estimated that about one in every five who offered to surrender was summarily shot or bayoneted.

This was particularly likely to happen in the early months of the war, and thereafter prisoners who operated Lewis light machine-guns or flame-throwers or were snipers were likely to face summary execution.

Besides, the death rate among those whose surrender was accepted and thus became POWs was greater than among men fighting on the front-line. Officially, 11,147 British prisoners died while in German captivity. But the real number was much higher. Several thousand of those listed as ‘missing’ were in fact captured and worked to death. In falling into the hands of the Kaiser’s army, the British were giving themselves over to an organisation based on brutality.

Brutal captors

About 80% of British prisoners were captured either in the early months of the war or during the last chaotic year of fighting when the great German offensive of the spring slowly turned into the disintegration of the Kaiser’s army. In all, 6% of the British Army ended up in captivity.

Immediately, it was clear to these men that German civilians and military felt an intense animus towards them which was largely absent from their attitude to the French and Belgians. The British were the ‘paid assassins’ of Perfidious Albion, motivated solely by hatred of Germany and her legitimate ambitions. They deserved no compassion and were rarely shown any.

Once captured, men began a frightening ordeal. First, they were ‘desoldiered’, as one victim described it – pillaged of everything of value, from buttons and insignia to cigarettes, watches, and wallets.

ABOVE POW camps in Germany during WWI. Red dots show officers’ camps, white dots the camps of other ranks.
POW camps in Germany during WWI. Red dots show officers’ camps, white dots the camps of other ranks. Image: Ian Bull.

Often their clothes – particularly greatcoats and even boots – were taken. Lieutenant William Cull, captured in 1917, was stripped of every article of clothing except his shirt. Sergeant Arthur Gibbons was taken prisoner by a German who wanted to cut off his finger with a bayonet in order to acquire an intractable ring.

After that, they could expect verbal abuse and a few kicks and punches, if nothing worse. Having been interrogated, they were marched to holding pens, from which they were allocated to one of 170 POW camps or Lager. During this phase, many were tortured by thirst, to such an extent that some took to drinking from drainage ditches.

At this stage, officers were separated from the men and dispatched to officer-only camps, usually castles deep inside Germany.

From cage to camp

For other ranks, transit to camp was often a life-threatening experience. Goods wagons dispatched from Douai in 1914 each contained 57 men, pushed up against each other and struggling for breath. The interiors were deep in horse manure, and the stench and intolerable heat were compounded by lack of food and drink throughout the entire 30-hour journey. Other captives report four-day journeys during which they received only a single lump of bread and ersatz coffee.

The wounded were transported in third-class railway carriages. At railway stops, where the German wounded were given food, the behaviour of the German Red Cross women towards the British was, according to one eye-witness, ‘so vile as to be almost incredible: they spat at them and refused them both drink and medical attention’.

At some stations, civilians hooted and jeered, displaying khaki mannequins hanging from nooses. Sometimes wounded British soldiers were stoned or pelted with urine.

The days when POWs might expect to be enslaved, murdered, or ransomed were supposedly a thing of the past. The Hague Conventions – international agreements on the treatment of prisoners – stated plainly that prisoners must be ‘treated humanely’. They might be put to work (officers excepted) provided it was neither ‘excessive’ nor connected ‘with the operation of the war’.

Their ‘board, lodging, and clothing’ should be similar to those of the troops who had captured them. Even allowing for differences of interpretation, it is clear that the Germans violated all these conventions, often flagrantly. As one Red Cross commissioner said, ‘prisoners were not treated as human beings, nor was much effort made to preserve their lives’.

Forced labour

In practice, life in the Lager depended very much on the character of the commandant, who, though operating under the auspices of the regional army corps, enjoyed considerable latitude in how he treated prisoners.

The camps themselves varied in size: some officers’ Lager held only 500 officers, while Schneidermuhl housed 50,000 men. Old castles, redundant military buildings, country houses, jerry-built barracks encased in barbed-wire fences – an inner and outer barrier, usually 8m tall – all served as places of confinement. The entire structure was overlooked by looming watchtowers and arc lights, patrolled by guards with slavering dogs.

Whatever the camp, the reception procedure was always the same: delousing, inoculation – seven needles in the chest – and head-shaving. The lucky ones had their clothes fumigated; the rest suffered the torture of lice.

Immediately, the men were put to work and many were subjected to forced labour. As one who worked in the Hameln salt-mines put it, ‘We all look like dead men; we are being worked to death.’ In the salt-mines, those deemed to be slacking were beaten with shovels and pick-axe handles. Without protective clothing, the men’s bodies were soon a mass of salt sores. In total, 62 men lost their lives in mining accidents.

In the final year of the war, Germany was so short of labour that most captives were immediately put to forced labour, much of it directly related to the war effort.

BELOW A column of British POWs on the Western Front is marched away.
A column of British POWs on the Western Front is marched away.

Most men, however, were hired out to local employers and routinely subjected to brutality. Lance-Corporal Higgins, set to work in a stone quarry near Elbingerode, had only the clothes he had been captured in two years earlier and suffered dreadfully from the cold. He tells of men, having collapsed from exhaustion, being left to lie in the snow until the cold drove them back to work. Even those fortunate enough to be allocated farm work were required to toil from 6.30am until 9pm with only two short breaks for food.

Hunger and disease

Such labour would have tried the strength of a well-nourished man. At best, the captive’s food was inadequate. The standard daily fare in 1914 consisted of one cup of black acorn coffee, 100g of black bread, one bowl of thin soup – usually containing a suggestion of potato and horse beans – and a bowl of even thinner soup, the main constituent of which other than water was margarine.

Unsurprisingly, the pangs of hunger were a constant companion and food became an obsession. Prisoners bartered everything they had for food, and were happy to give a corrupt guard their coat or boots for a handful of bread.

Things were worse for those condemned to ‘reprisal camps’ on the Eastern Front, where one prisoner recalled, ‘We were like skeletons; shoulder bones, hip bones, knees, and elbows horribly prominent.’ In Güstrow, men died after eating potato peelings and rotten bread thrown away by the stores.

Most prisoners survived only because of Red Cross parcels. But even this was not guaranteed: about one in five parcels was ‘lost’ in transit, and many prisoners received no parcels during their entire captivity. One such was Sapper George Waymark, who survived on about 750 calories a day while performing penal hard labour, during the course of which he went from 12st 6lb to 8st. At least 300 British prisoners died of starvation.

Other forms of maltreatment consisted of murderous neglect. When typhus broke out at the Wittenberg camp in December 1914, the authorities made no effort to isolate the infected and only allowed doctors into the camp a month after the outbreak. The situation that greeted them was appalling: delirious men wandering about while the lice-ridden sick fell down next to corpses. The outbreak killed 185, including three of the RAMC doctors who fought to save their lives.

RIGHT These soldiers appear to have been taken prisoner in March 1918, when the Germans broke through British lines and made huge gains during the ‘Ludendorff Offensive’. The great majority of prisoners were taken during the war of movement in either 1914 or 1918.
These soldiers appear to have been taken prisoner in March 1918, when the Germans broke through British lines and made huge gains during the ‘Ludendorff Offensive’. The great majority of prisoners were taken during the war of movement in either 1914 or 1918.

By summer 1915, typhus raged in at least 30 major camps. At Minden, the commandant would not allow the chaplain to minister to the sick and dying.

Captain Robert Dolby RAMC also encountered deaths from scarlet fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, meningitis, mumps, and measles. As many camps lacked adequate sewers or provision for clean water, this is hardly surprising. Such hospital provision that existed was woefully inadequate, and when Dolby complained of this he was thrown into solitary.

In total, at least 3,000 British captives died of communicable diseases, and Emil Müller, commandant of Flavy-le-Martel, habitually thrashed prisoners who were in their death throes.

Mental anguish

Not all the suffering of prisoners was physical. Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, speaking of his experience of the officers’ Lager in Mainz, echoed the feelings of many when he said worry about family, the loneliness of separation from family and loved ones, the lack of privacy, and the hopelessness were intolerable, leading to depression – ‘days drenched in melancholia’. What made this worse was the ever-present shame of having surrendered, the torture of feeling that it would have been better to have died fighting.

One of the worst effects of long-term incarceration and its deadening routine, the pointless waste of a life, was what one officer described as ‘mouldiness’ or ‘barbed-wire disease’. This showed itself as a pervasive lassitude, an overwhelming apathy and loss of spirit. Some doctors described it as ‘a form of neurasthenia’. Often the sufferer simply faded away and died. Psychosis, too, was not uncommon: every big camp had its own asylum.

In addition to all these dangers, an unknown number of captives were simply murdered by their captors. Rifleman Alfred Hall tells of an incident in June 1916 when two French and two British prisoners were shot dead for refusing to work in a munitions factory. Private Logan of the King’s Own was shot for a petty infringement of camp regulations, and Private Moreton of the London Regiment, already an invalid, died of hypothermia after being left in a cold bath for 90 minutes. In total, more than 500 British prisoners died directly at the hands of their guards, often in horrendous circumstances.

Lack of clothing greatly added to prisoners’ hardship. They wore what they were captured in and, after a few years, these turned to rags. Those whose shoes were beyond repair wrapped their feet in clothes or, if they were fortunate, were issued with wooden sabots, which were excruciating to wear. Private William Butcher was stripped of his boots when captured. He developed frostbite and had toes amputated with a pair of scissors and a penknife, without anaesthetic.

It was only in 1915 that the Red Cross began to ship prison uniforms to Germany – a dark blue-black jacket, trousers, and cap, which came with underclothes and a shirt. But many captives never received them. The hardship of inadequate clothing during winters when the temperatures plunged to −20º is not difficult to imagine. It is easy to understand the prisoners’ desire to escape.

Red Cross parcels were a lifeline for British POWs – but they did not always reach their intended beneficiaries.

Escape stories

In total, more than 600 British prisoners made ‘home runs’, escaping from a camp and getting back to their own lines. This number does not include the many hundreds more who, particularly in the closing months of the conflict, were labouring in or near the front-line and simply ran back to their own lines, risking not only being shot in the back but being killed by their comrades.

Those who made a home run, only 12% of whom were officers, were feted in The London Gazette and mentioned in despatches. Their motives for risking their lives by attempting escape were varied and all equally valid. Few had the honesty of Private George Hall, who admitted he did it to escape the beatings that were a routine part of his imprisonment.

A captured escapee could expect a severe beating, followed by a minimum of 14 days in solitary on bread and water. Nor were those who did not try to escape immune from reprisals: in many camps, those suspected of helping in an escape were thrashed with truncheons and the flat of sabres. These reprisals were so severe that Colonel W E Gordon ordered his men at Torgau not to attempt escape.

Yet many men were not discouraged. There were an estimated 3,000 escapes and perhaps 10,000 attempted breakouts by British captives, which means that between 5% and 10% of all prisoners made a concerted effort to escape.

Persistent offenders were selected for special treatment and consigned to Fort 9, Ingolstadt, in East Prussia, a punishment camp. Yet many remained undeterred, none more than Lieutenant H W Mendicott RFC, who made 14 attempts, and Lieutenant C F L Templer, who made 13.


For even the most amenable prisoners, conditions deteriorated as the German front began to disintegrate in the autumn of 1918. Many of those captured in the final stages of the war were forced to carry machinery that the retreating Germans deemed useful.

RIGHT This grainy image shows British soldiers tied to a post in a German POW camp, one of many violations of the Hague Conventions.
This grainy image shows British soldiers tied to a post in a German POW camp, one of many violations of the Hague Conventions.

When one such band of unfortunates stumbled into the Crossen an der Oder camp in October 1918, they were a pitiable spectacle: six had died on the march from the front and the rest were gaunt, haggard, and ravenous. Several died almost immediately. Their plight was as nothing, though, to that of the 260 taken at Aachen, only 90 of whom survived.

Throughout Germany, all order was collapsing: soldiers mutinied, workers went on strike, sailors killed their officers, and in many places the camp guards simply melted away.

Though the armistice that ended the war on 11 November 1918 stipulated that all prisoners were to be repatriated, the Germans took no responsibility for doing so. Instead, the advancing allies encountered lines of released prisoners, sent on their way in rags and without food.

One witness described them as ‘a straggling line of men wearing every kind of uniform the allies had used since 1914. The English prisoners looked much worse than the others – worn, thin, and sick.’ These men had survived since their release on what they could beg from civilians, who were themselves half-starved.

Before long, the allies imposed some order on the situation and set up collection centres throughout Germany. No sooner had these centres come into operation than they were overwhelmed by the number of men flooding in.

BELOW Malnourished and disease-ridden but alive. A group of former British POWs photographed after release at the Armistice.
Malnourished and disease-ridden but alive. A group of former British POWs photographed after release at the Armistice.

Within days, the situation became hopeless as the Spanish influenza – which was to kill more people than the Great War – struck. The disease cut great swathes through the malnourished men. Private Jeffrey remembered that, at the Parchim camp, ‘we buried 30 in one day from influenza’, while every room at the Graudenz camp ‘resembled a hospital ward or worse’. In all, 3,000 British prisoners died between the Armistice and the completion of repatriation in February 1919.

Many of those who survived the ordeal and reached home were left scarred. Lieutenant William Harvey spoke for many when he said that his years of captivity ‘were by far the worst thing that ever happened to me and a thing from which I shall possibly never recover’. Proof that prisoners were irreparably damaged is that their mortality rate in the 1920s and 1930s was five times that of other veterans.

Even the cursory debriefing which prisoners underwent made it clear that brutality and maltreatment were the everyday experience of many men. A war trial was held in Leipzig in 1921, by which time the allies’ main concern was to avoid unnecessarily antagonising the Germans. Three men received derisory prison sentences. The Times called the hearings ‘a scandalous failure of justice’. •

Joseph O’Neill is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and the author of six books and numerous magazine articles. His latest book, Manchester in the Great War, deals with the city’s unique contribution to victory and the profound impact of the war on Manchester’s civilian population.