‘Captured but not conquered’ at the National WWI Museum and Memorial

Calum Henderson explores how a new exhibition at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Missouri is illuminating the experiences of prisoners of war.

One of the most unexpected artefacts on show in Captured – a new exhibition about the experiences of prisoners of war at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, in Kansas City, Missouri – is a beautiful, handcrafted violin.

The violin made by August Christian Voigt, bearing his PG (prisonnier de guerre) number of 46. Voigt survived the war and lived out his later life in the United States, dying there in 1965.

It belonged to a German soldier called August Christian Voigt. He was incarcerated at the Saint-Loup-sur-Semouse camp near Dijon, France, in the final years of the First World War.

The instrument bears Voigt’s prisoner number – 46 – and, on the reverse, the dates of his time in captivity. Years later, he told his son Günther how it was made. Not only had the French guards allowed August the use of some scrap wood, his son related, but they also trusted him with a small pocketknife with which to build it.

One of two handmade dioramas in walnut shells made by Sidney Christopher Hugh Milgate of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade, D Company, Collingwood Battalion, while he was imprisoned in Germany. This one depicts a lighthouse; the other shows a sailing vessel.
The lid of a wooden box is carved with the dates of a prisoner’s incarceration and, in Russian, says ‘Memory of POW’ or ‘Remember POW’.

The violin, with its strings, pegs, and tailpiece all scavenged from Voigt’s surroundings, worked so well that, as its owner later recalled, ‘the guards would bring their wives and they danced to the music I would play’.

Voigt was just one of a staggering nine million POWs during the First World War, a conflict that saw roughly the same number of soldiers killed. Across six galleries, and through an array of artefacts, the exhibition looks at their experiences, including how they occupied themselves during their captivity.

This Russian coat, or mendir, was worn by a Russian officer in a German or Austrian POW camp. It was made of brown fabric with wooden buttons. The white square above the left pocket is marked ‘R26 – VII’, which may have been the number of the camp. ‘R26’ is also on the orange cloth collar.
This child’s enamelled metal plate with an alphabet and clock design shows its age. It was probably used by prisoners for mess in a POW camp in Germany, where rations were often scarce.

While Voigt had his music, others turned to crafts. A British prisoner called Sidney Christopher Hugh Milgate made dioramas from walnut shells while imprisoned in a German camp. A Russian, whose name is unknown, painted a 1st Lieutenant in full uniform while interned in the same country.

This French poster from 1917 promotes a musical gala to benefit Romanian prisoners of war. It advertises the event as taking place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris ‘under the patronage of His Excellency Mr Lahovary, Minister of Romania’.
This oil painting depicts 1st Lieutenant Louis M Edens in full American unform. It is the work of an unknown Russian prisoner, who was most likely incarcerated alongside Eden in the German camp in Villengen, Baden.

Heather Jones, a historian and the curator of the exhibition, explained that Captured also illuminates the variety of experiences of the prisoners. Those who ended up in British or French camps were relatively lucky, all things considered – living comfortably and eating well throughout the war.

Taken from the book Der Grösse Krieg in Bildern (The Great War in Pictures), these images depict French colonial soldiers held in the Zossen-Wünsdorf POW camp, south of Berlin. The caption tells us that they are all from North African or Turkish backgrounds.
A pen and ink watercolour illustration of a prisoner, from an album of 16 in the scrapbook of a French officer named Alexandre Orlowski, imprisoned in Philippopolis (in central Bulgaria) in July 1918. A mix of French, British, and Serbians stayed at this camp.
This statue is of Sergeant Edgar Halyburton of the 16th Infantry Regiment, one of the earliest American POWs. Posing defiantly with his hand in his pocket, he inspired American sculptor Cyrus Dallin to recreate the image (originally from a German photograph) in bronze. Each of the five statues cast bore the inscription ‘Captured but not Conquered’.

But, because of the Allied blockade, prisoners in Germany and Austria-Hungary were reduced to subsisting on meagre soups and small amounts of bread. Mortality rates correlated closely with camp conditions. They were particularly bad in Russia, where many prisoners froze to death on the long, unforgiving journey to camps in Siberia. Then there were the diseases, such as malaria – rife in French North African camps in the early years of the war – and the influenza pandemic, or Spanish Flu, which caused further carnage at the end of it.

August Voigt was one of the lucky ones, even if he was not released from Saint-Loup-sur-Semouse until early 1920. With his violin stored safely in its case (also handmade), he returned home to Bremen and married Franziska Demski. They later had a son, Günther.

Life in post-war Germany was difficult, and the family emigrated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where August earned his living by working for an agricultural equipment firm.

In 2018, one hundred years after the end of the war, Voigt’s grandchildren donated the violin and its case to the museum.

Images: National WWI Museum and Memorial
Captured is at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, until 30 April. Ticket prices vary but for adults are $10. For details, please visit www.theworldwar.org/captured.