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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.