Millions of us in Britain grew up on tales of bravery among prisoners of war. For those of us born in the decades after 1945, blockbuster movies set against the harsh regime of prison camps during the Second World War were a Sunday-afternoon staple, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape. From these, we learned any number of things – about suffering and fortitude, about human relationships, about how to jump a motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence.
What was less well known – at least to some of us – was that, in real life, the brutal treatment handed out to British POWs was a feature not just of the Second World War, but of the First World War too. In all, 171,720 Tommies and their officers were captured between 1914 and 1918 on the Western Front – from where they were allocated to one of 170 camps, or Lager, dotted throughout Germany.
As we discover this week on The Past, life in those WWI camps could be brutal, and tales of maltreatment, starvation and summary execution were rife. Officially, 11,147 British prisoners died while in German captivity – but the real figure is believed to be much higher. In the latest issue of Military History Matters, Joseph O’Neill sheds light on this distressing chapter in our wartime history, and uncovers the plight of those who fell into the hands of the Kaiser’s army.
Also this week on The Past, we delve deeper into the archives of our sister magazines to bring you a fuller understanding of the history of prisoners of war during WWII: in Military History Monthly, we revealed Hitler’s secret plot to kill Churchill by way of a mass POW breakout; in Current Archaeology, we reported on the battle to save an historic camp built to house German and Italian prisoners in County Durham; and in Current World Archaeology, we travelled to Normandy to discover whether witness accounts match up with new evidence being discovered at a POW camp for German soldiers.
Elsewhere this week on The Past, we are following up on last week’s story about Horatio Nelson, in which we took an in-depth look at the life and career of Britain’s greatest war hero. On the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, Calum Henderson talks to historian Graham Goodlad about Nelson’s legend and the rise of British seapower.
Finally, don’t forget to have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of prisoners of war. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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