Picture Postcards from the Great War

ww1 Prisoners of War on Picture Postcards

Anyone studying the history of the Great War either as a family historian, a collector of 'military' postcards or from a general interest in the conflict, will find that the cards on this page are just one topic or subject from the huge wealth of WW1 picture postcard material available today. Many WW1 postcard images are not found in any other medium and are therefore a valuable and splendid illustrative record of the period.

ww1 fund raising postcard

PRISONER OF WAR: During the Great War, this title described nearly 7,000 officers and 165,000 other ranks in the British Army. A postcard or letter was usually the only link between a prisoner and his family at home.

Photographic and official postal stationery cards from camps in Germany are reasonably easy to find in postcard and postal history dealers' stocks. The Great War collector can also look out for 'paper' items from the British Red Cross; PoW comforts organisations, and letters and cards mailed from men held in German camps as well as those interned in neutral countries. British civilians were also held captive in Germany.

Some viewers will of course have letters and postcards mailed by their ancesters from German prison camps during the 1914-1918 war and this page may be of special interest to them.

First News of Prisoners

At the beginning of the Great War the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had its initial encounter with the German Army on Sunday 23rd August 1914, at the Belgium mining town of Mons. The British (and French) was unable to halt the Germans and could only delay them. The B.E.F. were pushed back into France, with more desperate fighting on 26th August at Le Cateau. Eventually they were forced across the River Marne.

During the 14 days of the retreat, British newspapers had been full of reports of skirmishes, but not until Wednesday 2nd September was mention made of British prisoners, when a brief communique from, "the British HQ at the Front" was referred to. It which gave a return of the casualties, of "one of the Cavalry Brigades and three of the Divisions, less one Brigade..."

On 2nd September, the communique appeared in The Times, it said, "BRITISH LOSSES: First total of 5,127 killed, 36 officers and 127 other ranks, wounded, 57 officers and 629 other ranks; missing, 95 officers and 4,183 other ranks ... The missing are those not accounted for and may include unwounded prisoners and stragglers as well as casualties."

An Early Eye-Witness Account

It seems the first eye‑witness account about British prisoners, might have come from a British civilian. On 3rd September 1914, The Times published a long letter from A. J. Dawe, who, with his travelling companion Henry Furse, escaped through occupied Belgium. They said they had seen British prisoners of war. Dawe recalled that on 29th August, while waiting on the platform at Louvain Railway Station, a German soldier told them a story that was clearly based on rumors (either that or something worse). Dawe said, "that morning 330 English prisoners had been shot because they were found to have in their possession dum‑dum bullets. As far as I could make out from the German soldier, the English had attacked a troop‑train going up to Brussels and 400 altogether had been taken prisoner, the 70 that still remained alive we certainly saw, for they came on with us in the train to Aachen..." 

British PoW's marching through ww1 shell damaged town
An real photographic postcard produced early in the war. A group of Scottish soldiers lead a long column of French and British prisoners through a shell-damaged French town on their way to a place of imprisonment. They are escorted by German infantry and lance carrying mounted troops .
At the beginning of the war the Germans had been confident of an early victory and were taken by surprise at the large volume of prisoners they took. They had made no preparations for holding large numbers of captives and most of their PoW camps were hastily established and in the main - inadequate in every way.

First Capture Postcard

In due course a system of official 'first capture' postcards was established in the camps. One was given to each prisoner on capture and at the top of the card was the nominal address "Limberg." The card stated, "I am a prisoner of war in Germany." and had spaces for the prisoner to enter his personal details and the name and address of the recipient.
first capture postcard
ww1 first capture postcard
'First capture' stationery card. Prisoners were ordered to "Fill up this card immediately!" and by deleting the appropriate words, the prisoner informed his family that he was 'Sound', 'Wounded' or 'ILL'. Although some men were held in Limberg, it seems the camp was mainly a processing centre for prisoners' records. The card warned relatives "Do not reply to Limberg, await further information." The British Red Cross said "...great confusion was caused by the want of understanding [by relatives] of the fact that Limberg was not a postal address [and] that the prisoner to whom they were interested in was not in Limberg at all."

Many Mons men were sent to the infamous Sennelager Camp in Westphalia, where an NCO said, "We came in for some rather bad treatment ... they thought it was particularly reprehensible that we should have volunteered to fight for our country." By October 1914, there were about 4,000 British PoWs in Sennelager.

the siege of Maubeuge postcard

This artist-drawn picture postcard was printed and published in Germany. It shows the burning French forts at Maubeuge after the German army had besieged them during the period 25th August to 8th September 1914. Columns of French and British prisoners march from the blazing forts escorted by German soldiers. Maubeuge was at the intersection of the Brussels and Liege railways which ran straight to Paris and was thus an important objective in the German Schlieffen Plan of invasion. The concrete and brick forts were a few kilometers from the town of Maubeuge and stood directly in the line of the German sweep. The forts were occupied by 47,000 French soldiers. On 25th August 1914, sixty thousand German troops besieged Maubeuge. On the 29th they began a week-long bombardment of the forts, some were breached - leaving a gap in the Allied defenses. On 7th September the forts surrendered.

Over 40,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner together with about 400 guns and 80,000 shells. Also taken prisoner were several thousand Allied stragglers including British troops who had sought refuge in the forts during the retreat.

A German F.S.P.C. adapted for British Prisoners

A postcard mailed from Gottingen Camp by a British soldier captured early in the war was an example of Germany's unpreparedness for the large number of prisoners taken. It was the standard Field Service Post Card (F.S.P.C.) used by German soldiers and was adapted for use by PoW's in the camp, by the addition of a red cachet - Kriegsgefangenensendung. (Roughly translated as Prisoner of War Mail.) Later, as the camps filled up, prisoners were to have their own printed stationery cards specific to the camp they were in.
Gottingen camp postcard
However, Private Moore would have to wait at least another six months before any thought of repatriation could be implemented, as it was not until June 1915 that agreement was reached between Britain and Germany to exchange 'medical' prisoners of war.
The sender of this specially adapted German F.S.P.C., Private Harold Moore, was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps who thought that as a medical man, he should be sent home. He mailed the card on 1st November 1914 to his mother in Hove. He told her "...we are still looking forward to coming home, you need not worry about me for I am happy enough..." According to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1906, it was required that all medical personnel who were captured in war should be treated with respect, protected and repatriated, as Private Moore was well aware.

German Postcards Depicting British Prisoners of War

German camp postcard 1
German camp postcard 2
On the back of these German produced printed photographic cards is printed "Mit Genehmigung des General- kommandos Munster." There are at least six in the set.  Left. The cards are not numbered but this one appears to be the first in the set and depicts a group of dejected and unhappy looking Scottish soldiers arriving by train. Right. Arriving in camp the PoW's have the attention of German officers, guards and even a small group of civilians.
German camp postcard 3
German camp postcard 4
Two more cards from the 1914/15 set mentioned above. Left. British PoW's stand in line with their food bowls followed by a group of French prisoners and German guards. Right. A German guard and Scottish soldiers eating from their food bowls pose for the camera - on this printed photographic card from a set of at least six.

Germany was divided into army corps districts and the appointed corps commander of each district had absolute power within his domain. His orders superseded those of all civilian officials and it seems he was not even required to report to the Berlin War Department and was quite independent of it. He had absolute control of the prisoner of war camps situated within his domain.

Some prisoners in German camps were treated well, others badly. Generally, the camp commandant decided how the prisoners were treated.

ww1 card British PoW's
A real photographic card of British prisoners arriving at an unnamed German camp. The year would have been 1916 or later, the prisoners are wearing steel helmets introduced that year. In contrast, the German guard on the extreme right - appears to be wearing the 1914 spiked helmet or pickelhaube - much sort after by British soldiers as a souvenir!

Prisoners Accommodation

As previously mentioned, when war broke out in 1914 Germany was quite unprepared for the huge numbers of prisoners it took. The first were French, British and Belgian troops taken in the initial battles of 1914. Serbian prisoners started to arrive in 1915 and by 1916, Romanian soldiers were in the camps. In 1917, American prisoners arrived in the camps also. This huge influx of men from the Allied armies placed a tremendous strain of the German war economy and from the start; Germany had no choice but to accommodate the captives for example, in tents, old fortresses and existing military bases. 
It was frequently German policy to put Allied prisoners of different nationalities together in the same camp. This was done, so that no claim could be made that prisoners from one country were treated "no better or worse than any other.”
ww1 pow's in charge of parcels postcard
pow postcard
Above. A real photo card of a group of PoW's taken on 15th February 1917 at Dyrotz Camp near Berlin. The prisoners were housed in newly‑erected barracks and there was a recreation hut built by the men themselves with the help of funds sent from England. Private W H. Jones was one of the two Britons in the photograph. Also included in the group are French and Russian prisoners and maybe men of other nationalities too!

Above left. Inscribed in pencil on the back of this real-photo card is, "Group of officers in charge of parcels." The location and date also appears.  "Guttersloh - 25th February 1916." The camp consisted of brick buildings, originally built as a sanatorium ‑ but never used as such. Situated in a pine wood, the camp had a large exercise ground for sports such as football, hockey and tennis. There are four nationalities represented on this card. The officers depicted are named as L. to R. Russian, Belgian, 2 Frenchmen and a Scotsman.

group of pow's postcard
group of pow's and guards
Left.  Another group of prisoners - French and British. The former are wearing a variety of uniforms and the latter all display different cap badges. The date the photo was taken is unknown but on the back of the card is a purple hand-stamp which reads "Soltau-Lager." Right.  German guards pose with their prisoners for this 1918 photographic postcard. British and French prisoners are present and a dog!. There appears to be a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.) in the group. R.A.M.C. men were usually - but not always - repatriated. On the back of the card is a tri-angular camp cachet "Langensalza Lager"
In due course, German camps provided specially printed envelopes and stationery for the prisoners they held. The instructions thereon were in the language of the prisoner using the item. Sometimes a camp provided a stationery item with instructions printed in more than one language. Such a piece is shown below. It is a folding letter sheet with the words in English, French and Spanish.
ww1 pow's letter sheet
Alfred James Neal wrote to his wife in Eastbourne: "I am still improving but still in bed. How thankful I shall be to get up again...when I come home myself what a time we will have for a month or two, I shall never want to go away again. I am often thinking of what we shall do, and where we shall go for the first few months. I dream of it night and day. I think that is all I can say this time. So must send my best  love for you and the children. Fred."

Alfred James Neal, (rank unknown) had been wounded and taken prisoner and sometime in September 1918, mailed this letter sheet home. He sent it from the Lager Lazerette (Camp Hospital) in Dulmen camp. The front of the sheet carries a cachet of the camp and a 'LONDON E.S.8/PAID' receiving mark dated 30th September 1918. On the reverse is a white 'P.W. 1032' censor label which was used to re-seal the sheet after it had been inspected on its arrival in London.

Dulmen was a small town with a population of 7,500 inhabitants .There was a castle there surrounded by estates owned by the Duke of Croy‑Dulmen. The area was the centre of numerous working commandos and a large assembly camp was located on high ground five miles from the town. It held many prisoners taken during the Somme battles of 1916 - who worked a 12-hour day felling trees. The camp was under the control of 7th Army Corps.

Generally, the camps for N.C.O.'s and 'other ranks' consisted mainly of groups of huts used as sleeping quarters, latrines and  cook‑house, all surrounded by a single or double barbed‑wire fence and sometimes electrified.
ww1 pow camp view 1
ww1 pow camp view 2

Two postcard views of a typical 'other ranks' camp in Germany. These postcard photographs were taken by a local photographer 'Frau Anna Niewerth, Gamsen ‑ kastoft, Kr Gifhorn'. The view on the right shows the camp divided by a barbed‑wire fence. The figures on the right of the fence are possibly Russian prisoners with British on the left. Spaced out above the barbed-wire mesh are several strands of wire - which appear to be electrified!

 Captured officers were usually billeted in better accommodation than 'other ranks', such as disused factories, fortresses and even hotels. Local  German photographers visited the camps and took group (but sometimes single) photographs of the officers there. The image was then reproduced as a postcard. One is shown below.

group of officer pow's postcard
This real photographic postcard shows C. L. Hadden (not identified) and fellow officers at Graudenz Camp. Graudenz was a fortress town situated on the banks of the Vistula and about 12 miles from the Polish border. Officers had been sent there since March 1918. Several of those depicted on the card had been in action before capture, at least three have a wound stripe on their left arm ‑ one man has two. The Hadden card is postmarked 19th October 1918 ‑ just over three weeks before the signing of the Armistice. Interestingly, as mail from PoW's could take up to two months to reach its destination, it is quite possible that the officer arrived home before his postcard. On the reverse are the usual German censor marks.

Prisoner of War Mail & the German Censors

A postcard or a letter was the only link between a prisoner of war and his relatives and the frequency with which men could correspond with friends and relatives seems to have depended on which camp they were in.

Some men complained of being allowed to write home only every two months or so, while others sent a letter or card twice a week. All mail which came out of German camps displayed censor marks, and this type of material has intrigued collectors for many years.

A card carrying examples of German censor marks is illustrated below. It shows the official camp card, used by British officers at Gutersloh Camp. The officer who sent it, a Captain Dodds, wrote, "thanks awfully for the excellent cake, which I recd. a few weeks ago ... I often wonder how the home is looking now & I wish I could get back to straighten the pictures."

ww1 pow postcard
This Gutersloh prison camp postcard displays a typical array of German censor marks. At top left, there is a boxed "Eingang 26.8.15" cachet, which means the card entered the German censors' office on 26th August 1915. (where it would stay for a period of ten days ‑ to render useless any secret information sent by the prisoner). The second mark, a boxed "F.a." stands for 'Fristgemass abgefertigt', which means 'Dispatched within stipulated time'. The unboxed "Gepruft" is a 'Checked' or 'Passed' mark, and the triple‑ringed cachet is the official 'Gutersloh Prison Camp' hand-stamp. The postmark (at top right) shows the card entered the postal system on 5th September 1915, which was exactly ten days after it was handed into the camp censors' office. There is also a faint 'LONDON/PAID' receiving mark in red - dated 10th September 1915. A journey of five days from prisoner of war camp to home.
German mail censors in the camps sometimes went to extraordinary lengths if they suspected something was amiss on a piece of mail they were censoring. For example, Major Beeley of the Lancashire Fusiliers was a prisoner in Konigsbruck in Saxony. In May 1918, he sent an official camp postcard to his wife in Rochdale. On 6th May the camp censor applied to the card, not only his censor‑stamp, but also a diagonal line of brownish chemical wash. This was almost certainly an attempt to detect a message in invisible ink. The card is shown below.
What did the censor suspect Major Beeley of writing? Probably not military secrets ‑ for the camp was situated in the middle of a pine forest! Does the answer lie in the photograph on the other side of the card?   Was the photograph on this postcard the reason a German censor looked for a hidden message on the back of it? Had Major Beeley been mistreated? His right hand was heavily bandaged. Did the German censor suspect Major Beeley of secretly complaining of something via the postcard?
ww1 hidden message postcard 1
ww1 hidden message postcard 2

A Selection of Various Censor Marks & Camp Cachets.

Wahn pow camp card
WAHN prison camp was situated on rising ground 20 miles S. E. of Cologne. It was a 'parent' camp for PoW working camps in the district and had 35,000 men on its register It had a 'Special Barracks 'where those who attempted to escape from other camps were put. The sender of the card shown here, L/Cpl Perry Jennings'‑ who was recovering from a wound ‑ wrote on 15th July 1916, "1 am allowed to send one card a week and two letters a month... 1 have been treated very well indeed since 1 was made prisoner and the medical treatment is the very best."
postcard of Wahn pow camp 1914

A 1914, German printed-photographic postcard, featuring prisoners of war at Wahn Camp. (Note misspelling of name on card.) Various Allied soldiers are represented including a group of British troops in the foreground. The imposing figure wearing a light coloured greatcoat - was presumably the camp commandment.

Mail From Limburg Camp
Limburg camp card
LIMBURG is thought to have been a temporary holding camp, although some men were held there for long periods. During Christmas 1914, Irish prisoners were sent to Limburg in the hope of recruiting them for the Irish Brigade. The card shown above was mailed to Scotland on 12th June 1915, by Private Michael Deegan of the Connaught Rangers. The card carries a camp cachet and a German 'F. a.' censor mark and was intended originally to be sent to Ireland.



Sir Rodger Casement and Limburg Camp

Humanitarian and human rights activist Sir Rodger Casement, went from being a British diplomat decorated by the Crown, to an active Irish nationalist. When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Casement tried to persuade the Germans to form an ‘Irish brigade’ consisting of Irish prisoners of war who would turn their back on Britain and instead fight for Germany and also for Ireland in the bid for independence.

From December 1914, Irish PoW’s were moved from other camps and concentrated in Limburg. Casement believed that isolation from other nationalities, coupled with a number of Catholic priests installed in the camp, better food and recreation and patriotic speeches, would soon attract the men to the idea of an Irish Brigade.

Out of 2,200 Irish soldiers who were moved from other camps to Limburg, Casement managed to recruit only 55.  Private Joseph Mahony, later recalled: "In February 1915 Sir Roger Casement made us a speech asking us to join an Irish Brigade, that this was our chance of striking a blow for our country. He was booed out of the camp... After that further efforts were made to induce us to join by cutting off our rations, the bread ration was cut in half for about two months."

The 55 recruits were moved 250 miles N.E. to Zossen Camp for induction into the Irish Brigade. By July 1916, only one more Irish volunteer had joined the group. Even Casement admitted that few joined him out of patriotism. The British view was that “many of the 56 were young men frightened by the pressure put upon them or driven to compliance by hunger; many were men with questionable records, only a dozen or less could be classed as political malcontents."

church service Limburg camp postcard
This photographic card was number 9 in a series of postcards released by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It shows an open-air mass at Limberg camp .

On 21st April 1916, as Casement and two companions returned from Germany to Ireland (via a German submarine) they were arrested by British intelligence.

On 29th June 1916, the British found Rodger Casement guilty of high treason and sentenced him to death. On 3rd August 1916, he was executed at Pentonville Prison. His executioner, John Ellis, called him "the bravest man it ever fell to my unhappy lot to execute".

doeberitz cover
DOEBERITZ was a large camp about eight miles from Berlin. Men of the Naval Brigade captured at Antwerp in 1914 were imprisoned there. The camp was close to an important German military training centre. This cover carries an oval 'Frelgegeben/F.A./Doeberitz' censor mark and a circular 'PC/PRISONERS OF WAR' mark which was applied when the envelope arrived in the U.K.


pow camp postcard
BAYREUTH Camp was located near a German military maneuvering ground. Was that the reason the card was subjected to special scrutiny by a German censor. He applied a chemical wash which would reveal any message in invisible ink. Private Thomas Hughes of  '13th The Royal Scots' posted the card on 10th May 1918 and said he was now working outside the camp on farm work and was "getting along alright."
Work Camps
By the summer of 1915, working camps had been established and men were sent to labor in mines, forests, factories and farms. Germany maintained several ‘Registration Camps’ such as Friedrichfeld, Gustrow, Limberg, Parchin and Stendal and as well as housing prisoners these camps also acted as the designated address of men sent to work among the civil population.  In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross published a series of sepia‑coloured printed photographic cards which depicted everyday life in the camps and prisoners at work. For example, card No. 1 was titled "Doberitz (Brandenberg) British Prisoners returning from work." and is shown below.
red cross pow postcard

"British prisoners returning from work" some shielding their faces with shovels. There were 78 cards in this official Red Cross series and PoW's from several different countries were represented. The scenes included; general views of the camps, photographs of prisoners at work, recreation, roll‑calls, hospitals and even views of camp cemeteries.

According to International Conventions, officers and N.C.O.'s were not required to work when they became prisoners. However, a great morale‑booster for those who did have to work, was "outwitting the Hun", and one method enjoyed by the private soldier was described by an ex‑Doberitz inmate Leading Seaman Eric Dane, "Several of our men who had long‑service stripes took advantage of this by stripping off the long‑service chevrons and sewing them on upside down and higher up the arm ‑ thus appearing as corporals and sergeants. They were known amongst us as 'buckshee corporals'...In this way many of our men managed to avoid work during the whole of their captivity."

Running the German Camps

The overall administration of German camps was not centralised and that often caused problems. Germany was divided into 21 military districts, each corresponding to any army corps. Corps commanders acted as military governors of their district and administered and supervised among other duties, the running of prisoner of war camps in their area. (The central Ministry of War apparently had no jurisdiction over the running of the camps whatsoever.) For this reason, the conditions and regime of camps varied greatly.

For example, good camps were said to be Friedrichsfeld, Parchim, Soltau, Dulman, Wahn, Wunsdorf and several other parent camps.

The contrast between the above camps and those at Limberg, Wittenberg, Schneidemuhl, Langensalzen and others was, said a camp inspector  “the difference between day and night, between heaven, relatively, and hell absolutely.”

Between these two extremes, “existed a series of camps such as those at Muchendorf,  Alten-Grabow, Giessen, Dyrotz, etc., where conditions were neither good nor very bad.” After capture, prisoners were usually sent to a camp in Germany in the area administrated by the corps that captured them.

The corps commanders had absolute power in selecting sites for camps, obtaining food, construction materials, electricity, and commandants and guards. The result of this decentralisation meant that the German Ministry of War in Berlin had difficulty in enforcing the standard it had promised to maintain.  Another consequence of decentralisation was the atmosphere prevailing in the camps - which varied greatly.

The camp guards treated the prisoners as the commandant directed and it was possible “to tell about a camp from meeting that man.”  For example, so disliked was Karl Neimeyer, that a former British prisoner at Holtzminden Camp said “even his dog disliked him”, and the animal, “much preferred the company of the captives.”

On the other hand, the commandant of Parchin Camp was more humane. Private Jeffrey - a tanner in peacetime - later recalling his period of captivity there said, “There were sixteen of us prisoners the guard used to take us to the tannery every morning and bring us back at night. On Sundays, they used to take us for a walk, and we played football…After the football game…the guards used to take us to the pub and we would all have a drink. That happened every Sunday.” 

Different Catogories of Camps

Generally, after capture, prisoners first passed through a Durchgangslager or Transit Prison Camp and then continued deeper into Germany to arrive at a Stammlager or Parent Camp. These were large establishments holding tens of thousands of inmates. However, by the end of 1915, large numbers of prisoners had being formed into labur detachments and in an effort to boost the German war economy had left the Stammlagers to work on farms, factories, mines and quarries,.

The Germans also built camps known as Strafenlager or Reprisal Camp, where prisoners were put in an attempt to deter Allied countries from taking certain actions. The Strafenlager also housed men who persistently tried to escape from other camps.

Another type of camp was the Sonderlager or Propaganda Camp. There, the enemy tried to persuade colonial and Empire prisoners to defect and fight against their former allies.  Such a camp was that at Zossen which accommodated the Irish prisoners recruited for the Irish Brigade mentioned previously.

Camp Inspectors

Soon after the outbreak of war in August 1914, the American Ambassador in Berlin - James Gerrard - took on two important tasks. The first was to assist American citizens trapped in Germany - to get home safely. Once this had been achieved Gerrard realised the U.S. embassy in Berlin would have to take over British interests in Germany too and that his main obligation would be looking after the welfare of British military and civilian prisoners of war held in that country.

James Gerrard and team of camp inspectors

American Ambassador James Gerard (in the center front row) and members of his camp inspection team. These are the men whose reports on the prison camps and prisoners appeared in  British government white papers. A selection of the Inspectors official reports on German camps and prisoners are available to download. 

Looking after the welfare of British PoW's in Germany would be an enormous undertaking and Gerrard knew he would need help. He formed a group of ‘camp inspectors’ from the embassy staff and elsewhere, including John B. Jackson, who in the winter of 1914 - after a German request - was dispatched to England to watch and report on the welfare of German PoW's.

Commentating on the work of John B. Jackson, Gerard said, "His report of conditions there did much to ally the German belief regarding the ill-treatment of their subjects who were prisoners in England, and helped me greatly in bringing about better conditions in Germany."

Other members of Gerard's inspection team included, Dr. Karl Ohnesorg, a U.S. Navy surgeon, who supervised the medical staff in the embassy (they became accountable for investigating the sanitary and dietary conditions in German prison camps.) Other key people in the group were Lithgow Osborn, Charles H. Russell and Ellis Dresel, "a distinguished Boston lawyer [who, from 1916] visited Ruhleben almost daily, and, by listening to the stories and complaints of the prisoners" said Gerard, "materially helped their mental condition." Ruhleben was a German camp for British civilian internees.

Prisoners at Work

According to the rules of war officer prisoners could not be made to work. On the other hand, enlisted men had too and worked in a wide range of occupations. From the parent camp, the workers were assigned to Arbeitskommandos (Labor detachments) in agriculture or industry.  Detachment strength ranged from 10 to 2,000 men.

Prisoners worked on government funded projects such as road and bridge construction, railway track maintenance and renewal and land reclamation work. Large industrial companies hired PoW’s from the regional Army Corps Commands to work in steel factories, quarries and coalmines.

Smaller employers hired prisoners as stevedores, garbage collectors, foresters and in small groups as farm hands. Prisoners usually lived near the place of their employment. One estimate put the number of so-called ‘work camps’ at over 10,000.
pow's at work postrcard 1
pow's at work postcard 2

The real photographic postcard on the left, taken and produced by a local German photographer, depicted a working party of four British PoW's from an unknown camp and possibly two German farm hands. They were overlooked by an elderly German soldier. The photographic postcard on the right, depicted Allied PoW's (English, Scottish and French at least)  and others in civilian clothing (probably civilian farm-hands) with a variety of  'land-implements'.  A German officer and two soldiers posed with them for the picture.

Prisoners were paid at a rate, determined by their level of skill and agreement between government or private employer and Army Corps Commands. The lowest paid were farm workers - from 16 to 35 Pfennig a day. Small industries paid 30 to 50 Pfennig a day, while those in heavy industry received from 75 Pfennig to 1 Mark a day. For the highly skilled and professional PoW the rate was between 2 and 3 marks a day.
Prisoners did not receive their pay in official German currency as it was feared they could accumulate large sums of money and then bribe guards to help them escape. instead, the prisoners were paid in Lagergeld (camp money). This was paper money (often specially printed for a named camp) which could only be used to purchase goods at the camp store or credited to a prison bank account. Below are four examples of German prison camp money.
camp money 1

Cottbus camp

This 1 mark note was first issued to prisoners in Cottbus camp in October 1917. The camp was situated on the outskirts of the busy town of the same name and located on the river Spree. The town had 48,600 inhabitants many of whom worked in the wool, linen and yarn factories there. The camp was located on rising ground with the buildings radiating out from a central guard tower. The prisoners worked in factories and mines in the area. 3rd Army Corps were in command of the camp.
camp money 2

Dobeln camp

This 10 mark note was first issued to prisoners at Dobeln camp in December 1917. The neighbouring town was small with a population of 19,600 and the camp was established in barracks built of brick and about a mile from the town railway station. The area was under the command of 19th Army Corps.


Quedlinburg camp
This ten mark note was first made available to prisoners in Quedlinburg camp in January 1916. It was located two and a half miles from the town of the same name which had a population of 28,000. There were town walls, towers, moats and timber-framed houses. The area was also noted for its nurseries and cloth factories. 
The prison camp was near a railway line and consisted of eight compounds of six barracks each and capable of accommo­dating 1,500 men apiece. 4th Army Corps were in command.

camp moiney 4

Graudenz camp

This 5Pf note from Graudenz camp carries an official hand-stamp of the camp and was one of the less attractive of the 3,000 or so varieties of PoW camp money issued during the war. Graudenz was a strong fortress town of over 40,000 people on the Polish frontier and situated on the right bank of the Vistula. British officers were sent there from March 1918. There were American PoW's there too. This note was issued just 9 weeks before the end of the war.

Many PoW’s were pleased to escape the boredom of life behind barbed wire in the parent camp and welcomed the change of scenery and the money they earned at the working camps. The money often supplemented their food rations until food parcels arrived. Although some prisoners complained about working in heavy industry where cruelty was sometimes inflicted on them, those working on the land and on farms often ate at the same table as the farmer and slept in his house and became part of the family. They were often better fed than many city dwelling Germans.

Large numbers of Russian and Eastern European prisoners did not receive adequate food parcels from their home countries and the Russians none at all after the 1917 revolution, but survived the war simply because they had worked on German farms.

Royal Navy Prisoners of War

It was not only soldiers who were taken prisoner and held in German camps. Royal Navy and merchant seamen were often taken captive after their ships had been captured or sunk. The Moewe a German surface raider, prowled the North and South Atlantic Oceans from November 1916 until the following March and in four months sank 112,000 tons of British shipping. On 10th March (ten days before she was due to return to her home port) she sank the TSS Olaki. One of the ships crew, Chief Engineer George Wilson, was sent to Furstenberg camp (50 miles from Berlin). His quarters were in a summer hotel where he befriended another Chief Engineer, Charles Marshall, lately of the SS French Prince. (possibly also sunk by the Moewe).

ww1 surface raider postcard
surface raider 2
On 10th March 1917, Charles Marshall gave this souvenir postcard to fellow prisoner of war George Wilson, "...in commemoration of the anniversary of that fateful day which will last long in my memory ‑ also yours I think."

Does the picture side of the card feature the German surface raider Moewe ?

The real photographic postcard shown below depicts a group of Royal Navy men as they posed for the camera in a German prisoner of war camp. The men were from a number of ships including the battleships HMS Ardent and HMS Crusader. In 1916, HMS Crusader was involved in an incident which resulted in several of its ratings being taken prisoner by the Germans.

royal navy pow's

A real photographic postcard by Anna Niewerth. 

The man on the left in the inset above, had served on the destroyer HMS Ardent which had been involved in the battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916. During the day the British ships had come under devastating fire and it was written that “so great was the general damage to the flotilla that the Ardent was the only ship which could be said to be battle worthy." After midnight, Ardent ran into the German battle squadron and within minutes was lit up by searchlights and became "a target for every gun which the enemy could bring to bear." Nevertheless, in spite of her perilous situation Ardent managed to fire two torpedoes before she went down. Her crew consisted of four officers and 74 ratings. One of the ratings later appeared on the above photographic postcard - as a prisoner of war.

The sailor on the right in the inset, had served on the F Class destroyer HMS Crusader. The vessel survived the war and was sold for scrap on 13th June 1920 and begs the question - if the ship survived the conflict without being damaged or sunk how then did a crew member become a prisoner of war?  The sailor became a prisoner through an action by the ship’s captain on 7th May 1915. On that day the F Class destroyer HMS Maori struck a mine near the Weilengen light vessel. The ship was spotted and hit by German shell-fire and sank two miles N.W of Zeebrugge. The crew got away in their life-boats. The nearby destroyer HMS Crusader went to the aid of Maori and launched a boat but soon her commander decided to move away from the scene because of the intense shore fire and left the rescue boat behind. The seven officers and 87 ratings from Maori reached shore and were taken prisoner by the Germans. The 13-man crew of Crusader's rescue boat  were also captured and this photographic postcard recorded the imprisonment of at least one of them.

pow's postcard
There are seven prisoners featured on this real photographic postcard. On the reverse are details of six of them. However, the details of one - the sailor - appear to be incorrect. The details state that he was a survivor from HMS Maori (mentioned above) but his cap tally indicates he served on HMS Crusader (also mentioned above.) Perhaps the man in civilian attire was a survivor from Maori and for some reason the sailor pictured in uniform was not mentioned on the back of the card at all?
pow's postcard

Food Parcels

Shortage of food was the enemy of the prisoner of war and the lifeline for British captives was the food parcel from home. In the early days of the war, many prisoners families wanted to send parcels to Germany, or at least pay for them to be sent.

To accommodate the demand, newspapers started to carry notices from commercial outlets which advertised "FOOD FOR PRISONERS OF WAR, if your soldier friend or relative is a prisoner of war in Germany, he will appreciate A PARCEL OF FOOD FROM HOME." Prices ranged from 5/- to £1. The advertisement shown below appeared in The War Budget.


Newspaper Appeals

A number of national and local newspapers established funds to send parcels of food to prisoners of war and used postcards to help advertise and fund their cause. for example, the Evening News published a postcard of verses and a special label to stick on it, the sale of which provided "...Food for British Prisoners of War."
ww1 fund raising postcard
Another newspaper advertisement urged people to "render a national service by opening [your] purses and send parcels of comforts to the brave officers and men who are suffering dire privation in the hands of the enemy."
fund raising postcard ww1
Many comfort organisations were established locally to help send food parcels to prisoners from their area. One for example, was the Association of Men of Kent and Kentish Men, which produced a fund‑raising postcard. It called to the public's attention the plight of the Kentish prisoners of war in Germany. "This Fund is to provide Food and Necessaries for MEN of 'THE BUFFS' and 'ROYAL WEST KENT' REGIMENTS and all men whose homes are in Kent." It expressed the claim that "THE NEED IS URGENT."

The illustration on the Men of Kent card shown opposite, originally appeared in the Illustrated London News.

 Indeed, in the first months of the war the need for food and comfort parcels was extremely urgent and not just for the men of Kent. Prisoners from many different regiments were not receiving food parcels, and moreover the meager prison‑camp food allowance was often less than minimal.

Charity Flags and Flag Days in Support of PoW's

During the Great War voluntary fund raisers employed many methods to raise money for food and comfort parcels for prisoners of war. They held jumble sales, performed concerts, made door to door collections and sold PoW related picture postcards and held Penny Flag-Days to raise funds.
ww1 penny flag postcard
ww1 penny flags
The above penny flags and badges were sold to raise funds to support British prisoners of war held in Germany. A pin-badge on sale in Scotland on 17th July 1915, (illustrated on the left) was sold to aid "SOLDIERS INTERNED IN GERMANY." The image was later reproduced on a postcard by "Hillside Printing Works, Gorgle, Edinburgh." which would have raised even more funds for the unnamed charity.

The fund received letter of thanks from some of the PoW's it helped. A Highlander in Gottingen Camp wrote "I have today received a parcel containing boots and underclothing." From Osnabruck  a soldier wrote "We received your kind parcels of cigarettes all right." And from Limburg a Dublin Fusiller said "I am writing to thank you for the three parcels I have received from you (for distribution). We are all very grateful to you for your kindness."
ww1 penny flag postcard

The Founder of the Flag-Day Movement

Mrs Agnus Morrison, the daughter of an Edinburgh lawyer, organised the first official flag-day of the Great War. Before the conflict she had been involved in "philanthropic and social work" and for some years was president of the Glasgow Branch of the Scottish Children's League of Pity. During that time Mrs Morrison organised numerous charity events, the first was in March 1900, in aid of the Fund for Sufferers in the South African War. Therefore, when war broke out in August 1914, it came as no surprise to those who knew her, when Mrs Morrison established the Flag Day movement. Before the conflict was over, she would raise over £25,000,000 for worthy causes.

The postcard on the left - by an unknown publisher - indicated that as soon as a flag had been purchased it was best if it was displayed, "to show that the wearer had given to the days fund" said an observer, "and so would not be bothered again that day."

Regimental Care Committees

In March 1915, the War Office sanctioned the appointment of the Prisoners of War Help Committee. It was a voluntary organisation and had no official powers, but its aim was to "...organise and provide a link between the various POW comfort groups." Amongst these were the Regimental Care Committees. They were staffed by 'Ladies and Gentlemen' who worked to provide comforts for PoW's from their adopted regiment. Every fortnight they sent each prisoner three parcels of properly selected food, each weighing 101b, as well as 131b of bread, and into each parcel they put a postcard which advised the prisoner of the contents. The idea was that the recipient would return the card to the Committee to acknowledge reciept of his feast.

ww1 parcel fund postcard 1
Contents of food parcel acknowledgement cards sent to Minden camp. In 1918, they were sent in parcels supplied by the Regimental Care Committee of the Sherwood Foresters and were signed and returned to the committee in Derby. The recipient, Private Smith, indicated that he did not receive his bread regularly, but did receive his food parcels on a regular basis and in good condition and complete.

James W. Gerard  - chief of the team of neutral camp inspectors - agreed with Private Smith and praised Germany for its handling of food parcels and said, "Credit must be given to the German authorities for the fairly prompt and efficient delivery of the packages of food sent from Great Britain, Denmark, and Switzerland to prisoners of war in all camps."

ww1 parcel fund postcard 2

Prisoners of War Help Committee

The efforts of the Prisoners of War Help Committee proved less than satisfactory. A British Red Cross report said that, "A large percentage of the prisoners were getting too little food; a percentage too much; and it was discovered that parcels were being used for the transmission of prohibited articles ... to Germany., and that information likely to be useful to the enemy was being conveyed through the same means, it was roughly calculated that the excess of food going to [certain] prisoners was enough to feed an entire German division."

The British public became worried that captive soldiers and sailors were half‑starved. After many meetings and investigations the War Office decided to replace the Prisoners of War Help Committee with a new system, under the direction of the Red Cross. In September 1916, the new "Central Prisoners of War Committee", moved into premises at Nos. 3 and 4 Thurloe Place, London.

Soon the distribution of food parcels settled down into a more efficient routine, and most camps from then on received regular supplies. As the number of prisoners grew, so did the number of staff at Thurloe Place. In January 1917, the War Office commandeered the adjoining properties for the use of the Red Cross. By the end of the war 750 people worked there.

Prisoners Bread Supply

The supply of bread to prisoners was, as has been said, originally left in the hands of the Care Committees. It often took six or more days to reach the camps and arrived mouldy. In Berne, the Bureau de Secours, under the administration of Lady Grant Duff, was a second source of supply. In December 1916, however, the British Red Cross decided to open its own Bureau and bakery in Copenhagen, to supplement the other two sources.

pow's bread
At Christmas 1917, the Copenhagen Bread Bureau sent this printed photographic card to prisoners of war. Women workers stack the newly baked bread while others pack the loaves for transportation to prison camps in Germany and elsewhere.
ww1 pow's bread 2
This is the reverse of the previous card. It was sent to William Marshall (already mentioned on this page) who had been Chief Engineer on the SS French Prince when the vessel had been attacked by the German surface raider Moewe.
The staff at Thurloe Place gathered the names and details of prisoners mainly from official lists sent from the Berlin War Office and the Frankfurt Red Cross. The British Help Committees' formed by prisoners m some of the camps, also sent large amounts of useful information, as did the British War Office. In addition, prisoners themselves would sometimes inform Thurloe Place of their whereabouts, and many next‑of‑kin would send details of their relatives. POWs were often moved from camp to camp and the British Red Cross would inform the families of the change.
Two acknowledgement card from the Central Prisoners of War Committee in London, thanking relatives of PoW's for their communication with the Committee.
Prisoners who were considered troublesome were often moved around the camps and the British Red Cross would notify relatives of the changes. For instance, a small collection of letters and cards from PoW Captain Wally Wilkin showed that in October 1914 he was sent to Magdeburg in Saxony but by December 1914 had been moved to Crefeld, north of Dusseldorf. On 20th May 1917 (due to a large increase in attempted escapes) Crefeld was abandoned. Wally Wilkin was then sent to Schwamstedt camp, but on 26th September this was also closed, and Wilkin was moved yet again. This time he was sent to the dreaded Holzininden.
The International Committee of the Red Cross have put  millions of ww1 Prisoner of war records on line. They can be downloaded free.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  More to Add

                                                                                                                                                                               Home page                    Top

Copyright © 2014 Picture Postcards from the Great War 1914-1918. All rights reserved.