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.
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
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..."
First Capture Postcard
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.
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
German Postcards Depicting British Prisoners of War
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
A Selection of Various Censor Marks & Camp Cachets.
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
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."
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".
"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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
Prisoners of War Help Committee
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.
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