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Britain’s forgotten soldiers: POWs of the First World War


We know The Great Escape, Colditz Castle, Bridge Over the River Kwai. Our images of Prisoners of War have been formed by World War II. In contrast, Great War POWs have never received much attention. Perhaps the lack of a major movie in English hasn’t helped - there’s no equivalent of the La Grande Illusion – but whatever the reason, their story should be better known. 180,000 troops[i] were captured on the Western Front - more than the combined British total in the Second World War – and at least 3,000 died in German camps.[ii]

Many returned severely malnourished through ill treatment and the British blockade of German ports. This had brought Germany to the brink of starvation but it meant British POWs also ate badly. Officers and NCOs had been excused manual labour but privates were made to do hard physical work. Private Ernest Wilson of the Durham Light Infantry recalled clearing roads, digging reserve trenches and unloading rail trucks on ‘meagre rations’, mostly turnip soup. He survived, despite describing himself as a ‘weakling’, because he managed not to ‘lose his spirits’[iii] unlike more robust men who gave up.

The treatment of Prisoners of War was covered in the Hague Convention of 1907; governments had to behave ‘humanely’ and the Convention devoted 20 separate articles defining what this meant. These were not always followed. Conditions were particularly bad in reprisal camps where difficult prisoners were sent. “Most often kept in tents resting on mud, these prisoners were forced into exhaustive work with their entire diet consisting of soup or perhaps stewed acorns.”[iv] Not surprisingly, many died.

Even after the Armistice their troubles didn’t end. Freed POWs were left to make their own way to the Allied lines or a neutral country, walking for miles, scavenging what they could. It was too much for some. Private Walter Hare remembered one of his friends dying on the way, through “exposure and lack of nourishment.”[v] When they arrived, words like ‘Emaciated’ and ‘like skeletons’ were frequently used; some soon died from diarrhoea, dysentery and the Spanish flu. Perhaps the most famous example was William Leefe Robinson (pictured below). He was awarded the Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to shoot down a German airship. Later captured and imprisoned, he was placed in solitary confinement after a number of attempts to escape. Leefe Robinson’s health deteriorated and he contracted Spanish flu after his release. He died on New Year’s Eve, 1918.

Families tried their best to help them. Lance Corporal Hunt said he was so thin his father immediately put him on cod liver oil[i]. Corporal Joe Armstrong’s grandmother thought his face was “less than a baby’s”. He only weighed 86 pounds.[ii]  Beatrice Lee’s husband was a very sick man when he returned, thinner than his wife, so she took him off to rural Ireland, “we started off at Larne. And we went to a little quiet place, Ballycastle, thinking it would bring him back to his health. But it was no good.”[iii]

The Imperial War Museum’s Photograph Archive shows men like Private Norman Veitch of the 5th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment who was made to work on the German railways until he grew too sick[iv]. His body resembles a Holocaust survivor. Like them, returning POWs were stuffed full of food, which caused violent reactions in stomachs unused to a proper diet.

POWs were taken to dispersal camps upon arrival in Britain and debriefed about their treatment. The policy was to offer the soldiers a £2 gratuity and an immediate rail pass home. If they took the money they waived their rights for a medical examination and, of course, a potential pension. £2 seemed a lot of money at the time, so many took it to their later regret. Sergeant Hawtin Munday was one. “Well just think what you could do with two quid in those days…and this is what makes me mad ever since…I had been wounded three times, been a prisoner of war – and never had a bloody penny: I should have had that examination.”[v]

Many soldiers’ families were surprised to see them. POWs often arrived before general demobilisation had got underway so they were some of the first to get home. Their relatives had no idea they were still alive as they had heard no news for months, if not years. Ada Croft's remembered that,

“My brother Arthur and my sister Addy’s husband were prisoners…and we couldn’t hear nothing about them whether they was dead or alive, and we’d come home from church one Sunday evening...and a knock come at the front door and I don’t know whether my Auntie had a premonition that it might be Addy’s husband but when she got to the door that’s who it was, and he nearly fell in the door, he was so weak, and of course he give us all a turn when he walked in.”

However, Addy’s husband was also in for a nasty shock.

“In the meantime she’d had her baby, but while she was carrying this baby she was really worried over him because she’d heard that he was a prisoner of war... so of course when her baby was born she’d fretted so much she lost her baby and that’s the first thing he asked for when he got in, he says, ‘Where’s the baby Addy?’ So then of course that upset everybody that did.”[i]

Not all camp guards had been brutal but many were; POWs complained of random beatings and summary executions. War crime trials were held at Leipzig in 1921, with German judges presiding; the new Weimar Republic refused to extradite anyone to be tried abroad. Only 12 camp officials were put on trial, and four were found guilty - three of whom were given less than a year. This caused anger in Britain about the number of prosecutions and the leniency of the sentences. Though, in the long-term, this helped establish the idea that people could be tried for crimes against humanity after a war.

A precedent was set for Nuremberg trials of 1945.

By Adam Powell

[i] Chris Baker, "Records of British Prisoners of War 1914-1918," The Long, Long Trail, last accessed November 22, 2018.

[ii] Anita Singh, "First World War PoWs: Why Has History Forgotten Them?" The Telegraph, last modified May 28, 2014. Accessed July 17, 2018.

[iii] "Wilson, Ernest J (Oral History)," Imperial War Museums, accessed July 17, 2018.

[iv] “Prisoners of War,” WWI Prisoners of War in Germany & Turkey, accessed October 5, 2019.

[v] Max Arthur, The Road Home, 37.

[vi] "Hunt, W (Oral History)," Imperial War Museums, accessed July 17, 2018.

[vii] Richard Van Emden, Britain’s Last Tommies: Final Memories from Soldiers of the 1914-18 War - in their own words (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2006), 314.

[viii] “Voices of the First World War: Prisoners Of War,” Imperial War Museums, accessed October 8, 2019.

[ix] "BRITISH PRISONERS OF WAR IN GERMAN CAPTIVITY, 1914-1918," Imperial War Museums, accessed July 17, 2018.

[x] Max Arthur, The Road Home, 45.

[xi] "Part 5 Now This Bloody War Is Over," Days of Pride - the Story of Wolverton & New Bradwell 1913 – 1918, accessed July 17, 2018.


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