During First World War, a total of around 7 million prisoners were held by both sides, with Germany imprisoning some 2.4 million. Here we will briefly cover the experiences of prisoners held by the Central Powers, mainly Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
Though information on World War One prisoners of war is scarce, there are some historical records. For example, there are around 3,000 reports on British and Commonwealth prisoners, including officers, enlisted, medical officers, merchant seamen and in some cases civilians.
Human Rights Conventions Regarding War
One belief as to the reason so little attention has been paid to World War One POWs is that it has generally been accepted that the rules of the Geneva Convention were more or less followed by all belligerents except the Ottoman Empire. The Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions define the human rights of wartime prisoners, including those who are wounded and non-combatant.
Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not of the individuals or corps who capture them. They must be humanely treated. All their personal belongings, except arms, horses, and military papers, remain their property.
—From Chapter 2 of the Hague Convention, 1907
POWs in Germany
Officially, the exception to the treaties outlining the fair treatment of prisoners during the war is the Ottoman Empire, which did not sign at the Hague Conference in 1907, though it did sign the Geneva Convention in 1865. Yet simply signing a treaty is no guarantee of following it.
While Red Cross inspections in Germany sought to ensure liveable conditions at camps, many prisoners were used as forced labour outside of the camps and kept in unhygienic conditions. They were often treated harshly, poorly fed and beaten.
Germany Was Unprepared for POWs
From the start of the war Germany found itself in possession of over 200,000 French and Russian soldiers, who were housed in poor conditions. Things improved by 1915, even as the number of detainees more than tripled, growing to include prisoners from Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania and Serbia. There were even Japanese, Greeks and Brazilians among their ranks.
This was just the beginning, however. By October 1918, the amount of prisoners held in Germany reached its height — 2,451,000.
To cope in the early stages, the Germans commandeered private public buildings to house POWs, such as schools and barns. By 1915, however, the number of purpose-built camps had reached 100, often with POWs building their own prisons. Many contained hospitals and other facilities.
Reprisals for Prisoner Treatment by the Allies
Germany also had a policy of sending French and British prisoners for forced labour on the Western and Eastern Fronts, where many died from cold and starvation. This practice was in reprisal for similar actions by France and Britain.
Conditions for Officers and Enlisted Men
While prisoners of various social backgrounds were kept together, there were separate prisons for officers and enlisted ranks. Officers received better treatment. For example, they were not required to work and had beds, while the enlisted worked and slept on straw sacks. Officers’ barracks were generally better equipped and none were located in East Prussia, where the weather was decidedly worse.
POWs in Turkey
As non-signatories to the Hague Convention, the Ottoman Empire treated its prisoners more harshly than the Germans did. In fact over 70% of POWs held there died by the end of the conflict. This was not however, exclusively down to cruelty against the enemy, as most Ottoman troops didn’t have it much better.
Food and shelter were lacking and prisoners tended to be kept in private houses rather than purpose-built camps, which there are few records of. Many were also forced to do hard labour, regardless of their physical condition.
A single 1,100 km march of 13,000 British and Indian prisoners through the Mesopotamian area around Kut in 1916 resulted in some 3,000 deaths due to starvation, dehydration and heat-related illnesses.
Personal accounts of Australian and New Zealand POWs survive, painting grim pictures of harsh work building railways and suffering from brutality, malnutrition and waterborne disease. Yet there are also stories of Ottoman camps with good food and easy work where prisoners were treated well.
One notorious Austro-Hungarian camp was in Mauthausen, a village in north central Austria, which later became the location of a Nazi concentration camp in World War Two. Conditions there caused a reported 186 prisoner deaths from typhus each day.
Serbs held in prisons in Austria-Hungary had very high death rates, comparable to British POWs in the Ottoman Empire. 29% of Romanian prisoners held in Germany died, while 100,000 of a total 600,000 Italian detainees died in the captivity of the Central Powers.
In contrast, Western European prisons in general tended to have far better survival rates. For example, only 3% of German prisoners died in British camps.