Canadian POWs: First World War Edition

Group of Canadian officers at a prisoner-of-war camp near Krefeld, Germany. 1917. [Source]

During the First World War, 132 Canadian officers and 3,715 individuals from the Canadian Expeditionary Force were taken prisoner. The largest number of these, over 1,400, were taken in a single day in 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres, when the 1st Canadian Division was first introduced to chlorine gas by the Germans. The 3rd Canadian Division also suffered a large number of prisoners at Mount Sorrel in June 1916. Over 500 men were captured in one day. In addition, an unknown number of Canadian civilians (largely students studying abroad, businessmen, and sailors) were captured as well. By the end of the war, 300 Canadian soldiers had died in captivity along the western front.

After they were captured, what was the general experience of Canadian prisoners of war during World War One?

Note: This blog post deals with the POW experience along the western front. For those interested in the eastern front, POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front by Alon Rachamimov is a great resource.

International Law

“Picture taken during the Second Peace Conference at The Hague in 1907. Participants of the conference are sitting in a meeting in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) in The Hague.” [Source]

The laws regarding the treatment of prisoners of war was first outlined in the Geneva Convention of 1864 and later clarified during the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The revised 1907 version lists the rules regarding POWs in Article IV, Chapter II. The most important statement appears in the first paragraph:

“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.”

“Humane” treatment meant that POWs were to be given the same standard of food, clothing, shelter, and punishments for misbehaviour that the soldiers of the foreign government holding them captive received. They were allowed to be used as labourers, but not only did they have to be paid according to their rank but they were not supposed be used for projects related to the war effort. (However, according to historian Desmond Morton, many Canadian POWs worked to repair trenches along the German front lines). With that note, you can probably guess that adherence to international law varied depending on where a soldier was interned at. Sources claim that both the Allied and Central Powers more or less followed the laws of war because they did not want the opposing side to do any acts of retaliation against their own captured soldiers. However, a POW’s experience largely boiled down to luck.

Life in a German Prisoner of War Camp

Heidelberg, Baden, Germany The barracks and tennis courts in an officers' camp (ICRC, Germany)The barracks and tennis courts in an officers’ camp, (Heidelberg, Baden, Germany) [Source]

The German Army excelled at capturing Allied soldiers. By the war’s end, they captured a total of 2.4 million soldiers. 2.4 million! That number is far more than those captured by both Britain and France combined. By 1915, Germany had already utilized the labour power of 1 million POWs to build 300 prison camps across the country.

Despite the higher number of prisoners captured by the Germans, research regarding the POW experience during World War One is limited because of two major factors. The first is that most former POWs preferred not to share their experiences. At the time being a POW was widely seen as dishonorable. It was better to fight to the death than to surrender and live.  “He would not be taken prisoner,” the commanding officer of the 100th Canadian battalion wrote to a distraught family of a missing soldier. “He was too good a soldier for that.” The military did not prepare soldiers for the possibility of capture and viewed captivity as the result of a failure on the soldier’s part. The Canadian military was not alone in their dismal view of soldiers in captivity, other countries possessed the same beliefs; a relic from 19th century military culture. The public by-and-large held these views too. Prisoners were considered to be cowards because while they were “safe,” their fellow soldiers were still fighting and dying for their country.  The second reason is that POW experiences do not fit into the narratives of victory that Allied countries have regarding WW1 and as a result historians did not explore POW stories for the longest time. This has begun to change in recent decades.

Some of those who did speak about their experiences did so many years after the fact and shared their stories of living in dirty, badly managed camps. There was poor sanitation and no separation between those who were sick and those who were healthy. As such, most POWs died not of torture or brutal treatment, but rather the big killers were pneumonia, typhus, and starvation. (Note: The Germans didn’t purposely starve POWs. They allowed the Red Cross to send aid, but given the high amount of prisoners, overall lack of resources–particularly towards the end of the war, and POW livelihoods not being a top priority, food did become scarce).  In addition to threats to their physical health, confinement, being isolated from news about the war, endless boredom, and poor living conditions put a terrible strain on soldiers’ mental health.

Weitmoos, Bavaria, Germany Prison yard and huts (ICRC, Germany)Prison yard and huts. Weitmoos, (Bavaria, Germany). [Source]

“Art. 6. The State may utilize the labour of prisoners of war according to their rank and aptitude, officers excepted. The tasks shall not be excessive and shall have no connection with the operations of the war.”

Canadian POWs did not spend all their time staring at (or bouncing a ball off of) their cell walls. Most were put to work by the Germans. Working was initially voluntary, but later became mandatory and POWs who refused to work could have been given a one-year prison sentence. Industries such as agriculture, mining, iron works, and forestry all benefited from POWs. Prior to the influx of prisoners, these industries were suffering because they were severely lacking in manpower given that most of their former employees were now part of the German war effort. POWs selected for labour were divided into units and were housed in smaller camps near their workplaces. Naturally, some jobs were better than others. For example, soldiers preferred to be sent to farms and dreaded having to work in grueling German coal and/or salt mines–and who can blame them? Miners were not the only ones who could be injured or killed on the job, as I mentioned earlier POWs who were forced to rebuild trenches and those who repaired roads and railways were at-risk as well. While some camps provided labourers with sleeping huts (see below) and meals, others were forced to fine their own shelters and were given very little food.

Holzminden, Brunswick, Germany Sleeping huts (ICRC, Germany)
Sleeping Huts for POWs, (Holzminden, Brunswick, Germany) [Source]

November 18, 1916 edition of the Rennbahn Camp newspaper, produced in part by Canadian POWs. [Source]

Just like jobs, some camps were better than others. Whereas some POWs experienced awful living and working conditions, those at the Rennbahn Camp fared better. They had a theatre, a library, and a trades school where they could learn new skills. POWs wrote poetry, drew cartoons, and even ran a camp newspaper. There was a general sense of community at the Rennbahn Camp and numerous creative outlets because the Germans running the camp felt that happy prisoners were easier to deal with than unhappy ones. Click here to watch a short video on the Rennbahn Camp newspaper.

Another positive that some POWs experienced was the ability to practice their faiths. POWs were supposed to have “complete liberty in the exercise of their religion” and church services were available at POW camps.


A coded letter between two brothers. Alldritt, the captive, wrote to his brother Harry asking for road maps. [Source: Maclean’s/Nick Iwanyshyn]

“Art. 16. Letters, money orders, and valuables, as well as parcels by post, intended for prisoners of war, or dispatched by them, shall be exempt from all postal duties in the countries of origin and destination, as well as in the countries they pass through. Presents and relief in kind for prisoners of war shall be admitted free of all import or other duties.”

Mail was an important part of a prisoner’s life as not only did it connect them with their families and news from the outside world, but as you can see with the letter above it gave some POWs a glimmer of hope for escape. Also for some POWs, packages from family members and relief organizations was one of their few reliable sources of food. Prisoners were allowed to write two letters a month with on paper which he could purchase at the camp. He could also send out four postcards. Soldiers and their correspondents had to be careful about the contents of their letters however since nothing was private. All mail was opened and examined by wartime censors before being delivered.

Note: Letters written by POWs and other soldiers exist today as a great primary source for those interested in learning about the war. If you’re interested, The Canadian Letters & Images Project is a great resource.

German censors reading through both incoming and outgoing mail at the Döberitz POW camp.

Resistance and Release

Havelberg, Brandenburg, Germany. Prisoners of War stand behind wire fence. [Source]

Rennbahn was definitely an exception. Other camps were run by hostile military and civilian overseers who abused POWs. Organized resistance by soldiers were generally crushed and those involved either received harsher punishment or jail time. (Ex: At the Bokelah Camp, poor treatment led to eight Canadians refusing to obey orders. A skirmish between the eight and camp employees occurred. The eight were charged with mutiny and given prison sentences). As a result, resistance began to take form in less obvious ways. Labourers purposely wasted time on the job (some took naps instead of digging mine tunnels), destroyed crops, sabotaged public works projects, threw tools into lakes–basically anything that slowed down the rate of progress. A small victory, but a victory nevertheless.

“ARTICLE 214. The repatriation of prisoners of war and interned civilians shall take place as soon as possible after the coming into force of the present Treaty and shall be carried out with the greatest rapidity.”- Treaty of Versailles.

Article 214 matched the provision that was set out in the Hague Convention of 1907 which stated that the release and return of POWs was to happen as fast as possible. As such for most POWs, freedom came from not escape or rescues, but from the end of the war and the Treaty of Versailles. Some of those imprisoned in German camps had been in captivity for four years by the time they were finally released. Each former captive returned home with a unique story; there was no “general experience” for prisoners of war.


Interested in reading about a Canadian POW escape from a German camp? Click here.


Sources

Canadian POW Statistics from Morton, Desmond, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, Random House of Canada, Toronto, ON, (1993). Accessed via “Prisoners of War,” at http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/procedures/prisoners.htm

“Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907.” International Committee of the Red Cross. Accessed from https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/0/1d1726425f6955aec125641e0038bfd6

Daubs, Katie, “Prisoners of war: Not a glorious fate,” The Toronto Star. August 15, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/ww1/2014/08/15/prisoners_of_war_not_a_glorious_fate.html

Davison, Janet, “Rare PoW camp newspapers show ‘overlooked’ WW I experience,” CBC News. November 10, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/rare-pow-camp-newspapers-show-overlooked-ww-i-experience-1.2825091

Jones, Heather, “Prisoners of War” British Library. Accessed from: http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/prisoners-of-war

Vance, Jonathan F. Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War Through the Twentieth Century. Vancouver: UBC Press. 2011.

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2 thoughts on “Canadian POWs: First World War Edition

  1. Matthew says:

    I can’t figure out if that letter from that 100th battalion officer was meant to cheer up the soldier’s family?

    It’ll be interesting to see the differences between the two wars…assuming your title means we’re gonna get a world war 2 edition.

    Like

    • cadeauca says:

      I got that quote from Vance’s book. Funnily enough, he wasn’t sure either. I don’t know about it being meant to cheer his relatives up, but it sounds more like a morbid type of praise. “He was too good to be captured, so he must be dead!”

      Yeah, yeah, you know me. When it comes to WW1 unless the blog post is about a specific battle, I usually do a WW2 sequel. The parallels between the two world wars make it so easy.

      Like

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