It is estimated that between 8 and 9 million men were taken captive during the First World War, the vast majority of whom survived the war. However, it is true that for some nationalities, the status of prisoner of war was more dangerous than being a soldier on the front.
More prisoners were captured in a mobile warfare than in the trench warfare. On the Eastern front, the moving offensives led to vast-scale prisoner-taking. More than half of the Russian casualties were prisoners of war. In 1914, Germany captured more prisoners than France or Britain. However, as they thought that the war would be short, no camps or housing had been built during the winter of 1914-1915, and overall the Central Powers were overwhelmed with the high numbers of prisoners they had captured in the first months of the war. The prisoners of war in Germany at that time usually slept in fields and many died from exposure. Some prisoners were forced into labour to build the prisoner camps. The camps were segregated from the civilians. They were fenced with barbed wire, guards were placed in sentry towers and the prisoners slept in wooden barracks. By 1915, Germany had captured over 1 million prisoners on the Western and the Eastern fronts. In 1915, the camps in Germany and Austria-Hungary were often unsanitary and epidemics broke out. In 1915, a typhus epidemic spread within the camps and thousands of prisoners of war died. An example of this high death rate was in the Totskoe camp, in Russia, where 10,000 men out of 25,000 died from typhus in the winter 1915-1916. After the typhus epidemic, states established better living and hygiene conditions in the camps. For instance, Germany installed modern latrines and shower houses for their prisoners. Some camps had an exercise yard or a study space and others allowed escorted group walks outside the camp. German prisoners in Britain were able to produced works of literature, music and art.
The mistreatment of prisoners was often carried out as reprisal. In 1916, France had the German prisoners working under shellfire on the Verdun battlefield and sent other prisoners to camps in North Africa where the conditions were very harsh, and Britain forced their German prisoners to work for the army on the front. As a reprisal, Germany sent their French and British prisoners of war to the Eastern front where they worked as forced labourers.
On the home front, Germany started sending the prisoners to work in agriculture or mining and live in small working units. Russia used their German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners to build the Murman railway. As a consequence of the horrific working conditions, 25,000 prisoners out of 70,000 died. By 1916, it is said that most non-officer prisoners of war were working. The conditions of life for those prisoners varied greatly. Some labour prisoners returned to the camp at night. Others were kept near their place of work, under guards’ surveillance. Britain only started to use its prisoners of war as labour on the home front in 1917, because of trade union opposition. The prisoners worked in forestry and quarrying work.
The worst camps were undoubtedly those run by the armies near the front line. For example, the main belligerents’ armies kept permanent working units of prisoners of war at the front. Those forced labourers had to work under shellfire and live in unhygienic conditions. In 1918, Allied prisoners kept in the German army were often beaten and badly fed.
The fate of officer prisoners of war was different than that of non-officers. For instance, officer prisoners were kept in separate camps where the living conditions were better. The captor state paid them a salary on behalf of their home state, prisoners from their own army were assigned to them as their orderlies, and they were exempt all forced labour. This was true for the majority of officers taken prisoner. However, some officer prisoners of war were forced to work and received a very low salary, usually paid in worthless camp coupons.
Some escape stories have become famous. In 1918, 29 British officers dug a tunnel with improvised tools and broke out from Hozminden camp. Ten of them reached the Netherlands.
The treatment of prisoners of war was used by the propaganda. States showed photographs of prisoners well-treated by they own army while at the same time blaming the enemy for mistreating their prisoners. They also painted an image of prisoners of war that they had captured as cowards.
The majority of the prisoners were only released at the end of the war, and it was also the case of the Russian prisoners, even though Russia had left the war in 1917. At the Armistice, the Allies demanded the release of all their prisoners of war held in the Central Power states. However, the German prisoners of war held in Britain and France were only release after the signature of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. France even held its prisoners until 1920. German prisoners were forced to clear the battlefields and many died removing munitions.
Prisoners of war were protected by international laws. The 1964 Geneva Convention stated that medical care should be provided to wounded men who fell into enemy hands. The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions protected the prisoners of war from abuses. In theory, all armies granted quarter to surrendering soldiers. The neutral states acted as “protecting powers”, particularly the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland from 1917 and Spain. Spain for instance, protected French prisoners held in Germany and Ottoman prisoners held in Russia. This means that Spain sent diplomats to inspect the prisoners camps ad investigate any complaints. The International Red Cross also inspected prisoner camps. In Sweden, the Stockholm protocol was signed on 1st December 1915 y Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia to promote better treatment of the prisoners of war.
William was born to William and Ann Batts of Southam Cottage, Oakham.
William attended Oakham School from 1900. His school achievements are listed below:
After school, William worked as a solicitor’s clerk in his father office then worked at Guardians and Rural District Council of Winchester. He joined the 1st/4th Battalion Hampshire Regiment in August 1914. He was promoted to Lance Corporal.
Hampshire Regiment badge.
His battalion served in the Persian Gulf and fought in Mesopotamia during the siege of Kut. William was taken as a Prisoner of War after the surrender of the British troops.
William died on 26th December 1916 at Angora. He was 32.
He received the 1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
The 1915 Star, the British War Medal amd the Victory Medal.
William was buried in a local Armenian Cemetery, Angora. He is remembered on at Angora Memorial, Baghdad’s North Gate Cemetery, and in Oakham School chapel.
William was born to William and Katherine Hill of Tamworth, Staffordshire.
William attended Oakham School between 1911 and 1914. His school achievements are listed below:
Oakham School Cricket 1st XI 1913 - William is standing second from left.
Oakham School Cricket 1st XI 1914 - William is standing third from left.
Oakham School Rugby1st XV 1914 - William is sitting second from left.
In his sporting career, the Oakhamian Magazine made comments upon both his cricketing and rugby prowess.
Winter 1912 Rugby reviews: ‘He has developed quickly into a competent player; not very safe at present, but he promises to be better in this respect. In the Bedford match, however, he could do nothing right.’ ; ‘A centre who has come on a lot this season, but has not always been at his best in matches. Has a good pair of hands and uses good judgement in giving his passes. Tackles well, but is often beaten through lack of pace.’
Winter 1913 Rugby review: ‘Lacks pace, but is a very sound centre, both in defence and attack. Feeds his wing well, and is an excellent kick.’
Winter 1914 Rugby review: ‘A powerful three-quarter who runs strongly and hands off with vigour. Takes and gives his passes well and tackles well. Kicks a very good length and with judgement.’
Summer 1913 Cricket review: ‘A disappointing player; his batting is far from certain and his fielding most untrustworthy.’
Summer 1914 Cricket review: ‘The most improved member of the team. He is a really good bat possessing a very powerful off-drive. At present, his defence is somewhat shaky and he must cultivate a cut A much improved field, and useful change bowler at times.’
William left school prematurely to serve in the Durham Light Infantry. He joined the 4th, 8th and 12th Battalions. He was a Lieutenant. He was captured on 27th May 1918 on the Chemin des Dames whilst in the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry.
Durham Light Infantry badge.
William died of wounds as a Prisoner of war on 6th November 1918. He was 22.
Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Easter term 1919, Vol.35, no.1
William was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.
London Gazette reporting William's bravoury.
William is buried in grave XIX.A.8 at Berlin South Western Cemetery. He is remembered on the Oakham School chapel.
Eric was born to Reverend Arthur and Emily Runnels-Moss of Ladywood Vicarage, Edgbaston, Birmingham.
Eric attended Oakham School between 1913 and 1917. His school achievements are listed below:
During his time at school, the Oakhamian Magazine made comments upon his rugby prowess and musical abilities.
Winter 1915 Rugby review: ‘With more experience and general go should develop into a respectable forward.’
Winter 1916 Rugby review: ‘A forward who is generally up to take a pass and helps the three-quarters, but a weak tackler. Useful in the line-out.’
Winter 1916 Concert reviews: ‘Runnels-Moss was chief musician, and leader if the basses; very efficient in both capacities.’ - 'Runnels-Moss took in hand the general arrangements. The most popular turn on the programme was undoubtedly the Runnels-Moss/Kingham duets, first Our Farm followed by The Optimist and the Pessimist. Both Runnels-Moss and Kingham sang separately, and were very good too, the noticeable feature being their stage airs, Runnels-Moss, especially, being quite a professional entertainer.’
Spring 1917 Easter Entertainment review: ‘Runnels-Moss and Kingham followed with a topical duet, Don’t we, Harold?. These two performers bore the brunt of the programme; another of their duets was received with great applause, Here’s to Old England, the home of the Hun. Together they were a great success, and individually they were just as popular. Kingham sang about Cuthbert, and Runnels-Moss about a Funny Instrument (this puzzled the audience a lot) and both gave much amusement. Here we may mention that Runnels-Moss was responsible for the excellence of the programme.’
After school, Eric enlisted as Second Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade. Eric was captured on 21st March 1918 during the German Spring Offensive, near Lagnicourt.
Royal Field Artillery badge.
Eric died of wounds while a Prisoner of war, at the Fortress Hospital in Mainz, Germany on 9th July 1918. He was 20.
Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Winter term 1918, Vol.34, no.3
He received the Victory medal and the British War medal.
The Victory Medal and the British War Medal.
Eric is buried in grave III.H.3 at Niederzwehren Cemetery at Kassel. He is remembered on the Oakham School chapel.