Guide to Prisoners of War in WW1

During the First World War nearly 200,000 members of the British Armed Forces were at some time taken as a prisoner of war by Germany or one of her allies.

About 1,700 of these were men from the Essex Regiment who were held by the Germans or the Turks.

At the start of the war both sides had made preparations in many areas although neither had made arrangements to cope with a large influx of prisoners of war which meant that often existing buildings were adapted for use even though sadly many were not really suitable for the role.

As the war moved on, both sides erected some purpose built prisoner of war camps.

Life was harsh in a POW Camp although those for officers tended to be better than those for the men.

The Geneva Convention

Both sides has signed up to the Geneva Convention which specified some basic conditions which prisoners should enjoy.

Checks on the compliance to the convention in these camps were made by the German Red Cross and from 1914 to 1917 by the American Embassy and then from 1917 to 1918 by the Dutch Embassy.

Although the Germans appear to have complied with the Convention in general there is little doubt that they used a system of punishment and bullying of prisoners to individuals and groups which breached the Convention. There is also evidence of deliberate breaches of the convention often in retaliation for some perceived action to Germans in Allied hands.

Bad treatment was no doubt made more likely by propaganda about British ill treatment of prisoners that was designed to make German soldiers fight to the last rather than surrender. This propaganda was accepted by the population at large meaning that prisoners were stoned by German civilians  while marching to and from camps and no doubt maltreated by guards in revenge for supposed wrongdoings to German Prisoners in Britain.

Records of the visits by the Red Cross are available on the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross although they tend to deal in general terms and mention few specific prisoners.

An Average Day in a camp

The POW wakes up with a mug of substitute coffee and perhaps a slice of bread.

Then a parade takes place where all prisoners were counted and absentees accounted for. Should there be anyone missing the parade was held until they were found or it was established that they had escaped.

At about 12 noon the lunchtime meal, which was usually soup, was served.

This was followed by the evening meal which was often potato and salted fish in the early days of the war but in later times was more of the same soup.

At dark it was back to bed until the day began again.


Although the food provided to the POW's was poor quality it in part reflected the success of the allied blockade which had made food scarce throughout Germany.


By 1918 the common meal was dry black bread with weak mangel wurzle soup.


 Red Cross Food Parcels

From 1915 the highlight of a POW's life was the Red Cross food parcel which would arrive every two weeks.

Each parcel contained 3 tins of beef, 1/4 pound of tea, 1/4 pound of cocoa, 2 pound of biscuits, 2 tins of cheese, 1tin of dripping, 2 tins of milk and 50 cigarettes.



The Geneva Convention allowed POW's to be made to work although the tasks should not be excessive and should have no connection with the operation of war.

Officers were given an exception to the need to work.

The Germans made full use of this and established Working Camps where prisoners worked in the camp or in the surrounding area.

Skilled prisoner may have been asked to undertake specialist tasks but the majority undertook agricultural, manufacturing or labouring work.

The connection with the war effort was at times blurred as almost any work contributed to the war effort in some way  but at times British prisoners refused to carry out some tasks and suffered from beatings.

The luckier POW's who worked in farms were billeted with a farmer and then lived on the farm. In most cases a relationship grew which saw the POW have a comparatively good and healthy life with freedom to work unsupervised.

In larger rural areas POW's were billeted in communal buildings such as village halls and released daily for work on the farms supervised by guards.

POW's who worked as labourers tended to have a harsher life being billeted in communal buildings and forced to complete difficult tasks for long periods. Unlike the farm workers the food was of poor quality and health issued took a toll on the POW's as their well being was not on the agenda of their captors.

Some POW's were employed in the surface coal mining where they were used to load and unload coal onto the railway cars and lorries.

They were also used as unskilled labour in the underground coal mines.

Men in the coal mines also lived under guard in a central billet and like the labourers suffered due to poor food and low concern for their welfare. If a man collapsed or was ill then another POW from a POW Camp would be sent to take their place.

Other common work was maintaining the railways and road network, work in iron works, brickworks, Forestry, coal yards, waste disposal and construction of buildings.


In the camps with so many people living together, poor sanitation and poor food which when coupled with hard manual labour in many cases it is not surprising that illness and death was common amongst POW.


Life was very boring in the camps with organised football and other sporting events took place on a daily basis and games like chess and draughts were popular.

Many camps organised singing and drama with even small orchestras being founded.

Guide to Research

Click here for a guide to researching POW