During the Great War of 1914-1918 some 7,335 officers and 174,491 other ranks of the British Army were captured by the enemy. Of these, about half fell into captivity between 21 March and 11 November 1918.
How did a man become a POW?
It is not wise to generalise and apply it to a specific soldier without evidence, but there are three principal causes of a man being captured:
- An enemy raid into the trenches being held by a British unit, and the man being taken. The intelligence gather by such a capture was usually the prime purpose of a trench raid.
- When during a British attack on German positions, perhaps a trench raid or a much larger action where the advance ebbed and flowed, a man may have been wounded or otherwise stranded when his comrades were forced to withdraw.
- The great and fast moving German offensives of spring 1918 saw thousands go “into the bag”. The field tactics of the two sides almost guaranteed it. The British were adopted the German system of “elastic defence” which increasingly meant that the front line was not continuous but made up of strong posts which would cover each other with fire. Enemy passing through the gap would then be counter attacked by larger forces in the rear. The Germans were developing methods of infiltration, where lightly armed men would pass quickly through any gaps and then fan out. The first that many defenders knew of a German infantry attack was when they found enemy behind and surrounding them: their choice was to be killed or surrender.
There is a case of a large British and Indian garrison being besieged and eventually surrendered: this was at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916 during the campaign in Mesopotamia.
A man taken as a POW would almost always at first be declared as missing in action. His family would be informed. They would then endure a period of uncertainty during which enquiries were made. This would include a check of all British medical units in the area and in many cases questions being asked of survivors of the action in which the man was lost. Formal enquiries and an exchange of information between Britain and her enemies would be made via neutral powers. Eventually, information would be received that the soldier was in enemy hands. In some cases, the family heard news from letters from the man himself or his comrades well before the official information was confirmed.
British soldiers taken prisoner in France and Flanders were usually moved to Germany and incarcerated in a POW camp, although large numbers were also retained in the rear areas of the battlefield to provide manual labour. Once in a camp, the man was likely to be sent out on work teams known as kommando and employed in quarries, mines, factories or farms. In some cases the man was out on such work teams for an extended period of time, so even if you find that a soldier was held at a particular camp there is a chance that he was not physically there for some of the time.
Reports of brutality in the treatment of POWs in Germany led to the establishment of a committee to determine the facts. Many men were interviewed once they returned home, and some provided appalling stories of ill treatment of sick or weak men or of a soldier who for some reason fell foul of “rules”. The camps were also visited by delegations from the Red Cross or neutral powers. In general, though they were ill fed and in cramped and unhealthy conditions, the POWs in the German camps were not subjected to systematic brutality and most survived the experience.
Many attempts were made to escape from the camps. Not quite given the same publicity as the famous escapes of WW2, they were nonetheless as daring and ingenious as the later stories.
The conditions of men taken prisoner by the forces of the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia, Palestine and elsewhere are less well documented and it appears have not been the subject of much intensive research. The captured garrison of Kut-al-Amara was treated abominably.
There are several memoirs of men who were held as POWs and a few modern studies.