After decades where these records were only available on application, on 4 August 2014 the International Committee of the Red Cross released a fully digitised set of POW records from the First World War. At time of writing the records are free to access – but the search engine is anything but easy to use. Researchers may find these tips handy when looking for a soldier of the British or Commonwealth forces.
Where are the records?
The records are available at the website http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/
What are the records?
With thanks to the ICRC for this information.
On 21 August 1914, the ICRC established the International Prisoners-of-War Agency in Geneva, to which the warring States submitted, more or less regularly, lists of prisoners. During the war the Agency received 400,000 pages of documents: lists of prisoners’ names and records of capture, of transfers between camps and of deaths in detention.
For each name listed, the Agency made out an index card. The cards were then classified by nationality and the detainee’s military or civilian status and filed alphabetically in 29 different card indexes. These indexes also contain enquiry cards, drawn up on the basis of data taken from the thousands of written requests for information submitted daily by relatives of the missing, which the Agency indexed before destroying the correspondence. The Agency’s archives hold 5 million index cards, containing data on 2 million prisoners, primarily from the Western, Romanian and Serbian Fronts.
How to search the records
Navigating the site is made much easier if you use the up/down arrows that you will see. They expand or contract the visible part of the page and look like this:
Step 1: go to the home page and enter the surname of the person you seek. In this example we are using the name of ‘Matthews’. Then click on “Start Search”. If you struggle to find someone, try any obvious spelling variations.
Step 2: you will be presented with a box titled “Specify your search criteria”. You can choose between military and civilian personnel, British and Commonwealth orother nationalities. Then click “Validate”.
Step 3: You will be presented on the bottom left of your screen with a list of regiments whose records contain a man of the chosen name. Note that this example lists a number of men named Matthews with the Royal Air Force, Royal Berkshire Regiment and so on. At the top of the list is an item showing there are 16 men named Matthews for whom no regiment is stated. For this example we want a man who is known to have served with the Royal Engineers, so we have to use the slider that appears next to the list in order to find it. You may find the up/down expansion arrow useful at this point so you can see more of the list on the screen at one time.
We have now used the slider and can see the regiment we want. Then click on the correct item.
Step 4: once you click on the regiment you will be presented in the centre of the screen with a list of the men of the right name. Use he slider to go down until you find the man you seek. In our example it is Hugh P. Matthews. Illustrated below is his index card. It shows his name, regiment, rank (and in most cases it will also give his number). Again you might find the up/down arrow useful in exposiing more of the cards to view. The index card also lists some PA codes:
Step 5: if you hover over the index card with your cursor, a box saying “More information about this person”. Click it:
Step 6: You will see that a new search box has opened, into which you can enter each PA code in turn. (I found that to get back to this screen after seeing the next document, the only way is to hit the ‘back a page’ button on your browser). Enter the PA code and click “Search”: you will now see the POW listings and reports. If you hover over a page it wil tell you the PA number so you can be sure which page you are looking at. Experince of early searches shows that the page presented to you is not necessarily the one you enetered and you may need to slide upor down a little before you find it. Again, use the up/down arrow button to see more of the page. You can download or print a page, and you can save it to your own computer by right-clicking. You may find that this does not give a file type to the name, so make sure you enter .jpg at the end of the name you wish to give the document.
That’s it as far as finding documents are concerned. Coming soon: what do these POW records actually tell you?