Bulgarian soldiers were captured by the Serbian army., 1916, Narodna biblioteka Srbije - National Library of Serbia (NLS), In Copyright

Introduction

The capture of soldiers and civilians and their transportation to prisoner of war or internment camps is a transition which should not be equated to the loss of freedom. Paradoxically, unless one ended up in a hunger camp, for many soldiers the camp could improve their quality of life. Within the camp prisoners are forced to find new roles away from their identity as a soldier, which enables them to adapt to the new situation in which they find themselves. Homecoming also means a renewed search for identity. After many years of captivity prisoners may lose the ability to think and act for themselves, especially when confronted by the destruction and the consequences of the war.

Transitional Journeys to the Camp

Once a soldier is captured or surrenders he becomes a prisoner of war and is protected by the Hague Conventions. Civilians can be pressed into forced labour, or, if abroad, they can be interned as “enemy aliens”. The prisoners mostly keep quiet about the captive, because captive appears dishonorable in their own view. It takes a long time for prisoners to be registered in the camps. To get to the camp they undertake arduous marches and train rides. During these journeys first contact is made between prisoners, camp guards and civilians Prisoners have to endure poverty, inadequate sanitary conditions, poor diet and maltreatment - – experiences which will stay in the mind for a long time. The journey to camp is not only a physical transition but a psychological one. The prisoners live in a state of uncertainty, never sure of their fate and ignorant of the roles that they will play once at the camp.

A German POW boarding the tram in Bordeaux., 1916 Bordeaux, French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
A German POW boarding the tram in Bordeaux., 1916 Bordeaux, French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
British POWs are shipped to Denmark., Damgaard, Holger (1870-1945) fotograf Damgård, Holger (1870-1945) fotograf, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND
British POWs are shipped to Denmark., Damgaard, Holger (1870-1945) fotograf Damgård, Holger (1870-1945) fotograf, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND

Everyday Life in the Camp

Everyday life in the camp is affected by its location, its living conditions and by the time of year. Rank and social standing are also important: officers and rich civilians are treated better than other prisoners. Accounts of former prisoners of war reflect these differences, giving differing insights into the quality of accommodation, food and workload. Both rumors and official reports about other camps have an impact on the everyday life of lower-level soldiers. After reports of violence against their compatriots in enemy prison camps, the camp guards retaliate on their own prisoners. But violence, corruption and escape attempts are rare. Most of the time the prisoners kill time with activities like painting and playing music and games. They also have to do physical work, mostly outside of the camps, at quarries or farms, or for the transportation system. This hard work is very often not paid for at all, or insufficiently, like in Great Britain and France. If the work fails to reach a given standard prisoners may sometimes be punished.

German POWs at work near Bordeaux, 1917 Bordeaux,  French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
German POWs at work near Bordeaux, 1917 Bordeaux, French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
Billiards game room for officers at POW camp , Munksgaard, Aage, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND
Billiards game room for officers at POW camp , Munksgaard, Aage, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND

Post and Communication

Correspondence with the outside world - the sending and receiving of letters, postcards and small parcels - is a special kind of transition within the camps. By keeping in contact with their family, loved ones and comrades the prisoners are able to remain optimistic. They themselves control the outside world’s view of their captivity. The prisoners do not write about their life as captives at the camp but as heroic soldiers at the front. Many letters report on the circumstances of the prisoner’s capture, subversive activities at the camp and sometimes even about escape plans.

The postal systems of Great Britain, France and Germany work efficiently even during the war, so that letters are delivered within about ten days. Any disruption to this communication has a direct bearing on the mood of the prisoners who wait for replies with anticipation and longing. The shipping of care packages by the Red Cross relies on the post service, likewise the dissemination of posters and postcards designed to boost prisoners’ morale.

A Russian POW writing a letter, 1918, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND
A Russian POW writing a letter, 1918, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND