During the 51 months that the conflict raged on the Western Front, there were innumerable occasions when individuals, or groups of soldiers, were faced with the decision whether to surrender to the enemy and become Prisoners of War (POWs). Around 200,000 British and 25,000 Empire soldiers did so individually or collectively.
The reason for surrendering were many and sometimes complex:
- Incapacitating wounds/exhaustion.
- Running out of the means of continued resistance (e.g. lack of ammunition, food and/or water).
- Isolated or surrounded by the enemy making a fighting retreat impossible.
- Weariness with the war and an unwillingness to continue fighting.
- Mental collapse such as that exhibited by the symptoms of severe stress (shell shock).
The pros and cons of capturing POWs
For the opposing army, POWs often represented a considerable logistical problem. The POWs had to be transported away from the battlefield, housed in secure conditions and sustained under strictly defined conditions for the duration as stipulated by mutually agreed international agreements and conventions. These were, at that time, The Third of the Geneva Conventions of 1864, revised in 1906, and the 1907 Hague Convention # IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land.On the plus side, the POW other ranks could be made to work, but not the officers. They had a higher status even in captivity and could only be asked to supervise the work of their men. At times, almost half of the BEF's Labour Force was made up of German POWs. On occasion, the way they were employed by the British Army involved a rather liberal interpretation being made of the 'non-military tasks' criterion as set out in Sections 23c/d of the Regulations of the Hague Conventions. There were also occasions when the proximity of the POWs work site to the Battle Zone - it should have been at least a distance of 30km from it - was questioned at the international level by the German authorities.Also, POWs were a prime source of intelligence, and frequent raids were made on the enemy's lines to capture POWs for that specific purpose. Such intelligence was given much credence by British military commanders and widely used in the development of both strategy and tactics.
Another very positive consideration for the enemy concerning the utility of the POW's was self evident, despite the logistics and manpower deployment problems that the handling of POWs created. (For a start one or two guards were required to escort every 10 POWs from the battlefield). This was that each POW represented an incapacitated combattant; one less opponent on the battlefield. In manpower availability terms, a POW represented a better result than temporary incapacitation due to wounding, and was second only to killing as an effective reducer of the enemies' manpower. Of course, the summary killing of POWs was a highly effective manner of manpower reduction. Indubitably, it happened on quite a large scale on both sides. Under the Geneva and Hague Conventions it was strictly forbidden both on and off the battlefield.
Contrariwise, for the side that lost a combattant as a POW, the negative manpower effect was the same as a fatality, a soldier demobilised due to wounds or other incapacity.
Repatriation of POWs
Under the rules of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, seriously wounded, or seriously ill POWs could be repatriated to their home countries under reciprocal arrangements. But these individuals were not permitted to serve again in the same theatre of war.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, many British civilians who were resident, or currently visiting, the countries of the Central Powers, were interned and, effectively, became the civilian equivalent of Prisoners of War under the rules of the Fourth of the Geneva Conventions. Some of these civilians, particularly the badly wounded or seriously ill, were eventually returned to Britain on a reciprocal basis. But, in the case of British nations who were interned in Germany, it took until 1916 before the first exchange took place, and even then it was limited to those who were over 45, seriously wounded, or very ill.However, once repatriated some of these British civilians enlisted into the Armed Forces. A good example being Edward Mannock, an expatriate telephone engineer, who, after repatriation from Turkey in 1916 due to ill health, joined the British Army and eventually won the VC on the Western Front as the top British 'fighter ace' with 61 victories.
POWs as hostages of war
Another totally illegal use of POWs was their exploitation as 'hostages' with the siting of their camps close to the battle-lines and military sites as protection against air raids - the so called 'Human Shield'. Although there is evidence that the Germans used this ploy on many occasions (e.g. Karlsruhe and Stuttgart) there are no records of such blatant infractions on the Allied side.The Red Cross and POWs
The International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the health and welfare of all the POWs of the Great War. It also arranged for periodic supplies of parcels of food and other essential items for them. However, due to administrative problems, or malicious intent, some POWs never received any kind of help; a situation that was much more prevalent on the Eastern than the Western Front.
Comparative figures of POWs
As with nearly all Great War statistics, the data on POWs has a considerable degree of variance. However, using the authoritative British Government figures it can be said with some confidence that:
- In the Great War about 5 million of the Allies' forces were taken as POWs.
- Around 3.5 million of the Central Powers' forces were taken as POWs.
- About 28% of the entire Allies' casualty list were POWs: the comparative figure for the British and Empire was 6%; for the Empire alone it was an extremely low 3%.
- Around 20% of all the Central Powers casualty list were POWs: the comparative figure for Germany alone was 9%.
The factors that encouraged and discouraged becoming a POW
Without much room for doubt, for most combattants, personal experience in the front-line indicated the uncertainties that surrendering to the enemy entailed. And the more intense and brutal the fighting became the more unlikely it was that the other side would accept any intention to surrender. Indeed, personal and collective criteria developed on the battlefield as to when the option of surrender would and would not be acceptable. In his famous book about the Western Front, entitled Storm of Steel, the German Storm-trooper officer, Ernst Junger, stated one such collective attitude as: 'The defending force, after firing their bullets into the attacking one at five paces' distance, must take the consequences.' Although, as if to exemplify the individual shades of ambiguity that reigned on the subject, elsewhere he writes with equal vehemence, ' To kill a defenceless man is a baseness'.
In any event, there are many autobiographical references in the literature to the summary execution of putative POWs as individuals and groups by all the belligerent armies; and there are frequent written reports of individuals and units 'Vowing to never take any prisoners'. It would be hard to justify stating that any one belligerent army was a worse offender than another, with the propaganda machines on both sides obfuscating the issue.
However, perhaps, there should a caveat concerning the alleged early atrocities of the German Army whilst invading Belgium and France. That was perhaps an exceptional occurrence, and it must be acknowledged that many of the victims were civilians, alleged 'franc tireurs' (armed civilians) not soldiers; deplorable as those executions were.
A frequent excuse for summarily despatching a wounded soldier that was employed in every theatre of the Great War, was that of 'Putting him out of his misery.' A best, a rather subjective rationale, but one still used even in very recent times (e.g. By US Army infantrymen at Fallujah, Iraq, 2004).
Many British infantrymen served in regiments recruited from their home districts where the individual soldiers knew many of their comrades and their comrades' families. Inevitably, a close bond developed between these men under the stress of combat, as, of course, it also did in the many regiments formed from more disparate volunteers and conscripts. There was a strong element of peer pressure to support one another and see it through. Unless it became necessary for the whole group of soldiers to surrender honourably en masse, surrender would be as unthinkable as the other major regimental taboos, desertion and self inflicted wounds (SIWs), which were another means of last resort to escape from the battlefield. As the Army and many soldiers saw it, all these actions were clear cases of evasion of duty, to the detriment of comrades who loyally continued to serve to the best of their abilityA clear example of how this status quo of national and regimental loyalty and commitment could be quite suddenly reversed, came in late 1918 when the morale of the elite units of the German Army began to crack, and respect for The German Generals and The Kaiser faltered. Having seen the generally good reception their former comrades had received when they surrendered individually and collectively to the Allied Armies, huge numbers of the German Army began giving themselves up. In less than one month - 24th September 1918 to 21st October 1918 - 70,000 Germans surrendered to the British Army alone in France; 11%of the total number of German POWs in the Great War.
The attitude of the military hierarchies of both sides, whilst strongly discouraging any thought or trend towards surrendering on the part of their own troops, was to give every encouragement to the enemy to surrender as a means of weakening his forces at the Front. Particularly in the later months of the War, Allied military commanders in the Front Line were urged to motivate their men to assist the process of surrender in any way possible.
Although the Allies consistently conceded in every year of the war more POWs to the Central Powers (around 30%) than vice versa, the figures were still remarkably low with the British losing 6% of their casualties as POWs and the British Empire only 3%. Compared with the disastrous figures of the Austrian Hungarians (30%) and on the Russians (50%) these are modest numbers indeed.
In the final analysis, the question as to why this was so in the case of British and Empire troops is probably down to morale. Even in the direst of conditions, the majority of British and Empire troops felt that their officers were loyal to them, and usually made the effort to ameliorate the lot of the common soldier by the seeking to ensure good lodging, food, recreation, leave and displaying a caring attitude. This was clearly not the case with the French Army until the 1917 mutinies brought about some much needed improvements. When this basic chemistry worked, even the more awful deprivations (e.g. Passchendaele) could be overcome by comradeship and a sense of shared endeavour to see the thing through. This meant, by and large, the cohesion and the fighting efficacy of the British troops in the Front-line prevailed whilst that of the Germans, the French and Russians faltered, belated and unexpected though it was in the former case.
Were it to be claimed that the willingness to surrender was related directly to the number of casualties suffered, the extraordinary high casualty numbers of the Scottish and Empire regiments on the Western Front stand in contradiction. Indeed, the British 23th Division endured casualties equal to seven times its nominal strength, but still had one of the lowest proportions of POWs in the British Army.
Only those veterans who fought the psychological battle of whether to surrender to the enemy or not, would know what their attitude to it would be when the chips were down. The rest of us can only admire the loyalty and the courage of those who refused the option even when others succumbed.