German Prisoners of War Standing Behind Barbed Wire
The picture shows a sea of German soldiers, all prisoners of war, standing behind a barbed wire fence. The fence is a rudimentary one, just a few wires strung along some rough posts. There are a couple of signs, their wording illegible but probably some warning against crossing the fence, nailed to one of the fence posts.
There are so many prisoners of war that the men have no room to move or lie down. There is no visible shelter, just a mass of thousands and thousands of POWs. Judging from their overcoats it is likely that the picture was taken in the Fall and there seems to be a chill in the air.
The conditions must have been very difficult. There is no designated place to go to the bathroom. Hygiene must have been horrendous. Line ups for food must have been very long.
Despite these hardships, the men in this picture were comparatively lucky. For them the war was over, and if they survived cholera and other diseases prevalent in POW camps, they would soon be repatriated with their families.
Here is a close up of some of the men, unidentified persons amidst the masses of nameless and indistinct faces.
German Prisoners Western Front
Set of photographs showing groups of German prisoners of war being escorted through a French village. These men were captured during the Battle in Champagne which was a French attempt to counter attack the invading German armies and push them back. The battle lasted from September 25, 1915 until November 6, 1915.
The French outnumbered the Germans in the area almost two to one, and the offensive met with initial success. But the Germans had anticipated the French attack and had dug in. The French met with determined German resistance and resulted in the French suffering heavy losses.
Of the 450,000 French soldiers that participated in the battle, 150,000 became casualties. The Germans had 220,000 men and suffered 72,500 casualties, including 25,000 who were taken prisoners.
A group of German POWS Captured During the Battle in Champagne
Closeup View of the German POWs
There are basically two ways of winning a war: crushing (i.e. killing) the enemy militarily or breaking his will to fight to so that he gives up and goes home. Sometimes the two go hand in hand: military defeats tend to demoralize troops and make them less willing to continue fighting and face more defeat and risk of death. But in order for the enemy to give up the fight, they must believe that surrender is better than fighting. If they believe that they will be tortured or executed if captured, even demoralized men will fight to the death. Propagandists on both sides understood this simple equation, and worked hard to convince the other side that that they should give up.
Here is an interesting propaganda leaflet dropped by the allies from airplanes over Bulgarian forces during World War 1. The leaflet consists of an idyllic picture of Bulgarian prisoners of war enjoying warm food and easy circumstances at the hands of their allied captors, and there is also a letter describing how the allies treat their Bulgarian prisoners. The idea was to convince the Bulgarians to give up and escape the horrors of war for the relative comfort of a prisoner of war camp run by the humane Brits and French.
World War 1 Propaganda
In fact the allied powers were not known for their gentle treatment of POWs. The Russians transported their Austrian and German POWs to Siberian prison camps where many died from disease and malnutrition, brought on by shortages affecting the disintegrating Russian Empire, which made feeding prisoners of war difficult and certainly not a high priority. The French and Germans used prisoners of war for forced labour, even using them to work in active military zones where they faced death at the hand of “friendly” fire from their former comrades.
Canadian Pioneers carrying trench mats pass German prisoners and wounded during the Battle of Passchendaele, November, 1917. Trench mats were used to create foot paths for the soldiers since the ground was a soggy, muddy swamp.