Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Prisoners of War

There are few pleasures in academia like listening to someone who is just post-thesis submission discuss their work. The knowledge of the topic, the familiarity with the sources, the intellectual engagement: this is how historians should always be. In fact, that would be rather exhausting – better to say that this is a position lots of us would like to be in more frequently. It was a great pleasure, then, for the Writing War seminar to hear Heather Jones, of Trinity College Dublin, speak about PoWs in the First World War, on 18 January 2006.

Heather’s topic was the evolution of violence against prisoners in the course of the war, and the problematic nature of ‘remembering’ prisoner experience in post-war Europe. The mythology of the First World War has little space for prisoners – particularly for the use of prisoners as labour which, as Heather pointed out, was an essential resource for both sides. The focus of this paper was on these men – so violence against prisoners in this respect should be understood as something separate from that meted out around the moment of surrender. Her sources came from across Europe, including official army instructions, investigations into prisoner treatment and individual accounts.

As usual, rather than summarise the whole paper, let me remark on four things that stood out:

1) The degree to which prisoners were used as labour, particularly by the German army.

With no resources of colonial labour, the Germans had to use prisoners as a means to prosecute total war. In 1916, a quarter of a million prisoners were working for the German army behind the lines (about a sixth of those held) as opposed to about 30,000 for the French. Both sides, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved willing to bend their pre-war attitudes to prisoner treatment and definitions of ‘war-work’ when confronted by the needs of conflict. In 1918, the German army chose to make much greater use of prisoners – including larger numbers of British, French and Italian prisoners – close to the battlefront. At the same time, the use of violence by guards significantly worsened. Mistreatment of prisoners by guards was a major problem for the German army, with a tension existing between the need to make men work and the pressures on guards and commanders from their own military system and the large influx of prisoners in 1918. There was a paradox (seemingly invisible to OHL) between commanders placing prisoners in conditions of (sometimes extreme) danger, but demanding that their men treat these prisoners well.

2) Brutalisation. Some of these men suffered extreme ill treatment, either in the form of exposure to shellfire whilst engaged in warwork within the battlezone, or from their guards. To quote from Heather’s research in her thesis ‘The Enemy Disarmed. Western Front Prisoners of War and the Violence of Wartime, Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1920’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2006): ‘A British prisoner, Drummer Leslie Rudd, described his guards at Sailly, 5 miles from the firing line:

They treated us very badly and beat us with sticks and rifles all times of the day. Many of us were in a bad state and incapable to work [sic] from dirt and lack of food. It was a regular thing for us to lose our bread ration and we had a very small quantity of bread and coffee and soup given us. One day we refused to load shells and one of our men complained to a German staff officer who spoke English, telling him it was wrong to expect us to load shells for them and that we wanted to make a general complaint. His only reply was to line us up in a squad and to order that the first man who refused to work should be instantly shot.[1]

(please cite Heather’s location of this evocative quotation if you wish to make use of it)

British and French prisoners still did better than Russian prisoners, who were bottom of the humanitarian ladder (I can’t remember, at this stage, whether Heather spoke about the small number of British and French Indian and African prisoners taken by the Germans). Allied prisoners also suffered malnutrition as the German ration system broke down at the end of the war (particularly because their employment in labour companies complicated the receipt of Red Cross parcels). Heather’s work therefore fits into a much broader historical debate about the effect of war and military society on human behaviour.

3) National differences

The different hierarchical structures of the various armies and the pre-war backgrounds of the men involved affected how they behaved as prisoner-labourers.

4) Memory.

There was little place for the memory of PoW experience in post-war Europe. Many of these men may in any case not have chosen to remember an experience which was traumatic and emasculating. When PoWs were represented (as in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, and in some British memoirs) they were officers in prison camps inside Germany. This allowed them to be shown in terms which gave them back individual agency and which fitted pre-existing narrative models. It was perhaps surprising that, in the aftermath of the war, the Entente made so little of the mistreatment of its prisoners – although this was perhaps in response to the scale of the global catastrophe from which they were trying to recover.

Heather succeeded in opening up an area which few seminar members had even thought about before. We did however, manage to ask her some useful questions (hopefully in partial preparation for her viva) about differences in national experience, the role of regular, volunteer and conscripted soldiers, and the contribution of prisoners to the war effort. ‘Prisoner Studies’ in a broader sense is clearly a topic deserving of wider study across the century. In an era of trans-disciplinary approaches, it combines legal, military, cultural and social history to the benefit of each.


Writing War Spring Semester Programme


[1] TNA, WO 161/100, no.1785, Interview with Drummer Leslie Rudd.

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