Barbed Wire Disease: British & German Prisoners of War, 1914-1918

Barbed Wire Disease: British & German Prisoners of War, 1914-1918

by John Yarnall

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By the time of the Armistice in 1918, some 6.5 million prisoners of war were held by the belligerents. Little has been written about these prisoners, possibly because the story is not one of unmitigated hardship and cruelty. Nevertheless, hardships did occur and the alleged neglect and ill-treatment of prisoners captured on the Western Front became the subject of major propaganda campaigns in Britain and Germany as the war progressed. 'Barbed Wire Disease' looks at the conditions facing those prisoners and the claims and counter-claims relating to their treatment. At the same time, it sets the story in the wider context of the commitment by both governments to treat prisoners humanely in accordance with the recently agreed Hague and Geneva Conventions. The political and diplomatic efforts to achieve this are examined in detail, and it concludes by examining the failed first-ever efforts to bring war criminals to justice before international tribunals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752472621
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 777 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Yarnall is a retired civil servant who served in a variety of government departments during his career. After leaving the Civil Service he studied history at Kingston University.

Read an Excerpt

Barbed Wire Disease

British & German Prisoners of War, 1914â"19

By John Yarnall

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 John Yarnall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7262-1



As perhaps the first manifestation of the First World War as total war, enemy civilians were being interned in the UK before any combatant prisoners had been taken by British forces. The large-scale internment of enemy aliens, which came to be undertaken by both sides, was to continue throughout the war. The policy was controversial, invoking public anger in both countries at the perceived injustice of its own citizens being caught up in the conflict as innocent bystanders. At the same time, in Britain especially, there was little public appetite to allow enemy aliens simply to roam free. From a practical point of view, internment imposed costs on both sides in having to feed and house large numbers of internees, as well as diverting scarce administrative resources from more important areas. Throughout the war, attempts were made to reduce or eliminate the difficulties of internment through negotiations on full or partial civilian exchanges. The problems associated with this proved intractable, however, until final success came too late to have any practical effect. While the driving force behind the policy of internment was logical, its application was imperfect and its success questionable. An examination of the official record must bring into question whether, in the end, it proved misguided.

Large-scale internment represented a departure from previous practice. Traditionally, governments had been tolerant towards the presence of enemy aliens. For centuries it had been common to include in treaties provision for civilians to be given time, perhaps six to nine months, in which to settle their affairs before being required to leave the country. Though the Hague Convention did not extend to civilians, discussion during its drafting confirmed the widely held view that it was not acceptable simply to imprison enemy subjects at the outbreak of war. But where civilians were imprisoned, it was also the view under international law that they should be treated in the same way as combatant POWs with all the privileges that such status provided. The view that civilians could not automatically be imprisoned was reiterated in the British Manual of Military Law, issued by the War Office in 1914. But the Manual went on to argue that this did not mean that all enemy aliens could be allowed to go about their business unhindered. First, there was the question of security. It was clearly necessary to be able to regulate those who might be engaged in spying or sabotage. The Manual specifically acknowledged this by referring to the right of every state to take 'such steps as it may deem necessary for the control of persons whose presence or conduct appear dangerous to its safety'. Secondly, the relatively recent spread of conscription gave rise to a newly formed view under international law, that a state could not be compelled to let go unhindered those who would then join the forces of the opposing side. The position of civilians at the outbreak of the war was thus evolving, with no clear and absolute framework setting out how they should be treated.

The scope for a more aggressive policy than had been adopted in the past was particularly attractive in Britain, where sensitivity towards enemy aliens was already high. Fears over spying, sabotage and invasion had been growing in Britain for many years, stoked by writers of fiction such as George Chesney (The Battle for Dorking, 1871), Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands, 1903) and William Le Queux (Invasion of 1910, 1906). Such fear was not confined to the public imagination either. Official concern that German spies were active in Britain, possibly as part of an extensive network, had led directly to the establishment of the British Secret Service (MI5 and MI6) in 1909. Coupled with this, the population of enemy aliens in Britain was large. At the outbreak of war, the enemy population comprised over 50,000 Germans and 10,000 Austrians. Some of these were simply on holiday or were the passengers or crews of visiting merchant ships. Others were diplomats, professionals or itinerant workers such as waiters. Many were long-term residents, such as the husbands or wives of native citizens. In contrast to the position in Britain, there were fewer than 10,000 British citizens in Germany. This disparity in numbers was to influence directly the attitude of the two sides throughout the war.

Unlike the British Government, it is clear that Germany had no predetermined policy towards enemy civilians. Events in Germany in the first few days of the war appear to have been spontaneous and uncoordinated. There were reports of Russians and French being seized by the crowds and in some instances shot, and even Americans being subjected to the suspicion generated by foreigners. US Ambassador Gerard records:

A curious rumour spread all over Germany to the effect that automobiles loaded with French gold were being rushed across the country to Russia. Peasants and gamekeepers and others turned out on the roads with guns, and travelling by automobile became extremely dangerous. A German Countess was shot, an officer wounded and the Duchess of Ratibor was shot in the arm. It was some time before this excitement was allayed, and many notices were published in the newspapers before this mania was driven from the popular brain.

There were rumours also that the Russians had poisoned the Muggelsee, the lake from whence Berlin draws part of its water supply. There were constant rumours of the arrest of Russian spies disguised as women throughout Germany.

In Berlin, the official German reaction on 5 August was to round up all British subjects. Gerard notes that:

During the day British subjects, without distinction of age or sex, were seized, wherever found, and sent to the fortress at Spandau. I remonstrated with von Jagow [the German Minister of Foreign Affairs] and told him that that was a measure taken only in the Middle Ages, and I believe that he remonstrated with the authorities and arranged for a cessation of the arbitrary arrests of women.

Following this initial reaction, the German Government quickly became more relaxed. Instead of being automatically interned, British subjects were soon allowed considerable liberty, being required only to report to the local police station during the day, and being forbidden to remain out at night. While not officially allowed to leave, many were in fact able to escape, making their way to Britain across the neutral frontiers. Such people clearly saw their future as intolerable within Germany, though some at least were far from happy at having to leave, as a letter from C.B. Maxse, the British Consul-General in Amsterdam, to Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, records:

Since the stream of British refugees set in through Holland I have had occasion to remark that many British subjects, who have resided for some time in Germany, have apparently lost all patriotic instinct. I have reported on this subject in previous despatches dealing with the reception of British refugees in this country. I have even had a British born woman of the educated classes in my room at this office, who told me that she sincerely hoped that Germany would win and the British be beaten. This class of person absolutely refuses to believe any statements regarding German atrocities in Belgium, the way the war was initiated by that country's double dealing, or even to read any British newspapers or official publications that may be handed to them. I am happy to say that their number has not been great, but they have been exceedingly virulent. I have made it a rule to ask them in reply why, holding such views, they did not wish to remain in Germany and become naturalized there, especially as in some cases they had previously told me that they had lost touch with their families in England.

For its part, the British Government made clear its policy from the outset. On the day after the outbreak, McKenna, the Home Secretary, introduced a bill to enable restrictions to be placed on aliens by means of Orders in Council. McKenna justified the move in the following terms:

Information in the possession of the Government proves that cases of espionage have been frequent in recent years and that many spies have been caught and dealt with by the police. Within the last 24 hours no fewer than 21 spies, or suspected spies, have been arrested in various places all over the country, chiefly in important military or naval centres, some of them known to the authorities to be spies.

The bill secured an immediate passage through parliament and Orders in Council started to be made the following day. Aliens were required to register with local officials and prohibited from entering designated areas, such as those within the vicinity of ports, dockyards and military installations. They were prohibited from travelling without a permit and from possessing firearms, communications equipment and other items. They were also prohibited from reading German language newspapers and from working in the banking business.

Alongside these measures the War Office issued a separate order providing for the immediate internment of all German and Austrian males between the ages of 17 and 42, excepting those who could clearly demonstrate that they were exempt from military service. At an urgently convened meeting of government departments, however, it became clear straightaway that this policy could not be fully implemented because of a lack of suitable accommodation to house the large number of prospective internees involved. It was therefore decided that internment would be restricted initially to those Germans whom the police regarded as dangerous, viz. spies and saboteurs. Later in August, following concern by the commissioner of police about the large number of Germans now unemployed, it was further agreed that those who might become dangerous through unemployment or destitution should also be interned, and on 7 September it was decided to intern all reservists, with unmarried or destitute men being taken first. After between 8,000 and 9,000 had been arrested under these arrangements, internment was again suspended through lack of accommodation. A further purge instituted on 20 October brought the number interned to 12,400, out of a total German population in the UK of 55,686 men, women and children. The pattern of prioritising the internment of enemy aliens according to availability of accommodation and in reaction to events was then to continue for much of the war. In December 1914, for example, McKenna reported to the Cabinet that the policy of internment was causing hardship and many aliens were now being released – 1,100 had been released in November on report from the police that they represented no danger. He went on to say that the War Office was now considering a general release of all those interned since 20 October, subject to police vetting of the individuals. But in a further reversal provoked by public outrage following the sinking of the Lusitania, Asquith announced in May 1915 the internment (subject to individual exceptions) of all non naturalised men of military age. By December 1915, the total number of enemy alien civilians interned in the UK had reached 32,272.

The British policy on internment was strongly resented by the German Government, which took the position that it was wrong in principle to detain anyone not in the armed forces. German public opinion was also outraged. In October 1914, the German Imperial Foreign Office issued an ultimatum threatening the arrest of all male British subjects in Germany between the ages of 17 and 55 unless the British Government confirmed by 5 November that all Germans not especially suspicious had been released. Having failed to receive such confirmation, the German Government duly carried out its threat, leading Gerard to try to de-escalate the situation in a note handed to Grey on 13 November:

Although it may already be too late to be of much practical effect, I feel it my duty, in the interest of humanity, to urge you to obtain some formal declaration on the part of the British Government as to its purpose in ordering the wholesale concentration of Germans in Great Britain and Ireland, as is understood here to be the case. It is known here that many of the Germans interned belong to the labouring classes, and that their position is actually improved by their internment, and it is recognised that the British Government has the right to arrest persons when any well-founded ground for suspecting them to be spies exists. Great popular resentment has been created by the reports of the arrests of other Germans, however, and the German authorities cannot explain or understand why German travellers who have been taken from ocean steamers should not be permitted to remain at liberty, of course under police control, even if they are compelled to stay in England. The order for the general concentration of British males between the ages of 17 and 55, which went into effect on the 6th instant, was occasioned by the pressure of public opinion, which has been still further excited by the newspaper reports of a considerable number of deaths in the concentration camps. Up to the 6th considerable liberty of movement has been allowed to British subjects in Germany, and, as you were informed in my telegram of the 5th, many petitions were received from them setting forth the favourable conditions under which they were permitted to live and carry on their business, and urging the similar treatment of German subjects in England. I cannot but feel that to a great extent the English action and the German retaliation has been caused by a misunderstanding which we should do our best to remove. It seems to me that we should do all in our power to prevent an increase in the bitterness which seems to have arisen between the German and English peoples, and to make it possible for the two countries to become friends on the close of the war.

As has already been noted, the fundamental difference between the policies adopted in Britain and Germany arose mainly because of the huge disparity in the number of enemy aliens held by either side. Grey had already sought US assistance in making clear to the German Government the 'reasonableness' of the British policy in the light of this. Grey argued that the large number of enemy aliens in the UK caused legitimate concern to the military authorities responsible for the national defence. For the government not to have acted in the way it had, with the consequent risk to the public safety, would have represented a dereliction of its duty. This had been the sole driving force behind the government's actions and there had never once been any intention 'to indulge in a domestic act of hostility towards German subjects as such, or in any way to inflict hardship for hardship's sake on innocent civilians'. He then went on to state that every effort was being made to mitigate the inconvenience to those detained and to provide the best possible treatment under the circumstances. He hoped that in the future the necessarily austere conditions in the civilian internment camps would be improved further, and that the defects in procedures and conditions which had inevitably arisen from the need to act quickly would be rectified. By contrast:

The German Government, on the other hand, have not the same excuse for proceeding to a wholesale arrest of British subjects in Germany, since, owing to the small number of them, the scattered condition in which they live, and the different character of the classes to which they belong, they cannot, under any circumstances, be regarded as constituting the same danger to Germany that the masses of German subjects in Great Britain constitute to this country.

The possibility of securing the repatriation of British subjects was first considered by the British Government just a few days into the war, in the face of mounting concern about the conditions they were facing in Germany. Almost simultaneously, the German Government offered to allow all remaining British subjects to leave, provided the British Government would release all the German citizens held in the UK. While the British Foreign Office would have been more than happy to go along with this proposal, the War Office found it unacceptable on the basis that an 'all for all' exchange would result in Germany gaining a clear manpower advantage. During inter-departmental discussions, the War Office pressed this point and went on to secure a HMG 'established principle' that in all present and future exchanges no side should gain militarily at the expense of the other. In the light of this principle, the British Government then set about negotiating, with some success, a more limited exchange which would exclude all male civilians of military age and those already in custody for crimes or under suspicion of espionage. The German Government agreed to release all women and children and arranged special trains to the Dutch frontier for the purpose (Britain had been allowing women and children to leave since the outbreak but Germany had not) and agreement was also reached on the exchange of physicians and clergymen of military age. By the end of October 1914, the German Government announced that all British civilians, except those between ages 17 and 55, were now free to leave the country. But apart from piecemeal agreements providing for the exchange of invalid civilians or civilians incapacitated from military service and other minor categories, a more comprehensive agreement relating to those of military age remained elusive.


Excerpted from Barbed Wire Disease by John Yarnall. Copyright © 2011 John Yarnall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Civilians: The Innocent Bystanders,
2 Applying the Conventions,
3 Germany: Problems & Inspections,
4 The British Experience,
5 Wittenberg, Gardelegen & Typhus,
6 From Capture to the Camps,
7 Reprisals,
8 Parcels, Assistance & Relief,
9 Daily Life in Germany,
10 Daily Life in the UK,
11 Exchanges, Internments & Agreements,
12 The Armistice & Repatriation,
13 Leipzig: The Aftermath,

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