Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity'
The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations
during World War I, 1914-1923.
by Kenneth Steuer

Prison Camps


German Prison Camps

Imperial Germany By the end of World War I, the Germans incarcerated approximately 2.8 million prisoners of war in military prison camps.  This number roughly equaled the population of the state of Indiana and was almost three times greater than the population of New Zealand during World War I.  Large numbers of French, British, and Belgian prisoners appeared in Germany as a result of the German implementation of the Schlieffen plan at the beginning of the war.  By the Summer of 1914, the Germans also began to incarcerate great numbers of Russian prisoners due to their victory at the Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia.  Russians continued to stream into Germany during the course of the war and they became the largest single group of prisoners in the German POW system.  Serbian prisoners arrived in Germany with the collapse of that kingdom as a result of the Austro-German-Bulgarian invasion of September 1915.  The Romanian government's decision to declare war on the Central Powers in August 1916 led to the occupation of that kingdom and the influx of Romanian prisoners into Germany.  Large numbers of Italian prisoners appeared in the German empire after the Italian front collapsed as a result of the Battle of Caporetto in September 1917.  With the Russian collapse in November 1917 and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Germans began to repatriate Russian POW's.  Despite this process, by November 1918 and the signing of the Armistice on the Western Front, there were still almost half a million Russian prisoners in the Reich.  In compliance with Allied orders, these men remained incarcerated in German prison camps during the immediate post-war period to prevent their conscription into the Red Army.  The last prisoners of war did not leave Germany until 1921.

Weimar Germany This huge wartime influx of Allied POW's caught the Germans unprepared and placed a tremendous burden on the German war economy.  As a result, the Germans sent prisoners to fortresses or revised existing military bases (such as Köln, Magdeburg, and Königstein) or constructed brand new facilities to house Allied prisoners.  The Germans established different types of prison camps on a functional basis.  Prisoners arriving from the various fronts passed through Durchgangslager (transit prison camps) on major transportation hubs and then continued their travel into the interior of the empire.  The Germans assigned the POW's to Stammlager (parent prison camps), which were large facilities that housed tens of thousands of prisoners. By the end of 1915, few of the Stammlager were at full capacity since large numbers of Allied prisoners left the prison camps in Arbeitskommandos (labor detachments) to work on the farms and in the factors in support of the German economy.  The Germans also operated specialized prison camps, such as Strafenlager (punishment camps), in a policy of reprisal to deter Allied governments from certain actions and Sonderlager (propaganda camps), which offered better conditions for favored POW population groups.  In addition, the Germans administered Heimkehrlager (repatriation camps) for sick, wounded, or exchanged prisoners who were about to be transferred to a neutral country for internment or for return home.

Prison camps varied greatly in size, but the Kriegsministerium (Ministry of War) standardized the system of housing and organization through its Prisoner of War Department, under the command of General Friedrich.  The Germans enclosed new prison camps with double barbed-wire fences eight feet high.  Sometimes these fences were electrified to deter prisoners from scaling the wires.  Fences stood about five feet apart and German guards, often accompanied by dogs, conducted sentry duty between the wires.  In addition, German soldiers maintained security from guard towers equipped with search lights.  Some camps featured a defensive position inside prison camps, which included artillery pieces and machine guns, to put down any potential rioting or rebellions inside the facility.

While every camp had unusual architecture, the Germans constructed two general types of barracks.  The most common was a one-story wooden barrack, with tar paper roofs, and lots of windows for ventilation.  The second type of barrack was built partially underground and was referred to as earthen barracks.  This type of construction took advantage of the insulation provided by the ground, but suffered from ventilation problems.  Most barracks accommodated, on average, about 250 prisoners.  The Germans installed wood stoves to heat the dormitories and most had electric lighting.  Each prisoner had his own bunk and received a straw sack, which served as a mattress, and a blanket.  The Germans equipped barracks with running water for washing and drinking.  Prison camps also had a common bathhouse, which included showers and bath tubs, and a common laundry building.

Hygiene was a top priority for German prison administrators.  The outbreak of epidemics early in the war, particularly at Wittenberg, resulted in condemnation by the Allies of the poor sanitary conditions in German prison camps.  As a result, the Germans implemented an intensive campaign to eliminate filth and vermin among the Allied prisoners.  When POW's arrived at a prison camp, German medical personnel inspected these men.  Those suspected of carrying contagious diseases were assigned immediately to quarantine camps outside the main camp.  Those who passed the preliminary examination proceeded to the bathhouse and surrendered all of their clothing.  The POW's took showers or disinfection baths and many had their hair shaved off to eliminate the spread of vermin.  The prisoners' clothing, in the meantime, spent a minimum of twenty minutes in a disinfection oven, exposed to live steam.  During the early months of the war, the German army dispatched mobile sterilization units to prison camps to ensure hygiene standards.  Once a camp was established, sterilization plants became an important part of the facility.  In addition, the Germans designed barracks to have adequate ventilation, which led to complaints of draftiness by prisoners.  German authorities also required prisoners to exercise, either through military drill or mass calisthenics, to keep POW's fit and healthy.

In terms of medical care, the Germans equipped prison camps with lazarettes, quarantine stations, apothecaries, and hospital wards to care for wounded and sick Allied prisoners.  Allied doctors joined German medical staff in providing care for infirm prisoners.  The Germans sent seriously ill POW's to German military hospitals for additional care.  The Germans recognized the importance of providing medical care and sanitation to prisoners and a remarkable percentage of Allied POW's survived their incarceration despite serious wounds and disease.

After passing through the initial medical inspection and delousing process, each prisoner received an identification number, which the POW's painted or sewed on their uniforms.  The Germans organized the POW ranks on a military basis. Allied non-commissioned officers assumed responsibility for discipline of enlisted men and reported to German officers.  By implementing a system of self-government within the prison compound, the Germans were able to reduce the number of guards and officers required to secure these facilities.  Later in the war, the Germans developed a trustee system, in which dependable prisoners assumed supervisory and limited guard roles.  Due to the demand for men at the front lines, the Germans also hired women to augment prison guard details.  The large number of Allied prisoners in Germany placed a serious drain on German manpower reserves to ensure prison security.

In terms of nutrition, the Germans sought to provide enough healthy food to keep prisoners in good physical shape.  The Allied blockade placed a tremendous strain on German food supplies and the Germans gradually reduced daily rations in prison camps over the course of the war.  The Germans, however, provided POW's with the same level of rations provided to German troops and civilians.  Using scientific methodology, the Germans designed a diet that met basic caloric needs.  With the large number of prisoners in camps, cooks had to resort to mass food production, primarily in the form of different kinds of soups.  German authorities also recognized that palates varied tremendously between nationalities and strived to meet those needs by serving appropriate meals whenever possible.  Most food was boiled in steam cookers, similar to systems found on ships, in a central kitchen in the majority of camps.  Normally, a chief German cook supervised meal preparation with the assistance of Allied prisoners.  POW's then marched to the central kitchen for their meals or appointed prisoners received barrack rations in small kettles, returned to their quarters with the hot food, and distributed the meals to their barrack companions.

Many prisoners had access to canteens or stores inside the prison compound where POW's could purchase additional food, tobacco, and clothing.  Some camps featured restaurants where prisoners could order meals à la carte.  For the vast majority of prisoners, food parcels significantly enhanced their diets and improved their standard of living.  Under international parcel post regulations, prisoners could receive parcels that weighed up to 22 and-a-half pounds.  There was no limitation on the number of parcels a prisoner could receive.  German camp inspectors had to search for contraband in these parcels, which often consisted of current newspapers with war news, weapons, or alcohol.  French and British prisoners received their parcels in six to twelve days, which allowed them to receive fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, cakes, and other delicacies.  American prisoners received an abundance of food and clothing supplies through the American Red Cross and from friends and relatives.  At the other extreme, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian prisoners received little support from home through parcel deliveries.  These countries simply lacked the resources to support their incarcerated troops and many East European prisoners had to resort to raiding garbage dumps to augment their meager rations.  Italian prisoners joined this group of indigent POWs after the Battle of Caporetto when the Italian government decided to cut off food parcels to Central Power prison camps because officials in Rome labeled these prisoners deserters.

The mail system in German prison camps was well organized.  The exchange of letters was critical for the mental health of prisoners and was their primary means of maintaining contact with home.  Prisoners could receive an unlimited number of letters, parcels, and money from friends and family.  On the other hand, POWs were limited to sending two letters of two pages from prison each week.  The limited number of German prison censors, who had to read each letter, dictated this limitation.  With lots of time on their hands, prisoners could easily overwhelm the censorship system if given the opportunity to send as many letters as they wished.  POWs also received money from home which they exchanged for prison camp script.  They could use this script to make purchases in the camp stores, canteens, or restaurants.  Prison script also undermined attempts by prisoners to finance escape attempts and limited their opportunity to bribe the guards.

Each prison camp also utilized vacant barrack space for a number of purposes.  Most prison camps had churches and/or synagogues for spiritual services.  Military chaplains from among the prisoners or clergy from outside the camp could perform divine services for prison camp inmates.  The Germans even constructed a mosque for Muslim prisoners at Zossen-Halbmondlager.  Prisoners also modified barracks into theaters which allowed them to produce plays, musical and theatrical performances, or host gymnastic events.  To promote physical fitness, the prisoners organized a variety of athletic leagues which included soccer, cricket, tennis, ice skating, field hockey, baseball, and dancing.  To help pass their time, prisoners developed their artistic talents, which included painting, sculpture, and handicrafts.  A wide range of education courses emerged in prison camps, ranging from basic literacy courses, to teach POW's to read and write, to university level courses.  Barracks often served as classrooms and housed libraries and reading rooms.  German authorities even permitted prisoners to publish their own newspapers inside prison camps in a variety of languages.  YMCA secretaries focused the War Prisoners' Aid program on assisting prisoners meet their spiritual, educational, physical, and social needs during their period of incarceration.

With the increasing demands of the war, the strain Allied prisoners placed on the economy, and the growing labor shortage, the Germans adopted a policy of utilizing Allied POW's in agriculture, industry, raw material extraction, state projects, and government projects.  Under the rules of the Hague Convention, the Germans could not employ Allied prisoners in work that directly supported the German war effort.  The Germans, however, could conscript Allied enlisted men and non-commissioned officers for labor detachments and provide them with wages for their labor.  Given the choice of marking time in a prison camp with little to do and gaining the opportunity to get outside camps and earn some money, a large number of prisoners accepted their assignment to Arbeitskommandos.  Most of the Russian prisoners, the majority with peasant backgrounds, worked on German farms and became instrumental in harvesting crops.  While they received little pay for their work, POW's on agricultural detachments enjoyed better diets, especially in relation to their normal prison camp fare.  French, Belgian, and British prisoners usually had better skills and training than their Russian comrades and worked in German factories for higher wages.  This additional income allowed prisoners to enhance their standard of living and made their incarceration experience easier to endure.

German Army Organization1

The German Army was considered to be the premier military force in Europe at the beginning of World War I.  With a peacetime strength of 840,000 men in 1914, it was one of the largest armies on the Continent.  As a result of the unification process and federal government system, the peacetime Imperial German Army was divided into four national armies: the Royal Prussian Army; the Royal Bavarian Army; the Royal Saxon Army; and the Royal Württemberger Army.  The respective kings commanded these forces and each government maintained its own Ministry of War.  There was a certain degree of linkage between the Prussian Army and the Saxon and Württemberger Armies, but the Royal Bavarian Army enjoyed the greatest latitude and independence of action.  However, once the German Empire declared war, all of these national units came under the direct command of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The peacetime Imperial German Army consisted of twenty-five corps, further divided into forty-eight infantry divisions, two guard divisions, and six Bavarian infantry divisions.  Each army corps was composed of two divisions.  Divisions varied in size, from two to three infantry brigades, with two infantry regiments assigned to each brigade.  Divisional strength was enhanced with a brigade of cavalry, a brigade of field artillery, a regiment of foot artillery, a regiment of Jäger, and a battalion of pioneers.  With the mobilization of the Imperial German Army, the wartime strength of the force was augmented by reserve army corps composed of reserve divisions, which almost doubled the size of the German Army.  In addition, units of the Landwehr, or National Guard, also prepared for combat, although many of these units took up administrative, garrison, and rear guard duties to replace first line units heading for combat.

From an administrative perspective, the German Empire was divided into twenty-four army corps districts.  Each corps had a headquarters within their respective region and became responsible for training new recruits, supporting medical facilities for wounded and sick troops, and supervising the prison camp system.  Most of the army corps districts were located in Prussia (eighteen), but three were organized in Bavaria, two in Saxony, and one in Württemberg.

While Kaiser Wilhelm II reigned as the Supreme War Lord of the Imperial German Army, responsibility for military strategy lay with the Chief of the General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger.  Moltke was the nephew of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who led the victorious Prussian Army in the German Wars of National Unification in the 1860's.  Moltke the Younger became the Chief of the General Staff in 1906 and served until September 1914.  The Chief of Staff was responsible for the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan, the pre-war battle plan developed by General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen by 1905.  Under the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans would hurl seven armies against France by attacking through neutral Belgium and Luxembourg.  The German plan aimed to capture Paris and destroy the French Army from the rear within the first four weeks of the conflict.  Leaving only one army in East Prussia to defend against the Russians, the Germans would quickly transport the bulk of their army from the West and prepare for a longer war against the Russians.  This plan presupposed that the Russians would take at least eight weeks to mobilize their forces, which required a lightning victory in the West to prevent a two front war.  General Erich von Falkenhayn became the Minister of War in 1913 and was responsible for the political development of the German Army.  The failure of Moltke to capture Paris and knock the French out of the war in September 1914, coupled with a faster than expected Russian mobilization, resulted in Moltke's early retirement.  Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Falkenhayn to the Chief of the General Staff position in September 1914.

In August 1914, the Imperial German Army was organized into eight independent armies.  The 1st Army was commanded by Colonel General Alexander von Kluck and was based in Stettin in Pomerania.  Colonel General Karl von Bülow commanded the 2nd Army, from the unit's headquarters in Hannover in the Prussian province of Hannover.  The 3rd Army was the Royal Saxon Army and it was commanded by Colonel General Max von Hausen.  The headquarters of this army was in Dresden, the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony.  Colonel General Herzog Albrecht von Württemberg commanded the 4th Army, which was based in Berlin.  Duke Albrecht became the heir to the throne in October 1917 upon the death of his father as the nephew of King Wilhelm II of Württemberg.  The 5th Army was based in Koblenz, in the Rhineland, and was commanded by Major General Kronprinz Wilhelm von Preussen, the oldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Crown Prince of the German Empire.  Colonel General Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern commanded the 6th Army, or Royal Bavarian Army, which was based in Munich.  Crown Prince Rupprecht was the oldest son of King Ludwig III of Bavaria and heir to the throne.  The 7th Army had its headquarters in Karlsruhe, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Baden, and was commanded by Colonel General Josias von Heeringen.  These seven armies launched the initial assault on Belgium, Luxembourg, and France in August 1914 in the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan.  The 8th Army was deployed in the east, tasked with defending East Prussia against a Russian invasion, with its headquarters in Posen, in the Prussian province of Posen.  Colonel General Max von Prittwitz und Gaffron commanded this army, but his panic in response to an invasion by two Russian armies in September 1914 led to his dismissal and replacement by Colonel General Paul von Hindenburg.

While the failure of the Schlieffen Plan effectively condemned Germany to a two front war, a dangerous situation compounded by an effective British naval blockade which denied the empire access to critical foodstuffs and raw materials, the Imperial German Army fought on for over four years. Instead of a fast and decisive conflict, as envisioned by the pre-war planners, the Great War became a war of attrition and evolved into the first total war of the 20th century. During the war, the Germans would acquire approximately 2.8 million Allied POWs, a process that added even more strains on the war economy.  The German Empire finally succumbed in November 1918 as the final German offensive on the Western Front had ground to a halt and the Allied Powers had assumed the offensive, a threat which resulted in the abdication of Wilhelm II and the new republic's decision to seek an armistice.


Note 1: Sources: Girard Lindsley McEntee. Military History of the World War: A Complete Account of the Campaigns on All Fronts. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, 10-15.  The German Army Handbook, Berlin, April 1918. back