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

Media Index


Russian and Romanian prisoners of war assemble in a German prison camp compound. Note that some of the men are wearing rags on their feet instead of boots, despite the cold.
George Morelle, a member of the French Academy, drew this picture of a dejected young French soldier in a German prison camp. Morelle, also a prisoner, was a well known artist in France before the war.
A dejected Russian prisoner of war stands in a German prison camp with an apparent hand wound. Prisoners had a great deal of time with few diversions and the indefinite length of their incarceration further undermined their spirits.
A soccer team in an unidentified German prison camp poses for this photograph with a German non-commissioned officer. The prisoners formed sports leagues in prison camps which gave the POWs an activity which provided entertainment and kept men physically fit.
English, Scottish, and French prisoners pour over books and journals in the YMCA Reading Room in an unidentified German prison camp. The facility is crowded with patrons as literature helped the prisoners mentally escape from the confines of the prison camp.
French, British, and Russian prisoners of war pack the YMCA reading room in Goettingen. To maximize space, there are no tables to make sure that as many prisoners as possible can be accommodated in the reading room.
Russian prisoners of war, with their hats in their hands, carry a cross and the casket of a comrade along the barbed-wire fence outside of a German prison camp en route to the prison cemetery.
A prisoner of war delivers a lecture as the class of prisoners carefully take notes in the YMCA hall. A Red Triangle secretary reported that the building had two classrooms and that prisoners filled both rooms for 125 hours of instruction each week.
These three photographs depict the prosthesis donated by the American YMCA to help severely wounded prisoners regain some of their abilities after losing limbs. By providing state-of-the-art prostheses, the Association sought to help these unfortunates learn new trades so they could support their families after the war and not become a burden on society.
Three Russian prisoners at Worms demonstrate their artificial legs that they received in prison. Many POW's arrived from military hospitals without limbs and the Germans, with the aid of charitable organizations such as the YMCA, provided these unfortunates with modern prosthetics.
Portraits of a Hungarian officer, left, who was imprisoned in an unidentified Russian POW camp in Siberia, and a Russian staff officer, right, who have committed their lives after the war to working with the YMCA. The Association had a significant impact on the lives of soldiers and POW's who received Red Triangle services during the war. They saw the organization as a vital post-war social program for their countries.
A Belgian prisoner of war peruses the bookshelves in the Flemish library at Goettingen. The library is well stocked with furniture and pictures decorate the wall. The YMCA made every effort to obtain books for POW's in a wide range of languages.
Prisoners of war dry their clothing in the prison compound at Goettingen in front of the YMCA hall (the building with the steeple). Several groups of men sit on benches outside of the Red Triangle building while a Landstrum sentry marches on guard duty. The YMCA became the center of the prison camp's social life during the war.
Dr. Carl Stange was a faculty member at the University of Goettingen and organized education classes for Allied POW's at Goettingen during World War I.
Passport photograph of Archibald C. Harte (1865-1946); he gained access to German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian prison camps for the American YMCA and became the General Secretary in Europe for War Prisoners' Aid operations.
A Russian Orthodox priest conducts an outdoor service in the prison compound at Crossen-an-der-Oder in front of the YMCA buidling. The German authorities gave the Russians special permission to pray for the health of the Russian imperial family for this occasion.
An older Christian Phildius (d. 1937), World's Alliance of YMCA's General Secretary from 1896 to 1922, poses between two "sailors" in this photograph.
Newly arrived Russian prisoners of war at an unidentified German prison camp receive instruction in German bugle calls. The Russians stand behind barbed-wire while a German bugler, to the right, demonstrates various signals. The Russian in the center of the photo probably is an interpreter for his comrades. Bugle calls woke prisoners up in the morning, called them to parade or dinner, and ended the prisoners' day.
German officers give the non-commissioned officers the password for the day for distribution to the sentries at the prison camp at Guben. Security was a major priority at prison camps and guards would shoot if a challenge was not met with the correct countersign.
A rabbi leads a Jewish choir composed of Russian prisoners outside their barrack in the prison camp at Crossen-an-der-Oder. The congregation had access to vestments and other religious articles to support religious services in the camp.
Photograph of the official delegation which attended the inauguration of the first American YMCA hall in a German prison camp. Dignitaries attending the celebration included Dr. Carl Stange of the University of Goettingen (standing in the front row from left to right), Ambassador James W. Gerard of the United States, and Colonel Bogen (commandant of the prison camp). Archibald C. Harte, the American YMCA representative, stands in the front row to the right.
The prison camp orchestra, composed of British, French, and Russian musicians, pose for a group photograph with their musical instruments at the prison camp at Goettingen. The orchestra performed at the dedication of the new YMCA hall in 1915.
Representatives of the prisoners of war incarcerated at Goettingen stand in front of the new YMCA hall. The building is festively decorated with pine garlands for the inauguration and the Red Triangle symbol is mounted over the door.
English prisoners of war assemble in front of the new YMCA Hall at Goettingen for a group photograph.
A large group of French and Belgian prisoners of war pose for a photograph in the prison camp compound at Goettingen.
Russian prisoners of war at the prison camp at Goettingen pose for a photograph in front of the new YMCA hall just opened in the camp. The Association Hall was the first American constructed facility in any of the prison camps of Europe.
Drawing of the interior of an internees' room at the Ruhleben prison camp. Three internees lived in a horse box inside of the stables of the race track. Internees were free to acquire property to improve their standard of living.
British interrnees could participate in a full orchestra in the prison camp at Ruhleben. Among the prisoners there were a number of accomplished musicians and composers. Concerts provided by the orchestra provided the camp population with a diversion from their problems and homesickness.
This publicity poster was part of a campaign to raise $150,000 from college students in the United States in support of the War Prisoners' Aid effort. These funds would pay for WPA secretaries, huts, games, medicine, warm clothing, booklets, text books, and extra food for the 5.5 million young men in one hundred prison camps scattered across Europe. The poster shows a college student sitting in an easy chair, smoking a pipe, and reading a newspaper while a German sentry guards thousands of Allied prisoners in the snow. The poster also features student life in Europe on the left side, fighting in the army, and student life in America, enjoying life to the fullest.
The German Ministry of War assigned this camp visitation permit to Archibald C. Harte on March 25, 1915 and the permit was countersigned by the commandant of Crossen-an-der-Oder and his adjutant. Harte visited a number of German prison camps in March and April 1915 to investigate conditions and explain how the American YMCA could provide programs which would benefit Allied prisoners of war. In comparison to the printed visitation permits Harte received at Cassel and Goettingen, this permit is of much poorer quality.
Russian prisoners participate in a Greek Orthodox divine service on the dock near the prison camp at Danzig. A German steamship is tied to the pier behind the prisoners. Prisoners at Danzig worked in labor detachments in this major German port.
French and Belgian officers pose with their instruments for this photograph from Halle. The prisoners have formed a string orchestra consisting of violins, cellos, and an organ and their music sits on metal music stands. There are cartoons pinned to the wall in preparation for a future production.
Recuperating prisoners of war stand outside of the hosptial chapel at the prison camp in Darmstadt. Catholic nuns operated the hospital at the prison camp.
Drawing of Prince Max of Baden (1867-1929), German Imperial Chancellor from October 4 to November 9, 1918.
Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig (1868-1937) strongly supported the establishment of American YMCA WPA operations for Allied POW's in Germany early in the war.
A group of newly arrived French North African colonial troops stand in the prison compound at Giessen. According to the caption for the photograph, these colonial troops arrived in the prison on October 9, 1915.
A group of six French prisoners of war pose for a picture in the compound yard at Wetzlar. This photograph affords a view of the barracks in this camp. One of the French prisoners (identified by his uniform and boots) is wearing a Russian Cossack hat.
A French officer tasts the day's soup in the camp kitchen at Limburg, as Russian and German cooks prepare for the distribution of the meal to the prisoners. Feeding all of the men in a prison camp on a daily basis was a massive undertaking in spite of wartime food shortages.
During their lengthy incarceration, British internees had the opportunity to attend classes in the prison camp at Ruhleben. This was the English class room. University students could resume their college courses by taking classes at Ruhleben.
British internees exercised self-government during their incarceration at Ruhleben, which included the election of camp administrators. This drawing shows a variety of election campaign posters at the bill-posting station in the prison camp.
Marshall M. Bartholomew (1885-1978) was an American YMCA WPA Secretary in Germany and Russia during World War I. This photograph appeared in his newspaper obituary in 1978.
A thriving commercial district emerged on the infield of the race track at Ruhleben. This drawing shows Bond Street, which featured Ye Olde Pond Shops--the canteen, outfitters, and the police station.
French prisoners of war take advantage of the reading room in the YMCA hall at Goettingen. They can read books or magazines for pleasure or in preparation for courses. The Association sought to make every man's experience in prison a rewarding one.
This drawing shows the "Bird Cage," a building near the tea house which housed pro-German British civilians. They lived segregated from the other prisoners in the camp at Ruhleben because of their political sympathies. The German government considered these men enemy aliens, although many spent most of their lives in Germany.
French prisoners work in the Parcel Post Office in the prison camp at Friedrichsfeld under the supervision of German non-commissioned officers. The POW's log in packages in preparation for their distribution to the inmates. Business in the office appears to be brisk given the large number of parcels on the shelves and stacked on the floor.
The prison camp at Ruhleben had a very active athletic program, which helped internees pass their time and kept them physically fit. This drawing shows several internees taking their lives in their hands as they walk along the race track amid a variety of games in progress. The strollers are assaulted by other internees playing cricket, field hockey, soccer, golf, and even baseball (Canadian players).
This was the YMCA program for Holy Week activities in the prison camp at Ruhleben in March 1918. In addition to Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday divine services, the Association promoted a theatrical production, Mary Magadelene, and the Ruhleben Horticultural Society's Spring Flower Show.
Pastor Charles Correvon served the French Church in Frankfurt am Main at the beginning of the war and worked with the World's Alliance of YMCA's among Allied POW's in Germany. Pastor Correvon is preaching to the prisoners from an outdoor pulpit.
British internees had the opportunity to perform experiments in the physical lab in the Ruhleben prison camp. They could perform experiments for class, conduct medical tests, or undertake their own scientific research in this laboratory.
The YMCA Physical Culture Association presented an Assault at Arms in the prison camp in Ruhleben. This program included a punching bag demonstration and a number of wrestling, fencing, and boxing matches.
Russian and French patients in the lazeret at Friedrichsfeld peel a basket of potatoes outside in the hospital courtyard. Preparing daily rations was a major undertaking in German prison camps.
The YMCA encouraged civilian internees at Ruhleben to plant gardens outside their barracks to improve the appearance of the camp and to give the prisoners projects to help them pass their idle time while in captivity. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society provided prizes to the best garden in this April 1917 competition.
This is a view of the altar in the prison chapel at Ruhleben. The altar is well-decorated with an altar cloth, two sets of candlebra, a cross, and a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. The altar is decorated with plants and flowers.
Prisoners of war at Friedrichsfeld display their handicraft work at an exposition. Their work includes drawings, paintings, model airplanes and ships, the Eifel Tower, toys, chests, a violin, and a wide range of other projects. Prisoners often made some money by selling their handicrafts when these expositions traveled to neutral countries.
The barrack captains in the prison camp at Ruhleben sent out this Christmas-New Year's card, decorated with a holly branch, to other civilian internees inside the facility. The card commemorates their first holiday in the prison camp, in December 1914, and three more holidays would pass before the repatriation of many of these men.
Bishop Herbert Bury (1861-1933) was the Anglican Bishop of Northern and Central Europe during the First World War and worked to improve the conditions for British POW's in Germany. Bishop Bury stands to the right, in the white coat, next to the car he used to tour Russian Central Asia shortly before the war.
View of the barges and barracks at the north end of the prison camp at Danzig on the Vistula River. Prisoners unload planks from barges tied to the docks near the prison camp. The Germans housed some Allied POW's in the barges on the river bank.
This program marked the official opening of the YMCA hall in the Ruhleben prison camp on December 24, 1915. The Association dedicated the new facility at a particularly depressing time of the year for interned civilians. They were far from their families during the Yuletide season and the YMCA sought to inject some holiday spirit into their weary lives.
A cricket team prepares for a match on the pitch on the infield of the race track at Ruhleben. One of the grand stands can be seen in the back of the photograph.
Russian prisoners participate in the dedication of a memorial to fallen comrades at the cemetery outside the prison camp at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. A monument stands to the rights, surrounded by four white poles, topped with wreathes. A Russian Orthodox priest and several ministers lead the bareheaded soldiers in a prayer of remembrance.
Photograph of an older King George V of Great Britain (1865-1936), who ruled from 1910 to 1936.
This photograph shows the interior of the Roman Catholic chapel at Muenster III, including the altar, organ, communion rail, and confession box. Access to a priest and church services provided the prisoners with considerable spiritual comfort during their prison ordeal.
Official portrait of Queen Mary of Great Britain (1867-1953) supported relief programs for British and Commonwealth troops, including prisoners of war in Germany, during the First World War.
Exterior view of the new Association building in Crossen-an-der-Oder recently completed by POW laborers. The YMCA hut became the center of social, educational, and spiritual activities in the prison camp. Note the imperial German flag flying above the building.
British internees wait outside the parcel post office window to pick up a package from their family or a friend. The Germans had to inspect the parcels for contraband before turning the packages over to the prisoners.
This photograph provides a general view of the prison camp at Crossen-an-der-Oder in 1915 at the opening of the YMCA building in this camp. The photo shows the main gate to the camp, the central watch tower, and the various buildings that composed the facility.
This was the cover of the Christmas 1916 edition of The Ruhleben Camp Magazine. A harlequin and his dog sit in their prison room on top of an American Express box with pen in hand. Two cornucopias spew out parcels and the margins show the internees involved in a wide range of activities. The two articles featured in this 50 Pfennige journal are "Fun and Spandau" and "The Fashionable Tailors."
The prison orchestra at Goettingen rehearses a work in the camp theater. This prison enjoyed a large orchestra and the YMCA provided many of the musical instruments. The orchestra provided concerts, supported theatrical productions, and played at religious services. The signs near the ceiling warn the prisoners not to smoke in English and French (a necessary precaution in a crowded prison) and not to climb in the rafters.
British prisoners produced these Christmas cards in December 1915 with the Doeberitz sailor telling Father Time to get a move on, a reference to the long anticipated end of the war. Prisoners could send these cards home to their friends and families.
A winter view of the monument that French prisoners of war at Rennbahn designed and constructed in memorial to Allied POW's who died at Muenster II. The commandant arranged for free photographs of individual graves to be sent to family members through the camp's British Help Committee.
The English prisoners of war produced a number of theatrical performances in the theater at Goettingen. In this photograph, four "couples," which include four "young ladies," promenade outdoors.
William H. Lawall volunteered to serve as an American YMCA WPA Secretary in Germany on behalf of Allied POW's during World War I. Lawall is wearing civilian clothing, standing in the back of a hospital ward at Czersk.
This photograph shows the cast of the Jack Harris Pierrot Troupe on stage on the theater at Rennbahn (Muenster II), which served as the basis for the British Social Club. A Pierrot is a character in French pantomine who dressed in a white floppy outfit. The performing troupe included two "ladies" from the prison camp.
Prisoners of war are engaged in their homework studying for classes in the prison camp at Goettingen, while Professor Carl Stange observes at the left. The study hall is packed with prisoners reading, writing, and honing the skills they will use in their work after they are repatriated.
Claus Olandt served as an American YMCA WPA Secretary in Germany from 1915 to 1917; he is standing between two associates in this photograph.
French prisoners of war at Duelmen line up in the morning under the scrutiny of German non-commissioned officers as they prepare to march off to work. The photograph also shows some of the wooden barracks in the prison camp.
The YMCA provided musical instruments which allowed Allied POW's to form bands and orchestras in prison. Access to instruments gave skilled musicians the opportunity to continue practicing for post-war performances and concerts improved the morale of the general camp population. The band at Muenster is performing an afternoon concert in the prison compound.
Prisoner libraries manage the circulating library for French and Belgian POW's at Ohrdruf. Although the book collection is small, the vast majority of books are in circulation among the prison's population since books offered one of the few mental diversions available in prison camps.
A group of French and Belgian POW's stand outside the church in Sennelager II under a very light German guard.
This photograph illustrates another view of the French library collection at Ohrdruf. The American YMCA provided a large number of books and pre-war magazines to stock the libraries of prison camps across Germany.
Nine members of the stringed orchestra at Ohrdruf pose for this photograph. The American YMCA shipped musical instruments to prison camps as part of the Association's social program. Access to instruments permitted musicians the opportunity to maintain their talent in preparation for post-war employment and the music performed by the orchestras and bands in prison concerts helped boost the morale of the prison population in general.
View of the new YMCA hall constructed at the prison camp at Darmstadt before the building's official inauguration. Prisoners stand at attention outside of the main entrance of the facility.
This photograph shows the exterior of the YMCA hall at the prison camp at Frankfurt an der Oder. The POW's constructed the building and it became the center of the camp's social life. The facility was also used for divine services.
Allied prisoners of war, German military staff, and YMCA officials stand outside of the new Association hall in Darmstadt. The building is decorated with pine garlands to commemorate the event.
This Jewish synagoge was located in the prison camp at Frankfurt-an-der Oder. While modest in size, the synagogue has an altar, the Talmud, and some decorations as well as several tables and benches for Scripture study and worship services.
Pastor Correvon conducts an outdoor religious service for French Protestant prisoners at Darmstadt. He visited Protestant prisoners in the prison facilities around Frankfurt-am-Main and worked closely with the World's Alliance of YMCA's in Geneva.
For entertainment and to keep in shape, athletic matches became popular at the prison camp at Darmstadt. These French POW's are playing soccer on the athletic field at the camp.
Russian weavers display their handicrafts, which include baskets, wicker furniture, and toys, outside of their workshop at Cottbs.
American YMCA Certificate of Identity for J. Gustav White (1881-1979), an American YMCA secretary who served with the WPA in Germany from 1916 to 1917; he then transferred to Geneva where he became the Education Secretary for the World's Alliance of YMCA's.
Russian prisoners stand inside their barrack in the prison camp at Cottbus in this Red Cross post card. The barrack is extremely crowded as prisoners sleep in triple-tiered bunk beds. This camp suffered a typhus epidemic and the cramped conditions undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the disease.
A young Russian prisoner of war salutes the photographer in the compound of an unidentified German prison camp. The large numbers of boys among the Russian prisoners became a major concern for the YMCA during the war. Secretaries strove to make sure that the boys were safe and received educations while they waited for repatriation.