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


Portait of Edgar MacNaughten (1882-1933), the American YMCA Senior WPA Secretary in Austria-Hungary from 1916 to 1917; MacNaughten became the Senior American Navy Secretary in 1918.
Archduke Franz Salvator of Austria-Tuscany (1863-1939) agreed to serve as the Honorary President of the War Prisoners' Aid Committee for Allied POW's in the Dual Monarchy during World War I. The archduke stands on the right, next German General von Linsingen at a railroad siding.
Italian prisoners, probably captured during the Isonzo campaign in 1915, march under Austrian guard into captivity in the Dual Monarchy.
Reverend Louis P. Penningroth (1888-1973) volunteered to serve Allied POW's in Austria-Hungary as a WPA Secretary during World War I; in 1917, he transferred to Russia to conduct army work. This photograph appeared in his obituary.
Large numbers of Russian prisoners of war march along a road with a light Austrian guard. By 1917, plummeting Russian military morale resulted in large scale surrenders to Central Power units. Note the woman marching with the column to the left. She may be following her husband or a relative.
Official photograph of Tsarina Alexandra of Russia (1872-1918).
As Austrian guards look on, a Serbian prisoner purchases a loaf of bread from a woman on the street. The Serbian prisoners would continue to find it difficult to obtain bread even after they reached their prison camp due to the effectiveness of the Allied blockade.
Portait of John R. Mott (1865-1955), General Secretary of the International Committee of the American YMCA from 1915 and General Secretary of the World's Committee of the World's Alliance in 1926. This photograph was taken in preparation for the 40th International Committee Convention in Detroit in November 1919.
The Forwarding Department of the War Prisoners' Aid program forwarded parcels from families and friends to prisoners of war. This office was located in the World's Alliance headquarters in Geneva.
A group of Russian POW clerks work under the supervision of Austrian non-commissioned officers (they are wearing their caps) in the camp's Record Office. This office was administrative center of the prison camp since these records kept track of all the prisoners incarcerated in the facility.
An unidentified WPA secretary poses with a group of ten Russian prisoners of war in an unknown Austrian prison camp. These men may have been members of the YMCA Welfare Committee which oversaw welfare activities in the prison camp.
Austrian officials and officers join Russian (to the left) and Serbian (to the right) prisoners for the opening of the James Stokes Hut at Braunau-in-Boehmen, the first Association building for POW's in the Dual Monarchy. Professor Witz-Oberlin, the Secretary-General of the Austrian YMCA, stands in the center of the photograph (he is the bare-headed civilian), while Christian Phildius, a Secretary-General of the World's Committee in Geneva, stands at the angle of the walk (he is in civilian clothing and top hat). Note that the Russian and Serbian prisoners wear identification badges on their caps.
The YMCA helped boy prisoners in the prison camp at Braunau-in-Boehmen to learn to read and write in this classroom. The Association persuaded Austrian authorities to concentrate Russian and Serbian boys in the Austrian prison camp system at Braunau so they could receive better treatement and the opportunity to gain an education to make them better men.
These boys are participating in a math class, as suggested by the abacus on the table, in a Dual Monarchy prison camp. Association secretaries urged the Austro-Hungarian authorities to segregate young boys from the main POW populations and concentrate them in prisons with schools.
Boy prisoners at the Braunau-in-Boehmen prison camp receive dinners of soup from the wooden barrels in the camp compound. Serbian prisoners ladle out their dinners under the supervision of an Austrian NCO. The Association made special efforts to persuade Austrian authorities to concentrate boy prisoners in this camp.
A bird's eye view of the prison camp at Wieselburg from the town with the countryside in the background.
Russian prisoners stand outside the gaily decorated YMCA building, which is festooned with strings of garland, during the inauguration ceremony in the prison camp at Sopronnyek. Hungarian officers stand in the foreground on the right hand sice and an official delegation, led by His Excellency, M. de Sjilessy, the Privy Councilor of the Emperor-King. The Association hut became the center of social activities in most prison camps during World War I.
General view of the prison camp at Spratzern, probably taken from the water tower or an observation post. Russian prisoners (37,000 in this prison camp alone) mill about the year between the barracks. In the background one can see the surrounding mountains.
Russian prisoners stand in front of the YMCA building in the prison camp at Spratzern. The building and the flag pole are decorated with garlands, possibly for Christmas celebrations.
Russian prisoners pose for a photograph on the stage in the theater at Wieselburg. They are standing in front of an arbor scene.
This marks the official inauguration of the YMCA building in the prison camp in Wieselburg in 1916. Austrian officers and a visiting delegation stand in the center of the prison compound and Russian POW's stand at attention along the perimeter. The prison band is assembled on the perimeter to the left side of the photo. Wieselburg had over 5,000 permanently disabled prisoners in its ranks.
Russian prisoners leave the theater barrack after an afternoon performance. By the smiles on their faces, most of the men appear to have enjoyed the show. The YMCA provided theatrical costumes, props, and play scripts to improve the morale in camps through entertainment.
The medical staff at Wieselburg lined up outside of the hospital ward for this photograph. The staff includes both Austrian and Russian doctors, orderlies, and sanitary personnel. Health care was a critical priority in prison camps since the outbreak of an epidemic would have devastating consequences for the POW population.
This was the interior of the hospital ward at Wieselburg, a barrack which featured freshly-made beds, extra blankets, and a clean environment. The Austrian medical staff stands in the middle of the photograph and another ward can be seen through the door in the back of the room.
View of the cemetery memorial dedication ceremony at Wieselburg from the top of the hill. The distinctive prison camp watch tower can be seen in the background to the right; the town stands in the background to the left. A number of Austrian civilians stand outside of the cemetery fence paying their respects.
Russian prisoners sit on in one of the classrooms of the YMCA building at Wieselburg with an unidentified YMCA secretary (in civilian clothing) standing in the middle of the room. The photo was taken from the back of the room, which was decorated with garland in the rafters, probably for Christmas celebrations. The classroom is equipped with a large chaukboard and maps. In the insert, another Association secretary stands next to two boys in the prison camp with small chaukboards in their hands. The YMCA took a special interest in protecting and educating these young prisoners.
Russian prisoners stand bare-headed in the prison compound at Purgstall during a Christmas celebration during the dedication of the new Association hall in January 1917. A group of Austrian officers stand to the left, next to the POW choir. The YMCA hall is decorated with garland and a large Christmas tree. On the platform by the door stands a WPA secretary, probably Edgar MacNaughten, and the camp commandant.
After the YMCA building inauguration and Christmas service at Purgstall, the Austrian officers and visitors stop for a photograph. The visitors included Austrian Baron von Haitin, the Swedish minister to Austria-Hungary; His Excellency Berks-Fries, Charge d'Affairs; Leche; Pastor Neander (a YMCA secretary); and Edgar MacNaughten, the Senior WPA Secretary for Austria-Hungary. Russian prisoners look on the scene from the background.
This outdoor ceremony marks the official inauguration of the YMCA building in the prison camp at Hart. Russian prisoners join Austrian officers and an American YMCA secretary, Edgar MacNaughten (the Senior WPA Secetary for Austria-Hungary), in opening the decorated hall.
A prisoner of war works in an Association library in an unidentified Austrian prison camp. Books and journal articles provided critical mental diversions for men incarcerated behind barbed-wire. Reading was not only a pastime; prisoners could read about technical and professional issues to improve their employability after the war and better support their families.
Amos A. Ebersole volunteered to serve as an American YMCA WPA Secretary in Austria-Hungary during World War I and resumed WPA work in Narva in 1920, which led to the development of the Estonian National YMCA.
Russian prisoners enjoy the YMCA Reading Room at Braunau-am-Inn, which featured a wide selection of books, journals, and newspapers. Two prisoners are engaged in a game of dominoes on the front table and a gramophone stands in the back of the room. The prisoners decorated the room with garlands along the rafters.
The stringed orchestra performs during the Christmas service in the YMCA building in Braunau-am-Inn in 1916. Note the extensive decorations in the building which include garland, paper chains, pine boughs, and a large, decorated Christmas tree behind the stage. There are Christmas presents on the floor to the right of the stage, near a phonograph. Association secretaries went to great lengths to provide POW's with Christmas cheer at a time when many prisoners suffered from depression and home sickness.
American YMCA Secretary Bryant Ryall distributes bags of presents, bread, and a Christmas tree to Serbian boy prisoners at Braunau-am-Inn. Russian and Serbian prisoners observe this activity. The YMCA focused a great deal of attention on these boys and sought to make the Christmas season a joyous occasion.
Frederic Courtland Penfield (1855-1922) was the United States ambassador to Austria-Hungary from 1913 to 1917, when the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with the Dual Monarchy.
These three Italian prisoners are recovering from wounds or illnesses and are outdoors, enjoying the fresh air at Mauthausen.
A Roman Catholic priest blesses a sick or wounded prisoner in the hospital ward at Mauthausen (he may be offering last rites). The Italians argued that the Austrians provided insufficient medical attention to Italian sick and wounded in prison camps.
In this primitive drawing, probably produced by a POW, three badly wounded prisoners on crutches walk past some of the barracks at Mauthausen.
Raymond Reitzel volunteered to serve as an American YMCA WPA Secretary in Hungary in 1917; with the severance of diplomatic relations with Vienna, Reitzel transferred to wrok in Russia with soldiers and POW's. Reitzel is working on a book at his desk long after his WPA service in World War I.
Prisoners of war constructed this church in an unidentified Austrian prison camp. Note the fine wood-work on the side of the building, the steeple, and the flower boxes under the windows. Churches provided POW's with spiritual relief during their captivity.
View of the Allied patients in a hospital ward in an unidentified Austrian prison. Red Triangle secretaries visited these unfortunates to bring them spiritual and mental relief during their recovery process. Association workers provided Bibles and spiritual tracts, stationery, books, and gramophones for entertainment.
An unidentified WPA secretary (in the center in civilian clothing) poses with a group of Russian prisoners of war in an unknown Austrian prison camp. These men were most likely involved with the camp's YMCA Welfare Committee and worked closely with the YMCA secretary.
Photograph of a classroom of Muslim Serb prisoners at Boldogasszonyfa learning to read and write under YMCA administration. The Red Triangle stressed education as the best means to promote citizenship and better economic standards among illiterate prisoners; the Austro-Hungarian government promoted the instruction of native languages among minority prisoners to weaken imperial bonds in Eastern Europe.
A group of Italian and Russian prisoners enter the officer's section of the prison camp at Dunaszerdahley. Note the stack of firewood to the right of the entrance; POW's collected this wood for fuel for the camp.
Serbian prisoners assemble in the prison compound at Nagymegyer on their day off. A band, standing to the right at the front of the assembled men, prepares to play. Hungarian officers and NCO's stand in the foreground and one can see the one-story wooden barracks in the background.
Anthony Chez was an American WPA secretary who worked in Hungary and Bohemia from 1916 to 1917 in the Dual Monarchy. When the U.S. government severed diplomatic relations with Austria-Hungary in April 1917, Chez transferred to France and worked with Polish and Czech POW's in Allied propaganda camps. After the war, Chez volunteered to serve with the Czechoslovak Legion fighting in Siberia.
A group of Italian prisoners of war at Heinrichsgruen pose for a photograph for a YMCA secretary. These POW's appear to be cheerful and in good health.
This is a frame photograph from a cinematographic film of German prison camps. The photo shows a Russian Cossack prisoner. It may have come from one of Archibald Harte's films of German prison camps.
Portrait photograph of a Tatar prisoner of war who had served in the tsarist army.
Portrait of a Russian prisoner of war from Georgia in a German prison camp.
Several Christmas trees stand on a platforms in the prison compound at Theresienstadt, probably outside of the YMCA building. The prisoners have decorated the trees with paper chains and ornaments. On the right hand side of the platfom sits an accordion, which will bring music into the camp.
A view of the prison camp at Josefstadt from a hill overlooking the facility. The white wooden barracks and prison fence are clearly seen in this photograph.
Three Russian prisoners pray on their knees before the altar in the chapel at the prison camp in Millowitz. The altar is decorated with paintings of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus (to the left), Christ (to the right), and the Last Supper (on the top) and there are two Orthodox crosses on the pillars of the room. The chapel is also decorated for Christmas--two small Christmas trees flank the altar and there is garland hanging from the rafters.
General view of the officer's prison camp at Reichenberg. The Austrians housed Russian prisoners in a four-story hotel amid pine wooded hills, although the building is surrounded by barbed-wire. As in most armies, officers received far superior accommodations in relation to enlisted men, especially in prison.
Partial view of the prison camp at Groedig showing the wooden barracks and the hills in the background. Many prisoners took advantage of the sunny weather to dry their clothes on the walls of the barracks and to sit or walk around the compound.
The opening of the Tea Room of the Association hut is well attended by Russian prisoners at Groedig. While POW's purchase their tea at the window on the left, a prisoner band serrenades the patrons in the rear of the room to the right. The tea room is also equipped with a gramophone to provide entertainment when the band is not playing.
Russian prisoners line up for their meal outside the camp kitchen at Reichenberg and await the order from the Austrian non-commissioned officer for the soup distribution to begin.
The Russian prisoners in Reichenberg display the contents of the recreation chest they just received from the YMCA War Prisoners' Aid organization in Vienna. Each chest held games (Tambola, dominoes, chess, checkers, and Mensch aergere dich nicht), musical instruments (accordions and harmonicas), books, and Russian Orthodox crosses. An unidentified Association secretary, in the civilian clothing and wearing the C.V.J.M. armband), poses with the Russian prisoners. The YMCA committee in the prison camp then sent these recreation chests to POW's working outside of the camp in Arbeitskommandos.
Photograph of a Serbian stringed orchestra, which included a brass, woodwind, and percussion section, during a performance in the camp compound in an unidentified Austrian prison camp. The YMCA provided prisoners with musical instrumetns to support religious services and provide entertainment to the general prison population.
A student recites his lesson for the school master in this unidentified prison camp school. Red Triangle secretaries convinced Austro-Hungarian officials to segregate boys from the main POW populations and establish schools to educate them. YMCA secretaries helped to organize and supervise these schools. The Association's goal was to educate these boys and make them prosperous citizens in the new post-war Europe.
This is an interesting photo montage showing the town of Siegmundsherberg on the bottom and a general view of the prison camp on the top. The photograph shows the prison camp compound, the barracks, and the hills surrounding the facility.
Serbian prisoners of war captured by Austrian troops fall into formation to march to the railroad station for transportation to a Dual Monarchy prison camp.
After crossing a railroad bridge from Serbia, the Austrians load these Serbian prisoners of war on to a ferry for transport to an Austro-Hungarian prison camp. In addition to the POW's, the ferry carries rails and wooden ties for railroad bed construction.