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

Appendix 14a

If I Were Captured by the Germans:
By an American Secretary Formerly in German Prison Camps

image This article appeared in For the Millions of Men Now Under Arms in November 1917 and The North American Student in January 1918 to help prepare American soldiers and their families for the possibility of capture. An unidentified American YMCA secretary, who had worked for the War Prisoners' Aid program in Germany wrote the piece, basing his advice on his own experience in German prison camps. The article summarizes camp rules and regulations and strives to offer soldiers tips to not only survive their potential captivity, but to make the most of their time to improve themselves.

The author first addresses the issue of POW correspondence. He recommended that new prisoners immediately send postcards to the International Red Cross and the World Alliance of YMCA's in Geneva. By registering with these organizations, the prisoner could begin to receive letters and packages from home and, more importantly, to inform their families of their condition. Prisoners enjoyed free franking privileges but were limited in the number of letters and postcards they could write each month. On the other hand, there were no limits to the amount of mail a prisoner could receive from friends and family. One important obstacle to correspondence, however, was the prison camp censor. Any information relating to the war or politics was strictly forbidden and letters could be held up in the censor's office for long periods of time. The secretary then described the kinds of letters he would like to receive to uplift his spirits if he were languishing in prison.

The parcel post system was also extremely important to the physical and spiritual well-being of war prisoners. POW's received food, clothing, books, family updates, photographs, hope, love, and endurance through parcels. By the beginning of February 1917, the Allied blockade had a significant impact on the food supply in Germany and food parcels significantly improved a prisoner's meager diet. French and British POW's received ample food shipments, which they shared with newly-arrived American prisoners who were not yet receiving parcels. Russian and Romanian prisoners faced real hardships because they received few food packages from home and subsisted on German food rations. A major problem prisoners faced was the frequent transfers between prison camps and labor detachments. The secretary recommended that prisoners immediately send post cards to the Red Cross and YMCA upon their arrival at new camps to ensure the prompt transfer of food parcels.

Battling the monotony of prison camp life was another challenge facing American POW's. The secretary recommended that prisoners make friends with German guards to improve their situation, but warned that fraternization was strongly discouraged by the camp authorities. He strongly encouraged future prisoners to find humor in their situation, by swapping jokes and stories. Participating in sports with whatever equipment was available or working in the theater were ways of passing one's time. Handicrafts were a pastime that many prisoners enjoyed and Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden held exhibitions of Allied prisoner crafts which were sold to support welfare relief for POW's in Germany. The secretary recommended that the greatest comfort to prisoners in Germany were books. They not only provided entertainment, POW's could study and improve their educations with the opportunity of finding better employment after the war. A problem in wartime Germany was government regulations against the exportation of money outside of the empire. This made it difficult for POW's to purchase books from neutral countries.

The secretary also discussed the advantages and problems of working in a labor detachment. He pointed out that work details ranged in size from five to five hundred men and most prisoners found "Arbeit Kommandos" a blessing because such work resulted in a break in the daily prison camp routine. On the other hand, POW's on work details did not always return to the main camp each night and therefore lost access to the prison library, theater, concerts, sporting events, and church services. This situation was mitigated, to a certain extent, by the YMCA circulating libraries and entertainment boxes which secretaries dispatched to labor detachments on a regular basis.

In the final analysis, the secretary underlined the importance of patience when dealing with the German military prison bureaucracy. It took time to register a prisoner, a pre-requisite which eventually led to the delivery of letters and parcels. Once a POW came into regular contact with his family and friends, the next step for the prisoner was to make the most of his time in prison through a variety of activities and to bide his time until the end of the war.

Appendices to Chapter 14:
Appendix 14a:
If I Were Captured by the Germans: By an American Secretary Formerly in German Prison Camps
Appendix 14b:


Note 1: "If I Were Captured by the Germans: By an American Secretary Formerly in German Prison Camps." For the Millions of Men Now Under Arms, 2, 1 November 1917, 3-8.