Les prisonniers de guerre français 1914-1918
French soldiers who fell into enemy hands were interned in the occupied zone, Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria and other countries. They were forced to do hard labour and endured harsh conditions. Civilians taken hostage were detained in France and Belgium or sent to Germany.
In enemy countries On 18 October 1907, 44 countries signed the Hague convention spelling out governments' responsibilities towards prisoners of war in terms of the internment method, discipline, work, pay, mail, repatriation, etc. The convention was in force when war broke out in August 1914. When German armies invaded France, Belgium and Luxembourg, they captured many French soldiers, often wounded, during fighting in open countryside or when fortified cities, such as Maubeuge (40,000 prisoners), Longwy and Lille, surrendered.
In the war's early months France did not know the prisoners' exact fate. It gradually emerged from letters that slipped past the censors and the first captives who managed to escape. Representatives from neutral countries, such as Spain, and from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva visited the camps. German military regulations did not really settle the prisoners' fate. Each camp had its own rules. Troops received harsh treatment, whereas officers were slightly better off. In 1915 the worst camps were in Lechfeld, Minden and Niederzwehren, where there was no heat or beds and little health care or food.
In 1915 l916 a special detention centre in Zoss, the Crescent camp, held Muslim prisoners, including 200 Moroccans, 500 Tunisians, 2,500 Algerians, Tartars from the Russian army and Indians from the British army, whom enemy propaganda urged to join the Turkish army. In February 1917, 2,450 men from this camp left for occupied Rumania to perform agricultural labour. Overcrowding contributed to outbreaks of tuberculosis and flea-borne typhus epidemics in the camps. In 1915 typhus devastated camps in Wittenberg and Kassel (2,000 dead). In 1918 the Spanish flu killed many prisoners. In late 1915 the prisoners' hardship and suffering prompted the French government to issue protests through neutral countries and threaten reprisals against German prisoners. Germany responded by cutting the Allied prisoners' food rations, reducing their mail and sending some to harsher special camps in Lithuania.
By 1916 some 300,000 Frenchmen were in captivity. Most, except officers, were forced to do agricultural or factory labour. Over 30,000 worked in the Krupp factories in Essen. Exhausting conditions, brutality and insufficient food often proved lethal.
French prisoners in Turkey and Bulgaria endured similar hardships. In 1915-1916 the embassies of the United States and, later, the Netherlands, joined their efforts to help Frenchmen interned in the Ottoman Empire. A charity group in Lyon, the Comité de Secours aux corps expéditionnaires d'Orient, was specially created to look after their interests. The Dutch embassy in Sofia provided assistance in Bulgaria. In 1917 the camps' effective population in Germany dwindled. Some 12,000 prisoners left the Sprottau camp in detachments; just 1,000 stayed behind, carrying out day-to-day tasks or awaiting transfer. Some camps were closed.
The Berne accords of late 1917, which took effect in March 1918, and the new agreement of 26 April, which entered into force on 15 May, improved the prisoners' daily lives. Some clauses in the armistice of 11 November 1918 affected prisoners: their repatriation had to be immediate and non-reciprocal. By then there were 477,800 living French prisoners, who were repatriated by sea or rail. General Dupont's French mission went to Germany to settle repatriation issues. It was all over by January 1919. Only the bodies of prisoners who had died in captivity remained on the other side of the Rhine. On 28 February 1922 the government gave prisoners who had lost their lives in captivity the status of "Died for France", making them equal to their brothers-in-arms killed in action. In Switzerland In 1915 talks between the belligerents and Neutrals focused on the possibility of interning prisoners in two camps in Switzerland. Germany decided to try the experiment after entreaties from the Vatican, Spain's King Alphonse XIII and the International Red Cross. The agreement was signed on 15 January 1916 and the first convoys reached Switzerland on 26 January. By 1 August, under the responsibility of the Swiss doctor Colonel Hauser, 11,689 French soldiers and civilians as well as 3,629 Germans found themselves interned in Switzerland in more satisfactory conditions.
By 1 January 1918, 10,734 French soldiers and 1,392 civilians were interned in Geneva, Lausanne, Aigle Leysin, Montreux, Fribourg, Berne, Lucerne, Interlaken and other places, most as convalescents. The occupied zones As early as 1914 the German army kept some prisoners behind its front lines to work on roads, especially blasting the tunnel in Montmédy (Meuse) intended to re-establish the Lille Metz rail link. In 1916-1917 French prisoners mostly worked behind the Verdun, Aisne and Champagne fronts. Many died of disease in makeshift hospitals set up in occupied France and Belgium or annexed Alsace Lorraine. Approximately 4,000 prisoners died in France's enemy-occupied zone.
The Germans rounded up civilian men and women, sometimes with their children, in Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Douai, Laon and Saint Quentin, taking them hostage and interning them in France and Belgium or sending them to camps in Celle, Merseburg, Niederzwehren, Langensalza, Grafenwôhr, Altengrabow, Quedlinburg, Erfurt, Rastatt, Gustrow, etc. in Germany. Their estimated number is put at 180,000. Thirty thousand died in captivity and lie buried, like soldiers, near their places of detention. The Germans systematically plundered the departments they occupied and considered the population (2,125,000 people) as "human equipment". They were counted, robbed of all their belongings, controlled and turned into a reservoir of hostages and labour from which the Imperial Germany army drew without mercy.
Conscripted by force, columns of workers left for the rear of the front, where they toiled on roads and built railways. Under threat of reprisals and death, they were forced to work against their own country. On 3 April 1916 the imperial GHQ set up the ZAB (Zivilarbeiterbataillon, civilian labour battalion), where men between the ages of 14 and 60 were forced to do hard labour. In 1917 the Germans transferred women from 15 to 45 years old to the armies' zone for labour. Men in the ZAB wore red armbands with the three initials and were subjected to harsh discipline. Like military prisoners of war, they were underfed, beaten and punished. Hardheads were sent to the disciplinary company to mine iron ore in Longwy or to the Sedan penal colony. The Sedan penal colony, an "imperial concentration camp of prisoners punished with forced labour", received inmates convicted of rebellion, escape, sabotage, disobedience, non payment of fines, etc. The population, around 600 prisoners, was constantly being replenished due to deaths caused by the hellish work they did 12 to 15 hours a day on starvation rations and under appalling conditions. When the survivors were released after the Armistice, they weighed 30 to 40kg. The penal colony's commander and several guards were on the list of war criminals demanded by the Allies that was drawn up after the Treaty of Versailles.
The list included the name of Dr. Michelsohn, a major who headed Effry "hospital", an empty, disaffected, unheated factory in the Aisne. Up to 1,600 patients from the ZAB and prison camps endured ghastly conditions there, receiving neither medical care nor food. They died at an average rate of five to six a day in summer, 20 or 30 in winter. A German court in Leipzig acquitted the criminals in the early 1920s. Just after the Great War the French government created a medal for civilian prisoners, deportees and hostages. When the status of internee and deportee was created after the Second World War, it was extended to the victims of similar measures taken between 1914 and 1918.