Prisoners of War and Internees in the Extra European Theatres of the First World War.


I propose to investigate the treatment of Prisoners of War and Internees in the Extra-European Theatre of the First World War, in order to find if the conditions in these camps fit into the paradigm of brutalisation that is associated with POW and Internment camps, not just of the First World War, but also the Twentieth Century itself. Research into Prisoner of War and Civilian Internee camps has until the last 10 years or so, starting with Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Beckerfs work, been an overlooked and almost forgotten aspect of the gUrkatastropheh that was the Great War.[1]  Considering as the historian Alon Rachamimov notes that almost one in eight of veterans who re-entered civilian society after the war had been taken prisoner, not to mention the countless numbers of peoples who found themselves displaced, interned or exiled, this is a huge gap in the historiography of the First World War and also in our understanding of developments from 1918 onwards.[2] My thesis proposes to investigate how Internee and POW camps were managed in the areas outside the European continent. The Great War was a global conflict but one tends to forget this, as the memory of the brutality in the trenches of Western Europe tends to take centre stage in any account of the conflict.  Outside Europe is of course quite a broad area. I will look at the camp systems and treatment of German POWs from the former German colonies of Togoland, Cameroon, German South West Africa, Samoa, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, Micronesia and Tsingtao.  This will be a vital contribution to the historiography of the war as a global conflict: the treatment of POWs and Internees under International law and will also provide valuable insight into how the captives and captured viewed the war in terms of nationalist sentiment, racial attitudes, class and how over the course of captivity they viewed their enemy, as well as their own government.


Rachamimov attributes the lack of research into First World War prisoners of war partly to the shame of those taken prisoner.[3]  In the post war era, books like All Quiet on the Western Front emphasized combatant violence rather than capture. Most of the popular German literature focused on heroic deeds and gallant struggle, such as Ernst Jungerfs Storm of Steel.  Being taken prisoner did not fit into this idea.  The inter-war years were of course the period of great ideologies in Europe; again being taken prisoner did not fit in with the idea of sacrificing oneself for the Fatherland, the World Socialist Movement and so on.  From this point, it is important to look at how POWs saw themselves in terms of nationalism during the war.  Of course most German soldiers were proud to fight for the Kaiser, but years in captivity on a different continent may have eroded that fervour.  One sees especially with those POWs in Japan who spent virtually the whole war in captivity, a sense of despondency and isolation forming.[4] The apparent inability of the German government to repatriate them shifted their focus from Fatherland to what the historian Matthew Stibbe has described as gthe Imagined Communityh of the camp.[5]  POWs returned to a Germany far different from the colonial empire they remembered; rather than smiling faces most POWs were greeted by outstretched hungry hands when they arrived back in the early 1920s.  This shift and disillusionment, coupled with the poverty of Germany itself, enticed many POWs not to return at all and remain in the lands of their captors or seek their fortunes elsewhere as many did by joining the Dutch Army in Indonesia after the war.[6]


For my Masterfs thesis at LSE, which was published in Japan in December 2009, I analysed the treatment of German and Austro-Hungarian POWs in Japan.  During the research for this thesis, I uncovered many interesting insights into how German and Japanese soldiers and officers viewed one another.  Japan is an interesting case as most of the Japanese camp commanders had received extensive military training in Germany or along German lines and were now in charge of their supposed superiors.  Christian Koller has noted the impact of race in the recruitment of troops from the colonies for combat in Europe from the perspective of the authorities and of the soldiers themselves. Race is a vital aspect in the historiography of the camp and internee systems and it is fascinating to find how German officers reacted to being in the hands of a non-white race. The displeasure, anger, and propaganda coup caused by the placement of German soldiers under native Senegalese guards in the French colonies and the deployment of Senegalese and other colonial regiments in the actual fighting itself caused a sensation in Germany.[7] One German officer, interned in Egypt was appalled to note that the Belgians were using gCannibalsh to do their fighting for them.[8]  This paradigm of race is important as well as many negative images of African soldiers, there was also a marked respect from German officers towards those whom they had fought alongside.  Ideas of race also became important in Japan: the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was after all the period of Yellow- Peril paranoia. The German POWsf views of their Japanese captors express the various aspects of these views quite clearly, first the image of the strong Asian barbarian, which morphed over the course of internment to an image of the quaint Oriental. From Japan, it also worth investigating how German attitudes towards the British helped shape their opinions on the Japanese and as mentioned how the Japanese connections with Germany and their own attitude to the war and international relations affected their treatment of their captives. During the course of my Ph.D. research, I will look in more detail at aspects of race in treatment of POWs, for example the separation of native Germans from their colonial comrades in arms in camps in Egypt and of course images of race in Japan.


Rachamimovfs book POWfs and the Great War analyses the treatment of POWs through the auspices of international law and humanitarian aid agencies, a tool of analysis, which as Stibbe points out has been most gfruitfulh.[9]  For my masterfs thesis, I also focused on this approach, looking at how international agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and German firms operating from Tokyo and Tienstin intervened to ensure proper treatment of prisoners.  Also from this aspect one can see the essential role of neutral governments, such as that of the USA, before its entry into the war and to a lesser extent Spain, who worked on behalf of Berlin to ensure safe and humane treatment of its citizens and soldiers in Japan.  Within this area of international law under The Hague treaties one finds a codified class system in respect to rules regarding treatment of officers versus those concerning ordinary soldiers.  Richard Speedfs work has been influential in putting forward the idea, supported by Rachamimov, that in practice gentlemanly culture and norms continued towards captives within the camps during the course of the war.[10]  This is certainly true of camps within Europe where as Stibbe remarks about Ruhleben, the arrival of the Eton neck tie in care packages went hand in hand with the establishment of class norms within the camp itself.[11]  Although POWs shared the experience of camp life, their conditions were markedly different in relation to their rank and social status.  I propose to investigate if this class system was able to hold up in camps that were far away from the major metropolises of Europe. Firstly camps in Africa were not as readily able to receive mail as those in Europe depriving POWs of a vital life line in terms of support and extra supplies from home; sometimes when care packages did arrive most of the foodstuffs within had spoiled or had been pilfered on route. The issue of gentlemanly conduct along class lines is quite an outstanding difference between captivity in World War One and other major conflicts of the Twentieth Century. It is difficult to imagine the indignation the German officer, Major Klee had to suffer when he was forced to share a room with a fellow officer, as there was not enough room at his camp for separate quarters.[12] If this seems trite or banal, it is only a testimony to the governments of the time and their respect and adherence to international law.


Prisoner of war and internee studies are a vital and too often overlooked aspect of the First World War.  Without proper research into this area it is impossible to understand the complexity and totality of the Great War. This also holds true for our understanding of the development of prison and internment camps from the late Nineteenth Century, such as during the Cuban War right through to camps being used in modern warfare in the Twenty-First Century.  With my research into POWs and internees in the Extra-European theatre of World War One, I will fill a huge gap in our understanding of the Great War as a global conflict and perceptions of class and race in the early twentieth century.


In researching this proposal I consulted with and received approval from Professor David Stevenson, one of my previous teachers at LSE and an expert on The First World War.  I also received invaluable advice and support from Dr. Heather Jones in the International History Department of the LSE.  Dr. Jones has written extensively on Prisoner of War studies in the First World War.  On the Japanese angle of my studies I received some advice and help from Professor David Nish, a former Professor at LSE and a renowned expert on Japanese history.




[1] Audoin-Rouzeau, Stephane and Becker, Annette, Understanding the Great War (Hill and Wang, New York) 2002 p.70

[2] Rachamimov, Alon, POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front (Berg 2002, New York) p. 2

[3] Ibid, p.226

[4] Gunther, Dierk, Β“‡νƒhƒCƒc•Ί˜Ψ—ΈŽϋ—eŠŒ€‹†‰ο‘ζŽ΅† (Tsingtao-War German Prisoners Research Society Journal no.7) ”Β“ŒŽϋ—eŠ‚Ι‚¨‚―‚ιˆ€‘Žε‹`‚ƍ‘ˆŽε‹` (Patriotism and Nationalism in the Bando Prison Camp) (Tsingtao German Prisoners Research Society Journal 2009, Japan) p.46

[5] Stibbe, Matthew, British Civilian Internees in Germany (The Ruhleben Camp, 1914-18) (Manchester University Press 2008, UK) p.4

[6] Die Heimfahrt pp. 43-47 (Published by returning German Priosners of War on board the gHofuku Maruh 1920)

[7] Stibbe Matthew (Ed.), Captivity, Forced Labour and Forced Migration in Europe during the First World War (Routledge 2009, USA) p.123

[8] Weiland, Hans and Kern, Leopold In Feindeshand: Die Gefangenscahft im Weltkriege in Einzeldarstellungen Vol II (Vienna) 1931 p.105

[9] Stibbe, Matthew, British Civilian Internees in Germany (The Ruhleben Camp, 1914-18) (Manchester University Press 2008, UK) p10

[10] Speed, Richard, Prisoners, Diplomats and the Great War (Greenwood 1990, USA)

[11] Stibbe Matthew (Ed.), Captivity, Forced Labour and Forced Migration in Europe during the First World War (Routledge 2009, USA) p.56

[12] Welles Sumner Report on Prisoner of War Camps in Japan US department of state records 9763.72114/1491 (1916)