Regular readers will be well aware that I have long had an interest in the history of Prisoners of War – my own Granddad was one of them, after all. But when we think of POW’s, we tend to think of the Second World War, the Great Escape, Colditz, the Wooden Horse… along those lines.
But prisoners are taken in any war – what happened to British Soldiers captured in the First World War – and specifically, those from Portsmouth?
Its quite easy to find prisoners from 1914 to 1918 who died in German captivity. Unlike in the Second World War, when fighting took place in Germany, and the Bomber Offensive meant that airmen died and were buried i Germany, if a British servicemen died in Gerany between 1914 and is buried there, he would have been a Prisoner of War.
Private A.M. Cooper, 28 and from Stanley Road, Stamshaw, died on 22 January 1915. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment – a Regular Army unit – and was probably captured in the battles of 1914.
Corporal F.T.C. Ennis died on 15 December 1916. He is buried in Niederzwehren War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the first of the Portsmouth ‘Kitchener’ Battalions.
Lance Corporal G. Avis was also a member of the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 5 May 1917, and is also buried in Niederzwehren.
Private William Lonnon, 19, died on 24 June 1918. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery, and was a member of the 6th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment. He came from Worlds End, a small village near Hambledon, outside Portsmouth.
Private E.G. Barham, 20, came from Balfour Road in North End. He died on 13 September 1918, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He was serving with the 50th (Northumbrian) Signal Company of the Royal Engineers, providing signals support to the 50th Division. At this point in the war the Signals were still part of the Royal Engineers.
Private George Atkins, 28, died on 6 October 1918. He was serving with the 1/8th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He came from Tennyson Road in Copnor.
Notice how all but one of them were infantrymen. Almost always – but not exclusively – supporting troops were behind the lines, and might only have been captured in the event of a big attack or breakthrough, both rare things in the static warfare of the Eastern Front. This contrasts firmly with the Second World War, when all manner of troops were captured at Dunkirk, Singapore and Tobruk.
Niederzwehren was a major Prisoner of War camp in the First World War, near Kassel. After the war it was chosen as one of four sites where prisoners who had died in captivity were to be buried. As a result men who had been buried in Baden, Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse and Saxony were brought to Niederzwheren. There are 1,796 men buried or commemorated there.
We know a lot less about WW1 POW’s than their 1939-45 counterparts. But the Red Cross do have records of Prisoners, and perhaps there are some sources in the National Archives that might shed more light?