A black and white photograph of Austrian or Hungarian prisoners behind a barbed wire fence during World War I, on view in “Captured” (from the service of [collected by] Lt. Eddie Schedill, Signal Corps, 9th Field Battalion)
Nearly 9 million people were prisoners of war around the globe from 1914 through 1918 during World War I. That staggering number is equivalent to the current population of New York City. The Great War is the first modern war where mankind faced the daunting conundrum of mass incarceration as a result of warfare. The exhibit “Captured” explores the personal stories, historical accounts and conditions that prisoners and guards endured in far-flung locales.
Technological innovation in the Second Industrial Revolution preceded and contributed to the war’s massive scale. Items such as barbed wire, invented in the U.S. to enclose animals in pastures, became a weapon easily mass-produced and implemented in battle. For example, by July 1916 Germany had shipped 7,000 tons of barbed wire a week to the Western front. Combatants used barbed wire to not only establish dividing lines, but to build enclosures for prisoners. A stark black-and-white photograph depicts Austrian or Hungarian prisoners standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind a barbed wire fence while exposed to the elements.
Artillery, machine guns and poison gas were also produced in huge volume. These weapons enabled opposing forces to fight and capture prisoners on an unprecedented scale.
But “Captured” doesn’t dwell on the machinery of war. Rather, the exhibit triumphs by unveiling humanity’s darkness and hopefulness in wartime. The intertwined experiences of people on both sides of barriers are complex — humane and heartwarming, brutal and bleak — against the backdrop of mass incarceration.
Soldiers fought battles in Southeast Asia, the Western front of Europe, the Siberian tundra and other theaters. Prisoners and guards shared a mutually dysfunctional relationship under looming clouds of uncertainty. Daily conditions of war were naturally unpredictable. More to the point, armed forces and nations needed to develop methods to manage mundane yet essential functions in response to the war’s scale and long-term span. For instance, how to feed and ensure sanitation for large populations in remote sites without the infrastructure of cities and towns?
The quality and availability of daily food rations varied among countries throughout the war. Prisoners of war employed on farms and rural camps gained easier access to food for nutrition and survival. Germany and Austria-Hungary struggled to produce basic meals, resorting to meager soup and poor-quality bread. In response, families sent packages filled with homemade provisions to provide additional sustenance. A sophisticated network of parcel systems shipped supplies to soldiers in distant lands with differing results.
Often staffed by women, humanitarian organizations formed to protect human rights. They developed and refined approaches to professional reporting, record keeping and information sharing to update families about individual prisoners.
Camps adopted quarantine practices for newly taken prisoners, reducing the likelihood of spreading malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid and other deadly illnesses that could quickly decimate captive populations. Military and diplomatic leaders devised additional conditions for the humane treatment of long-term prisoners.
The close proximity of men from different races, religions, languages and cultures during captivity led to unanticipated outcomes. Soldiers from different nations taught each other their native tongue and they formed friendships. Military bands assembled in camps to entertain others. POW German soldier August Christian Voigt cobbled a handmade violin from scrap supplies given to him by French camp guards. Artists used charcoal and paint to illustrate forlorn soldiers packed into spaces like cattle as well as pointed caricatures.
Private First Class Curtiney George Foote’s limited palette and deft brushwork in watercolor illustrates American prisoners cleaning the streets of Nozen. While imprisoned in a German camp, Sidney Christopher Hugh Milgate of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade crafted fanciful handmade dioramas in walnut shells. One imaginative scene shows a sailing vessel while the other displays a lighthouse coastal scene.
“Captured” examines how World War I changed captivity and inspired the modern prisoner-of-war system. These methods included control and surveillance of civilians, designated as internees, who were held in camps unprotected by international law. The exhibit prompts reflection on contemporary war and ongoing conflict, a reminder of how humanity becomes captive to its own limitations.
“Captured” continues at The National WWI Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Drive, through April 30. Visit www.theworldwar.org/captured.