2/8/1916 Germany and Austria-Hungary put their prisoners to work

The scale of the war engulfing Europe is unprecedented, with the numbers of men killed or injured dwarfing anything seen in previous conflicts. The belligerent nations have also captured large numbers of enemy prisoners, with Germany and Austria-Hungary in particular each holding around two million prisoners of war.

Because so many of their own men have been mobilised to fight, Germany and Austria-Hungary face an acute labour shortage. They partly attempts to address this by putting their prisoners to work. This is permitted by international law, provided the prisoners are engaged in military work. To their shame, both of the Central Powers do use prisoners in work details close to the front line (as do the Allies). But most working prisoners are deployed away from the front. Many prisoners find their way into factories and mines. The largest numbers of prisoners are sent to work on farms.

The shortage of agricultural labour is contributing to the food shortages the Central Powers are facing. Sending prisoners to work the land plays a vital role in maintaining any kind of food production. The use of prisoner labour proves remarkably successful. Most of the prisoners recognise that they are far better off on a farm than stuck down a mine or in an unhealthy PoW camp, so they work hard to retain their privileged position. Many of them come to be seen almost as members of the families they are working for.

Still, for all that the prisoners’ labour is vital for the maintenance of agricultural production, their presence provokes angst on the part of the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities and publics. With so many of their own men away at the front, might these prisoners become a little too intimate with the women they are working for? There is also the paranoid fear that the prisoners might respond to a secret message from home and stage an insurrection in the heartlands of Germany and Austria-Hungary. To guard against these threats, the authorities do their best to keep the prisoners under constant surveillance.

Britain does not face the same food crisis as the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, but mobilisation of the nation’s menfolk does mean that there is a shortage of labour on the land. The British too deploy prisoners of war to their farms, as the picture below of German prisoners and others on a farm shows.

image sources:

French prisoners of war on a farm in Westscheid (Wikipedia)

German prisoners with British farm hands (Everyday Lives in War; the photograph comes originally from the Imperial War Museum)

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