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Behind barbed wire

Collaboration to bring N.L. prisoners of war stories to light

special feature: Commemoration

Part of a special feature marking the centenary of the First World War and highlighting Memorial’s status as a living memorial that in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” This feature supports WW100, Memorial’s Commemoration Program.    


By Kristine Power

Some cut 12 tons of stone a day at quarries, while others toiled from 4 a.m. until 11 p.m. on farms.

One soldier describes being locked in a dark room with a window covered in bricks and a barrel by the door to use as a latrine.

During the course of the First World War, eight million servicemen and two million civilians were detained around the globe. There were roughly 182 Royal Newfoundland Regiment prisoners of war (POWs). Thirty-seven of those men died during captivity, most from injury and disease. They were miners and lumbermen, labourers and fishermen from towns and villages all across the province.

In total, there were about 300 German camps used to detain prisoners of war. Most camps consisted of rows of wooden huts measuring 10 by 50 metres and accommodated 250 prisoners; the huts were surrounded by barbed wire.

A German detention pen with Allied prisoners of war behind barbed wire.
A German detention pen with Allied prisoners of war behind barbed wire.
Photo: Library of Congress

Defeat and captivity

Stories of defeat and captivity have a quiet resonance in contrast to the narratives of wartime valour and triumph. Even the words themselves seem imbued with the complexity of war and aspects of shame, nationhood and the darkness of human nature.

Jessie Chisholm, an archivist with The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, and Dan Duda, a map librarian with the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University, are working together to shine some light on this chapter of Newfoundland’s First World War history, as well as share it with a wider audience. They are conducting the research outside of their regular jobs; it’s a personal interest that quickly developed into a full-time project.

“I think in Newfoundland a lot of the focus has been on Beaumont-Hamel and it’s been seen as almost the iconic symbol of Newfoundlanders in the First World War,” said Ms. Chisholm. “Almost all of the Newfoundland POWs were taken at Monchy-le-Preux or after, which would be April 14, 1917, to the end of the war, and so it doesn’t fall within the usual timeline of the First World War chronology in Newfoundland.”

Retaliatory measures

Most Newfoundland POWs were captured and imprisoned in German reprisal camps and suffered the consequences because of it. In 1917 Germany claimed that captured German soldiers were being deliberately used by the French and British armies as forced labour just behind front lines, putting them within range of German fire, which was in violation of the Hague Convention. In retaliation, Germany captured Allied soldiers and ignored the convention protections.

Prisoner of war Charles Snow's attestation papers. Pte. Snow, a fisherman from Harbour Grace, died on July 17, 1920, from "exhaustion brought on by neglect." He was 24.
Prisoner of war Charles Snow’s attestation papers. Pte. Snow, a fisherman from Harbour Grace, died on July 17, 1920, from “exhaustion brought on by neglect.” He was 24.
Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

Conditions and punishments for the POWs caught in this game of diplomatic posturing were extreme: starvation, punishment and isolation were the norm. Making matters worse, Germany was suffering shortages caused by an Allied blockade and a severe winter. Basic food necessities disappeared, along with rudimentary medical supplies like bandages and soap.

One POW, Private Joseph Harris, from Grand Bank, recollected, “The work was so heavy and hard that many of the prisoners used to inflict wounds on themselves in order to get clear of a day’s labour…”

Barbed wire disease

It was Swiss physician Adolf Lukas Vischer who first identified the psychiatric syndrome common among POWs, a result of long-term incarceration.

“One of the common things among most soldiers when they were released is that they wanted to get home as quickly as possible, so they often didn’t discuss at length their physical or emotion difficulties after demobilization.” –Jessie Chisholm

“In 1919, a major psychological study was done, titled Barbed Wire Disease, and those are the foundations of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Mr. Duda.

“One of the common things among most soldiers when they were released is that they wanted to get home as quickly as possible, so they often didn’t discuss at length their physical or emotion difficulties after demobilization,” said Ms. Chisholm. “So, when you look at the final page of their record, it seems as if everything is fine and that is held against them in later years when they have difficulties managing their way through life. The pension and compensation boards went back to those records and said, ‘You were fine.’”

Returning home

But they weren’t fine, according to Ms. Chisholm’s and Mr. Duda’s research. The letters written by POWs throughout the 1920s and ’30s reveal deep disillusionment with a country that either couldn’t afford to pay them fair compensation for their internment, or didn’t fully comprehend the price they paid and continued to live with. These letters, hearing the pleas in the soldiers’ own words, are the most touching, says Ms. Chisholm.

“At the time of my capture I was in good health and weighted 150 pounds and when I reached Newfoundland….only 100 pounds with all my heavy clothes on…” –Pte. Matthew Taylor

Private Matthew Taylor, from Rose Blanche, wrote about his POW experiences as a farm labourer:

“At the time of my capture I was in good health and weighted 150 pounds and when I reached Newfoundland….only 100 pounds with all my heavy clothes on… My occupation is cod fishing…when I get wet and cold the wounds swell and I am not able to do my work as my other ship mates.”

Pte. Taylor would receive a pension of $25 for only three months.

POW-specific database

Making these stories accessible to all is one of the goals of the pair’s research.

“We are working on a database that is specific to POWs,” Ms. Chisholm said. “What we also want to do is provide access to the original documents so that we have access to POW narratives. Another goal, which we haven’t started yet, is to do oral interviews with families who have stories of the impact of the POW experience on their own families.”

“We want to do more mapping of the camps in Germany, where these men were, and dates,” said Mr. Duda. “The numbers of Newfoundland POWs is small, but that makes it more important to recognize what these individuals went through.”


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