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Violent reprisals on the Western Front

How the Germans used violence against prisoners of war to their tactical advantage in the First World War

On 5 January 1917, Germany delivered an ultimatum to France that it must withdraw all German prisoner of war labourers to 30 kilometres behind the front or Germany would retaliate.

The treatment of German prisoners who had fallen into French and British hands and were being set to work in appalling conditions behind enemy lines had become of serious concern to the German High Command. Prisoners were, for example, working under shell fire on the Verdun battlefield, building railway lines to the front.

On January 16, the German government announced that the French government had not replied to its request within the stipulated time and, within days, the German High Command issued a reprisal order. So began the 'spring reprisals' – a series of brutal reprisals against British and French prisoners of war.

According to Dr Heather Jones from the Department of International History these collective reprisals can be seen as part of the process of the totalization of warfare that occurred in the First World War. They were a new form of violence and expanded wartime violence beyond established combat patterns.

barbed wireThe German order read that all newly captured French prisoners, and then later also British prisoners, would be kept behind German lines with no shelter, very little food and working in terrible conditions. They could be employed in exhausting work without any restrictions, including transport of munitions and fortification work under enemy fire.

Dr Jones explains the tactical nature of the violence: 'This terrible treatment is interesting because it was intended to be very public. Prisoners on reprisals were encouraged to write home to their families, friends and anyone in a position of power explaining what was happening to them, to ask people at home to put pressure on their governments to treat their German prisoners of war better.

'The Germans knew that France and Britain were democratic countries and, as such, their governments were very vulnerable to public opinion. This violence was not irrational or indiscriminate, but carefully directed towards obtaining a particular goal'.

Hundreds of letters from the reprisal prisoners began to arrive at family homes in Britain and France, at the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Vatican, the Australian High Commission in London and the Canadian High Commission.

The emotional charge of such letters proved too much for the French government and on 27 March 1917 it told the commander in chief that the cabinet had ordered that all German prisoners be withdrawn to 30 kilometres behind French lines. The British were initially angered that the French did not consult them before agreeing to the German demand but soon followed suit. 

Once this information reached Germany the reprisals effectively ended and all the British and French prisoners were removed from the German front line to the agreed distance by the beginning of June. As a result of the reprisals, for the rest of the war Britain and France did not employ German prisoners within 30 kilometres of the front; Germany however went on to break the 30 km agreement in 1918.

The toll on the soldiers who had been 'on reprisals' was heavy. One British prisoner who saw 260 French prisoners arriving back to a camp in Germany after the spring reprisals wrote in his diary: 'May I never behold again such specimens of humanity. With hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, their clothes hanging on them like sacks, torn and filthy, starved into semi-insanity.'

'The Hague Convention of 1907 invented the idea of certain standards of prisoner treatment being applied across the board. But when you actually get into the war, the situation changes,' says Dr Jones. 'States very quickly adopted the idea of reprisals because they no longer had any faith in the international law system. With the development of enmity and the idea that the enemy could not be trusted so reprisals became the default position and became seen, actually, as a very effective way of ensuring that the other side treated your men well.'

However, by comparing the British, French and German armies' use of prisoner labour, Dr Jones challenges the idea that reprisals, as part of the move towards total war, were inevitable or unlimited

She says: 'The French civilian government was able to rein in the military escalation of forced labour in 1917. However, in Germany you don't get this response because the civilian government was never as strong. In fact many politicians in the Reichstag actually supported the spring reprisals. Only the socialists dissented and even their objections were limited They argued it should be officers, not rank and file soldiers – their class brethren if you like – that should be subjected to reprisals.' 

The reprisals do illustrate a process of brutalization of attitudes – a key factor which drives totalization, argues Dr Jones. They changed the culturally constructed perceptions of what constituted acceptable violence against prisoners in the German army.

Dr Jones says: 'That ruthlessness you see in 1917 in the reprisal sequence, actually becomes the norm in the German army by 1918. Starved of resources and in difficulty because of the British blockade, the German army was unable to provide rations for its forced labourers and conditions became worse and worse for them.

'The idea that you can force a man to work while you can't feed him becomes acceptable. It's not something that would have been considered a norm in pre-war Germany and it is not something that would have been considered a norm even in 1914 Germany. So this brutality is a shift. The French also treat prisoner labourers at Verdun very badly, but they do change their policy after 1917. In the German case they don't change their overall policy, it just gets worse.'


Useful links

The German Spring Reprisals of 1917: Prisoners of War and the Violence of the Western Front|, German History Vol 26, No 3 by Dr Heather Jones

Dr Jones discusses her research in a short film: A very modern action: the spring reprisals of 1917|

For more information about Heather Jones and her work visit her entry in the LSE Experts Directory: Dr Heather Jones|