Prisoners of War

POW Chow line

The "chow line" at Villingen, Germany (POW Camp) US Air Force Photo

The following are stories from post war interviews with WW1 veterans:

James Thomas Ward, Co. B, 102nd Reg., Infantry, Decatur County, Indiana

Indianapolis Star

"James T. Ward of Letts, Indiana, says a book in his pocket stopped shrapnel.

"Held by Huns Six Months.

"Young man, who ate horse meat and cow beets is back in Indiana home.

"GREENSBURG, Indiana, May 4, James T. Ward of Letts, one of two Decatur County men captured by the Huns in the world war, has arrived home and told of six months spent in two prison camps at Laon and at Camp Rastatt.  He ate horse meat and cow beets once a day as prisoner at Laon.  Coffee made of acorns was the only breakfast given to the men and a cup of tea for supper, with sometimes soup for dessert.  At Camp Rastatt he fared better, but the food with unwholesome, and he lost flesh.  But for the fact the Red Cross sent food from Switzerland would have starved, he said.

"Ward enlisted in Paris, Illinois were he was employed with two other men.  The three remaining together, even going over the top, and all were captured. Ward was taken prisoner five days after entering the front lines, and for six months, he was in the Huns prisons, being released December 6, 1918.  He was wounded at the battle of Chateau-Thierry and taken prisoner.

"Bible Saves His Life: He said the German surgeon dressed his wound, inflicted by shrapnel in the chest, only twice.  Ward said that one of the steel particles struck a Bible in his inside pocket.  He said he could hardly walk when released Camp Rastatt.  He is apparently in good health now.  Ward stated that he received no letters while overseas, and learned when coming home his father had died while he was still in France.

"Frank Wilmer, another Decatur County boy, who was taken prisoner, was released the same time, but his division is not returned from France.

"After being released from prison, Ward went into Switzerland.  He was cared for by the Red Cross.  He has high praise for this organization and the Salvation Army.  He has one brother in the Marines was still overseas."

VanderburgCounty News June 1, 1918

George Norris Williams of Evansville of the 15th Field Artillery, missing since May 2 in France. His parents live at Henderson, Kentucky although young Williams had been working at the local Mercantile for years.

"Dear Mrs. Elliott:

In reply to your letter of the fifth asking for information concerning George Norris Williams.  He enlisted in Battery E., 15th Field Artillery, Regular Army in Evansville, Indiana on May 2, 1917.  Sailed for France, December 12, 1917. After two months of active service, was captured while on observation duty, by eight German soldiers disguised in French officer’s uniforms; on the night of May 2, 1918.  Was taken to Limburg, Germany but remained there only a short time; was transferred to many different camps.  It was from Darmstadt that he was released on December 8, 1918. After spending about seven months in various hospitals in France; he landed in Newport News, Virginia.  He received his discharged at Camp Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky.  He then returned to the home of his family in Henderson, Kentucky.  He is now in Evansville, Indiana.

Sincerely, his sister, Elizabeth Williams"

POWs - Captured US Engineers Captured US Engineers

National Archive Photo

courtesy of Indiana War Memorial Archives



Russell Caldwell Harrison, Private, Ambulance Corps, Tippecanoe County, Indiana

Entered service Aug. 1, 1917.  Stationed at Allentown, Pa. Sailed for France in May, 1918.  Was taken a prisoner by the Germans while in active service on the 28th of May, 1918.  Was in prison camp almost seven months. Through the kindness and efficiency of the Red Cross he was kept from starving until his release in the late fall of 1918.  Born at LaFayette, Ind., June 26, 1895, son of Mrs. Rose Harrison.  Home is LaFayette.Ind.

Excerpt from America's War For Humanity, 1919

German Maltreatment of Prisoners:

Prisoners set free under the terms of the armistice brought back tales of their almost unbelievably barbarous treatment in  German prison camps.  A correspondent, Philip Gibbs, describe some of them as living skeletons. Of one typical group he says "they were so thin and weak they could scarcely walk, and had dry skin through which their cheekbone stood out, and the look of men who had been buried and come to life again.  Many of them were covered with  blotches.  'It was six months of starvation,' said one young man who was a mere wreck. They told me food was so scarce and they were tortured with hunger so vile that some of them had a sort of dropsy and swelled up horribly, and died.  After they left the prison camp they were so weak and ill they can hardly hobble along; and some of them died on the way back, at the very threshold of a new life on this side of the line."

George Swenson, Pvt., Army, Howard County, Indiana

Served in France and was taken prisoner to Germany early in the war. He was only 21 years of age, but when he was released after the armistice that he was said to look as old as a man of 50 years. He claimed the prison horrors were indescribable.

German Prisoners of War

"America's Freedom" photos

German Prisoners

German POWs


Harry Frederick Gortemiller, Ripley County, Indiana

“On the 20th day of September we broke through the Hindenburg line and opened the road to final victory.  On that day we took Bellicourt and Nauroy and sustained the desperate struggle for Bony.  After that day, through three weeks of almost continuous fighting, we advanced from one success to another, capturing several thousand prisoners and many guns and took Preurant, Busigny, Vaux-Andigny, St. Souplet and Mazingheim.”

David Persfield Freeman, Pfc., Co. K, 3rd Infantry, Grant County, Indiana

Received 6 Divisional citations for bravery in action.


  1. Cantigny April 25 through July 7, 1918
  2. Soissons Operations
  3. Marne Counteroffensive June
  4. Sazerais Sector August 7-25
  5. St. Mihiel September
  6. Argonne-Meuse October 1-12
  7. Operation against Mouzon November 5-6
  8. Sedan November 7-8


  1. High explosive shrapnel wound in right hip, Soissons, 7/9/1918
  2. Mustard gas 9/6/1918
  3. Trench knife wound in left cheek 5/28/1918
  4. Chlorine gas 5/25/1918
  5. Hospitalized at base hospital #20; Field hospital #12; Camp Hospital #44 and Vanderbilt hospital in Paris France, for shrapnel gas and trench knife wound
  6. “In Soissons operations, was taken prisoner by Germans while doing night patrol and held for one day and a half. Released by advancing American troops.
  7. While in dressing station #2, it was held by German aviators, 26 wounded men being killed. The rest, with myself, narrowly escaped death.”

POW tunnel

Drawing of an attempted escape attempt through a tunnel. Details unknown  Freedom's Triumph photo



The following is an exercpt from America's War for the Humanity, 1918.


The prisoner of war has been a conspicuous figure in the news that has come from the seething caldron of Europe.  Many thousands of prisoners have been taken from the contending armies by their adversaries. For them the average American reader, perusing 'Svar news" in the comfort of his security from the great conflict, has felt perhaps a grain of  sorrow and wondered vaguely what horrors befell them after capture.

Early in September the German war department sent broadcast a statement that 30,000 Eussians had been taken prisoners by the German soldiers after heavy battles in East Prussia, particularly around Ortelsburg, Hohenstein and Tannenburg. The statement mentioned the fact that among the prisoners were many Russian officers of high rank.

What is done with these prisoners, how they are handled and treated and whether high officials are punished more severely than mere privates, are questions frequently asked and seldom answered, for the procedure followed in such matters is but little known.


The international laws of warfare, embodied in The Hague conventions, the Geneva convention and the declaration of
London, contain provisions that provide expressly what manner of treatment shall be accorded prisoners of hostile nations
who are taken in battle. If these provisions of international law are lived up to, the lot of the prisoner of war is not so hard
as many people have been led to believe.

After the first year of the war, however, stories of ill treatment of prisoners in German prison camps began to be told, and before long there were many well-authenticated cases of the kind. Inhuman treatment was reported by English and Canadian prisoners, and protests were duly made by the British government through neutral channels. The growing shortage of food in Germany was alleged as the cause of some of the complaints, but cases of actual brutality, involving cowardly physical abuse and even killing were also reported. The nation which captures its enemy's soldiers and makes prisoners of them is held entirely responsible


for whatever happens and shoulders at once a responsibility that is commensurate with the number of prisoners who are
taken and detained.

The law of warfare says that a prisoner must be as fair with his captors as they are with him. He must be "humanely treated," so it is prescribed, and when he is questioned by his captors he must give his true name arid the rank he holds in the army which has been defeated and of which he was once a part. Contrary to general belief, he is not stripped of  "every-
thing" and thrown into a dungeon and fed on a crust of bread and a mug of stale water. His captors do not deprive him of
his personal possessions, except weapons, horses and military papers.

Furthermore, they must give him complete religious liberty, and it is specifically decreed that he must be given opportunity to attend a church of the denomination to which he belongs. And there he may pray as much for the success of his own nation or the much-desired relief from detention as the state of his mind dictates.


The prisoner of war may be interned in a town or a fort, or even a camp, according to the convenience of his captors, but the enemy may not confine him, except, the law says, as an indispensable measure of safety," and then only as long as the circumstances make it necessary. Of course the law gives the commanding officer considerable leeway in such matters,
for he is left to determine when the *' indispensable" occasion arises.

At other times when the prisoner is at liberty, he is subject to all the rules and regulations of the army of the government that captured him, and if he refuses to obey the rules or acts in an insubordinate manner toward the officers in command, he may be punished and disciplined according to his offense. And here it is again left to the discretion of his captors as to what measure of punishment shall be inflicted upon him.


If a prisoner of war attempts to escape and his captors are vigilant to the extent of retaking him before he leaves the territory they occupy, or before he has a chance to rejoin his own


army, he may be severely punished. On the other hand, if he eludes his captors and makes a clean getaway and his army is again unfortunate, and he is captured the second time, the perfectly good escape from previous captivity must go unpunished and he must be treated as a prisoner of war, just as though he had not made the successful dash for liberty and further glory.

The government that holds prisoners of war is chargeable with their maintenance and must provide them with food, clothing and shelter as good as that provided for its own troops. The officers of the captors are required to keep records of all the prisoners under their charge, and if relief societies, which have been extensively formed by the women of Europe and
many American women as well, wish to minister to their needs and comforts, the officers in command must afford them every
possible facility. And if the friends of prisoners or the welfare societies see fit to send them presents and clothing, medicine and other necessities, such goods must be admitted to them free of any war duty that might be imposed by the nation holding them, and the railroads owned by the government are bound to carry such supplies free of transportation charges.


Prisoners of war may be put to work by the government that captures them and the duties must be assigned with a view to their aptitude, fitness and rank. The tasks must not be unduly severe, so as to border on cruelty, and they must have no bearing whatever on the operations of the war. The prisoners must be paid for the work they do, moreover, at a rate equal
to that being paid to the soldiers of the national army, and prisoners may be authorized to work for the public service,
for private persons or on their own account.

The wages of these prisoners, the law says, must go toward improving their condition, and the balance must be paid them
after their release, with the proper deduction for their board and keep. "When officers of hostile armies who are captured
are put to work they must get the same wage rate as is paid to the corresponding officers of the government whose captives
they are. All these moneys must be ultimately refunded by their own governments to their captors after the war is over,


peace is declared and the intricate problems of indemnities come up for solution.

A prisoner of war may even be paroled by his captors, and this is done sometimes when he is disabled or there are circumstances that prompt his enemies to let him go to those who are near and dear to him. When parole is granted to a prisoner he makes a solemn pledge and promise that he will live up to the terms under which he is released, and even his own nation may not ask him to perform a service that is inconsistent with that pledge.


It goes hard with the prisoner on parole who is caught fighting against the nation that released him, for he is not entitled to be treated as a prisoner of war, and the judgment meted out to him is as terrible as it is sure. Certain codes of honor are supposed to be observed even in international warfare, and a soldier who breaks his word of honor is considered the most despicable of men.



Indiana War Memorials