This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Prisoners of Königsbrück

12 January 2019

They were probably the first to arrive.
Begrudging passengers on trains
where the language spoken on the trip out
was now a very different language on the return.

They were put to work digging in sandy soil
building their own camp.
It was hard work but at least 
construction was better than destruction. 

They were Russian and French soldiers,
captives of the war, 1914-1918,

and incarcerated at a German military prison camp
in Königsbrück, Saxony.

Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria
by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy, 1920
Source: Internet Archive

The first postcard image is of a train with Russian soldiers looking out the carriage windows  at a large block of German armed servicemen, probably a Saxony state police force, on the train platform. The caption reads:

Königsbrück - Ankunft gefangener Russen
Königsbrück - Arrival of captured Russians

The postcard was never posted but the back has an inscription curiously printed in red ink in French.

Arrivée des prisonniers Russes à Königsbrück

Arrival of Russian prisoners at Königsbrück

* * *

This next image shows a group of captured Russian soldiers destined for the POW camp at Königsbrück. The back of this half-tone printed postcard has the same caption:

Königsbrück - Ankunft gefangener Russen
Königsbrück - Arrival of captured Russians

The publisher is the same as on the train postcard: Verlag: Carl Schmidt, Königsbrück. I suspect that the photographs were taken by photographers on assignment from the German government's Information Office to produce propaganda postcards for German troops, though the French caption implies the cards could be used by the POWs too. This card was sent using the free-post available to the military during the war by a German soldier named Rainhard to a Fraulein Luise Vofs(?) in Hademarschen, a town in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany near the Kiel Canal. The postmark is obscured so there is no date.

* * *

The image of the men digging in the sand was cropped from another postcard captioned in German on the back:

Gefangene Franzosen bei der Arbeit
French Prisoners at work

This Kriefs-Postkarte – War Postcard was sent from Königsbrück to a German soldier's family on 25 February 1915. The rules for dealing with captive soldiers were very sketchy in 1914 and not entirely understood or accepted by the belligerent nations. Everyone expected this to be a short conflict, over by Christmas, so making practical arrangements for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners unexpectedly taken on both the Western and Eastern Fronts was sorely neglected by the German military and civil authorities. In general POWs were not supposed to be used for any labor that supported the war effort. As Europe was still a very class-structured society, officers were supposedly excluded from doing any work. Nonetheless, many soldiers were drafted into manual details for rough construction or agriculture.

* * *

This group of French soldiers appear as relaxed as if they were on the streets of Paris. But standing behind them are German soldiers guarding them as prisoners of war. I expect they are on a street in Königsbrück and like the Russians soldiers are about to march off from the train depot to the POW camp. The publisher is the same Carl Schmidt and on the back is a caption:

Königsbrück - Gefangene Franzosen
Königsbrück - French Prisoners

There is no postmark but at the top left in faded purple ink is a faint Königsbrück 11_30_14 written by a soldier to someone in Chemnitz, in Saxony. This early date in the war shows how quickly propaganda was mobilized by the Kaiser's government to reassure the German public that their troops were winning by showing images of the captured enemy. By my rough estimation the majority of postcards depicting POW camps were used by German soldiers, presumably those assigned to the camps or nearby. The next largest are postcards sent by French or Belgian soldiers from the POW camps. Surprisingly not many were sent by British POWs, or at least not many have survived to be sold online. And I have yet to see any that were sent by Russian soldiers. They were the ones who suffered the worst privations and were typically isolated from the French and British in separate camps.

The map showing the hundreds of POW camps in Germany and Austria came from a small gazetteer produced during the last stage of the war. It was compiled by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy to help families of British POWs understand the complex system of German military prison, several of which were for civilians interred as enemy foreigners in 1914. Page 7 describes the camp in Königsbrück – in Saxony. A camp wooden hutments situated on sandy soil amidst pine-woods a short distance from the town. Capacity, 15,000. 12th Army Corps (the German military force in charge.)

Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria
by Mrs. Pope-Hennessy, 1920
Source: Internet Archive

After just one month of war, in September 1914 the German army had captured over 200,000 enemy combatants - Russian, Belgian, French, and British as well as confining a large number of foreign civilians. By early 1915 their POW population had grown to 652,000, increasing to 1,625,000 by August 1916, and finally reaching 2,415,000 by the end of the war. Though the men were removed from the hazards of war they still endured hardship from poor food, ill health, and unsanitary conditions, not to mention the mental and emotional stress of being indefinitely confined away from their families and compatriots.

For reasons not entirely clear there are a lot of photo postcards of the Königsbrück POW camp. Perhaps because the town had a number of good photographers, or the camp allowed prisoners to use cameras, I'm not certain why. A few years ago in July 2014 I wrote about some of the postcards of the Königsbrück POW theatre in a story entitled Theatrical Ladies. There is still much more to write about the musical and artistic activities that the Königsbrück prisoners created to alleviate the boredom of captivity, so stay tuned for future posts on this POW camp. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
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La Nightingail said...

The group photos of the Russian and French prisoners are interesting in that they both have members very quietly rebelling in a way. The French, especially - as you noted - look rather relaxed irregardless of their circumstances. In the group of Russian prisoners I noticed the one young fellow in particular, in front, with his cap set at a rakish angle. :)

Wendy said...

POW postcards - now there's a twist on letters from camp.

Barbara Rogers said...

These post cards of photos of prisoners of war are reallly hard to accept with my concept of war today. I will take a deep breath and try to understand how the WW I soldiers treated each other. And then to try have some concept of how it was to have photos turned into post cards of them.

tony said...

I find this post fascinating Mike.
A spur to finding out more about my Polish family's involvement in "The Great War".I ,strangly know nothing about it! (I dont even know which "side" they were on)
I know plenty about World War 2 (my Dad flew with the Polish Free Airforce ,out of England, and was in The Battle of Arnhem) But nothing about The First War.Shame on me.
I notice one of the prison camps you show on the map was in Eastern Poland very near where my Zimnoch family lived.
An Excellent Post Mike.Thank You.

Kathy Morales said...

Your observation that the war was expected to end quickly and practical arrangements for dealing with POWs was lacking reminded me sadly reminded me of the refugee children separated from their parents and guardians at the southern border of the US. So little thought for the humanity of the other.

Tattered and Lost said...

I wonder how common this was through the different wars, propaganda postcards. Posters yes, but postcards. At least they aren't gruesome scenes meant to enrage. I think of the photo of the WWII soldier about to be beheaded by a Japanese soldier. These postcards make it seem almost okay to have been a prisoner. Especially the one of the French soldiers all looking quite relaxed. I do wonder about those coats. The way they are turned up at the bottom and, I'm assuming, buttoned at the back.

Sue McPeak said...

What a creative interpretation of the train prompt and interesting collection of postcards. Imagine being on the receiving end...a bit disconcerting I would think. The handwriting and postage was neat to see as well.


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