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5 Handmade Objects Crafted By First World War POWs

By Maeve Underwood

Within the first six months of the First World War, more than 1.3 million prisoners were held in Europe. Accommodating so many POWs was a huge problem for all countries involved. Allegations of cruelty and neglect were commonplace.

Treaties covering the treatment of POWs were agreed before the war through the Hague and Geneva Conventions. But German propaganda reported widely on the brutality of Allied camps to encourage their soldiers to fight to the death as a preference to being captured. Likewise, in Britain it was claimed that Allied prisoners in Germany were systematically persecuted by order of the German government. Inspectors from neutral countries were called upon to check on camp conditions.

When war was declared in 1914, there was no system in place on either side for dealing with POWs. Camps were hastily set up according to need. Many camps were built from scratch but existing buildings were also utilised. The early camps were found to be over-crowded, though this situation improved in Britain once makeshift camps were replaced. Complaints about German camps centred on inadequate sanitation, housing and food (for which the Allied naval blockade was partly responsible), the nature of work assigned to prisoners and the brutal behaviour of the guards. POWs in Turkish camps, except for officers, were treated particularly harshly.

Prisoners of war of all nations produced a wide variety of handmade items. Some of these filled practical requirements, some were a way of coping with the monotony of captivity, while others were intended as a means of earning money for cigarettes or other comforts. Here are five examples of objects made by POWs during the First World War.

  • 1. Condensed milk tin mug

    Mug made from a condensed milk tin by C J Peck whilst at Munster Prisoner of War camp in Germany between 1917 and 1918.

    EPH 4052

  • 2. Beaded snake

    Beaded snake made by a Turkish prisoner of war.

    EPH 2489

  • 3. Card box

    Playing card box made by a German prisoner at Catterick in Yorkshire and acquired by Lieutenant W Staniland.

    EPH 731

  • 4. Conductor's baton

    Conductor's baton made and used by Major Jack Shaw at Freiburg prison camp in Germany in 1917.

    EPH 814

  • 5. Painted box

    Box painted by a naval prisoner of war interned in Holland in 1914.

    EPH 120