A prisoner of war (POW, PoW, PW, P/W, WP, or PsW) is a combatant who is imprisoned by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict.
Likewise the distinction between POW and slave is not always clear. Some of the indigenous people of the Americas captured Europeans and used their labour and used them as bartering chips; see for example John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802-1805.
During the Middle Ages, a number of religious wars were particularly ferocious. In Christian Europe, the extermination of the heretics or "non-believers" was considered desirable. Examples include the 13th century Albigensian Crusade and the Northern Crusades. Likewise the inhabitants of conquered cities were frequently massacred during the Crusades against the Muslims in the 11th century and the 12th century. Noblemen could hope to be ransomed; their families would have to send to their captors large sums of wealth commensurate with the social status of the captive. In pre-Islamic Arabia, upon capture, those captives not executed, were made to beg for their subsistence. During the early reforms under Islam, Muhammad changed this custom and made it the responsibility of the Islamic government to provide food and clothing, on a reasonable basis, to captives, regardless of their religion. If the prisoners were in the custody of a person, then the responsibility was on the individual. He established the rule that prisoners of war must be guarded and not ill-treated, and that after the fighting was over, the prisoners were expected to be either released or ransomed. The freeing of prisoners in particular was highly recommended as a charitable act. Mecca was the first city to have the benevolent code applied (rather than what Mecca's people expected: complete massacre). However, Christians who were captured in the Crusades were sold into slavery if they could not pay a ransom.
The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, established the rule that prisoners of war should be released without ransom at the end of hostilities and that they should be allowed to return to their homelands.
During the 19th century, efforts increased to improve the treatment and processing of prisoners. The extensive period of conflict during the Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), followed by the Anglo-American War of 1812, led to the emergence of a cartel system for the exchange of prisoners, even while the belligerents were at war. A cartel was usually arranged by the respective armed service for the exchange of like ranked personnel. The aim was to achieve a reduction in the number of prisoners held, while at the same time alleviating shortages of skilled personnel in the home country.
Later, as result of these emerging conventions a number of international conferences were held, starting with the Brussels Conference of 1874, with nations agreeing that it was necessary to prevent inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of weapons causing unnecessary harm. Although no agreements were immediately ratified by the participating nations, work was continued that resulted in new conventions being adopted and becoming recognized as international law, that specified that prisoners of war are required to be treated humanely and diplomatically.
However, nations vary in their dedication to following these laws, and historically the treatment of POWs has varied greatly. During the 20th century, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were notorious for atrocities against prisoners during World War II. The German military used the Soviet Union's refusal to sign the Geneva Convention as a reason for not providing the necessities of life to Russian POWs. North Korean and North Vietnamese forces routinely killed or mistreated prisoners taken during those conflicts.
During World War I about 8 million men surrendered and were held in POW camps until the war ended. All nations pledged to follow the Hague rules on fair treatment of prisoners of war, and in general the POWs had a much higher survival rate than their peers who were not captured. Individual surrenders were uncommon; usually a large unit surrendered all its men. At Tannenberg 92,000 Russians surrendered during the battle. When the besieged garrison of Kaunas surrendered in 1915, 20,000 Russians became prisoners. Over half the Russian losses were prisoners (as a proportion of those captured, wounded or killed); for Austria 32%, for Italy 26%, for France 12%, for Germany 9%; for Britain 7%. Prisoners from the Allied armies totaled about 1.4 million (not including Russia, which lost between 2.5 and 3.5 million men as prisoners.) From the Central Powers about 3.3 million men became prisoners.
Germany held 2.5 million prisoners; Russia held 2.9 million, and Britain and France held about 720,000, mostly gained in the period just before the Armistice in 1918. The US held 48,000. The most dangerous moment was the act of surrender, when helpless soldiers were sometimes shot down. Once prisoners reached a POW camp conditions were better(and often much better than in World War II), thanks in part to the efforts of the International Red Cross and inspections by neutral nations. There was however much harsh treatment of POWs in Germany, as recorded by the American ambassador to Germany (prior to America's entry into the war), James W. Gerard, who published his findings in "My Four Years in Germany". Even worse conditions are reported in the book "Escape of a Princess Pat" by the Canadian George Pearson. It was particularly bad in Russia, where starvation was common for prisoners and civilians alike; about 40% of the prisoners in Russia died or remained missing. Nearly 375,000 of the 500,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war taken by Russians have perished in Siberia from smallpox and typhus. In Germany food was short but only 5% died.
The Ottoman Empire often treated prisoners of war poorly. Some 11,800 British soldiers, most of them Indians, became prisoners after the five-month Siege of Kut, in Mesopotamia, in April 1916. Many were weak and starved when they surrendered and 4,250 died in captivity.
The most curious case came in Russia where the Czechoslovak Legion of Czechoslovak prisoners (from the Austro-Hungarian army), were released in 1917, armed themselves, and briefly became a military and diplomatic force during the Russian Civil War.
On 13 December 1918 the armistice was extended and the Allies reported that by 9 December 264,000 prisoners had been repatriated. A very large number of these has been released en masse and sent across Allied lines without any food or shelter. This had created difficulties for the receiving Allies and many released prisoners had died from exhaustion. The released POWs were met by cavalry troops and sent back through the lines in lorries to reception centres where they were refitted with boots and clothing and dispatched to the ports in trains. Upon arrival at the receiving camp the POWs were registered and "boarded" before being dispatched to their own homes. All commissioned officers had to write a report on the circumstances of their capture and to ensure that they had done all they could to avoid capture. Each returning officer and man was given a message from King George V, written in his own hand and reproduced on a lithograph. It read as follows:
In German camps, when soldiers of lower rank were made to work, they were compensated, and officers (e.g. in Colditz Castle) were not required to work. The main complaints of British, British Commonwealth, U.S., and French prisoners of war in German Army POW camps-especially during the last two years of the war-concerned the bare bones menu provided, a fate German soldiers and civilians were also suffering due to the blockade conditions. Fortunately for the prisoners, food packages provided by the International Red Cross supplemented the food rations, until the last few months when allied air raids prevented shipments from arriving. The other main complaint was the harsh treatment during forced marches in the last months, resulting from German attempts to keep prisoners away from the advancing allied forces.
In contrast, Germany treated the Soviet Red Army troops that had been taken prisoner with neglect and deliberate, organized brutality. The first eight months of the German campaign on their Eastern Front were by far the worst phase, with up to 2.4 of 3.1 million POWs dying. Soviet POWs were held under conditions that resulted in deaths of hundreds of thousands from starvation and disease. Most prisoners were also subjected to forced labour under conditions that resulted in further deaths. An official justification used by the Germans for this policy was that the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention. This was not legally justifiable, however, as under article 82 of the Geneva Convention (1929), signatory countries had to give POWs of all signatory and non-signatory countries the rights assigned by the convention. A month after the German invasion in 1941 an offer was made by the USSR for a reciprocal adherence to the Hague conventions. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials .
According to some sources, between 1941 and 1945, the Axis powers took about 5.7 million Soviet prisoners. About 1 million of them were released during the war, in that their status changed but they remained under German authority. A little over 500,000 either escaped or were liberated by the Red Army. Some 930,000 more were found alive in camps after the war. The remaining 3.3 million prisoners (57.5% of the total captured) died during their captivity. According to Russian military historian General G. Krivoshhev, 4.6 million Soviet prisoners were taken by the Axis powers, of which 1.8 million were found alive in camps after the war and 318,770 were released by the Axis during the war and were then drafted into the Soviet armed forces again.. In comparison, 8,348 Western Allied (British, American and Canadian) prisoners died in German camps in 1939-45 (3.5% of the 232,000 total).
On 11 February 1945, at the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, the United States and the United Kingdom signed a Repatriation Agreement with the USSR. The interpretation of this Agreement resulted in the forcible repatriation of all Russians (Operation Keelhaul) regardless of their wishes. The forced repatriation operations took place in 1945-1947. Many Soviet POWs and forced laborers transported to Nazi Germany were on their return to the USSR treated as traitors and sent to the gulag. The remainder were barred from all but the most menial jobs.
During Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, the Empire of Japan which had never signed the Third Geneva Convention of 1929, violated however international agreements, including provisions of the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), which protect prisoners of war (POWs).
Prisoners of war from China, the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Philippines held by the Japanese armed forces were subject to murder, beatings, summary punishment, brutal treatment, forced labor, medical experimentation, starvation rations and poor medical treatment. No access to the POWs was provided to the International Red Cross. Escapes were almost impossible because of the difficulty of men of European descent hiding in Asiatic societies.
According to the findings of the Tokyo tribunal, the death rate of Western prisoners was 27.1% (American POWs died at a rate of 37%), seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians. The death rate of Chinese was much larger. Thus, while 37,583 prisoners from the UK, 28,500 from Netherlands and 14,473 from USA were released after the surrender of Japan, the number for the Chinese was only 56.
According to some sources, the Soviets captured 3.5 million Axis servicemen (excluding Japanese) of which more than a million died. According to G. Krivoshhev, the Soviets captured in total 4,126,964 Axis servicemen, of which 580,548 died in captivity. Of 2,389,560 German servicemen 450,600 died in captivity. One specific example of the tragic fate of the German POWs was after the Battle of Stalingrad, during which the Soviets captured 91,000 German troops, many already starved and ill, of whom only 5,000 survived the war. The last German POWs (those who were sentenced for war crimes, sometimes without sufficient reasons) were released by the Soviets in 1955, only after Joseph Stalin had died. At least 54,000 Italian POWs died in Russia, with a mortality rate of 84.5%. See also POW labor in the Soviet Union, Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, Romanian POW in the Soviet Union.
During the war the Armies of Allied nations such as the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada were ordered to treat Axis prisoners strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention (1929). Some breaches of the Convention took place, however.
According to Stephen E. Ambrose, of the roughly 1000 U.S. combat veterans that he had interviewed, roughly 1/3 told him they had seen U.S. troops kill German prisoners.
Japanese prisoners sent to camps in the U.S. fared well but many Japanese were killed when trying to surrender or were massacred just after they had surrendered. (see Allied war crimes during World War II in the Pacific). Some Japanese prisoners in POW camps died at their own hands, either directly or by attacking guards with the intention of forcing the guards to kill them.
Towards the end of the war in Europe, as large numbers of Axis soldiers surrendered, the U.S. created the designation of Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF) so as not to treat prisoners as POWs. A lot of these soldiers were kept in open fields in various Rheinwiesenlagers. Controversy has arisen about how Eisenhower managed these prisoners (see Eisenhower and German POWs). Many died when forced to clear minefields in Norway, France etc. How many died during the several post-war years that they were used for forced labor in France, the Soviet Union, etc, is disputed.
See for comparative death rates for Allied & Axis POWs: Allied war crimes during World War II
The North Vietnamese captured many U.S. service members as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, who suffered from systematic mistreatment and torture during much of the war. The most famous one is John McCain, current United States Senator and Republican Party nominee for President of the United States, who endured more than 5 years imprisonment including periods of torture.
Regardless of regulations determining treatment to prisoners, violation of their rights continue to be reported. Many cases of POW massacres have been reported in recent times, including October 13 massacre in Lebanon by Syrian forces and June 1990 massacre in Sri Lanka.
In 2001, there were reports that India had actually taken two prisoners during the Sino-Indian War, Yang Chen and Shih Liang. The two were imprisoned as spies for three years before being interned in a mental asylum in Ranchi, where they spent the next 38 years under a special prisoner status.
The last prisoners of Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988) were exchanged in 2003.
|Prisoner nationality||Number||Name of conflict|
|4 - 5.7 million taken by Germany (2.7 - 3.3 million died in German POW camps) (ref. Streit)||World War II (Total)|
| 3,127,380 taken by U.S.S.R. (474,967 died in captivity) ||World War II|
|1,800,000 taken by Germany||Battle of France in World War II|
|675,000 (420,000 by Germans, 240,000 by Soviets in 1939; 15,000 Warsaw 1944)||World War II|
|~200,000 (135,000 taken in Europe, does not include Pacific or Commonwealth figures)||World War II|
|~130,000 (95,532 taken by Germany)||World War II|
|90,368 taken by India||Indo-Pakistani War of 1971|