Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British Prisoners of War, 1914–1918,
Reviewed by James Thomas

The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory 
of British Prisoners of War, 1914–1918
by John Lewis-Stempel
Published by Phoenix, 2015 

Column of British Prisoners of War

In both popular imagery and historical study, a great deal is known about the prisoner of war experience of World War II. Through books, movies, and television, much is known about Second World War POWs. There are no similar portrayals, no popular images, and little actual research done for the many thousands of men captured and held prisoner in World War I. John Lewis-Stempel makes a first effort to remedy this deficit with his excellent book, The War Behind The Wire.

It is well written, well documented, and very well researched. It tells the story of British prisoners through their own descriptions of their time in German hands. In fact, at times the reading is slowed with the sheer volume of quotations, and Lewis-Stempel writes just enough to tie them together. In effect, he lets the former British prisoners tell their own stories while he guides us through them. By allowing the now all dead Tommies to speak, Lewis-Stempel makes this as nearly an autobiography as an historical study.

Through these men's stories the reader learns the shame and humiliation of capture and how a stigma was attached to being a prisoner of war. Often this stigma was self-imposed, regularly by their captors and many times by their peers and by the British public on their return. According to the author, this is one of the many reasons so few told their stories in the aftermath of the war. Lewis-Stempel clearly seeks to remove any negative images that might still exist, and as his book's subtitle suggests, he considers the British prisoners' war to have been as honorable and glorious as that of any man who fought in the trenches. These men dealt with their capture and captivity, learned how to stay alive regardless of their conditions, even how to continue the fight in the camps and in the factories where they labored. For many that fight meant to escape and return to the action of the Western Front.

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War Behind the Wire is the story of the British, but much can be learned about all men behind the wire of prisoner of war camps. Interestingly, British soldiers saw themselves as treated worse, in general, than the captured soldiers of any of the other nations, with the exception perhaps of the Russians. Although France is certainly Germany's more natural enemy, French prisoners seemed to have been treated better than British. The Germans made no secret of this, telling them that their fight was against France and the British were no more than overpaid mercenaries. Canadians evidently received the worst of this, as imperial troops of the mercenary British had the least legitimate reason for fighting in the war.

This treatment of prisoners by the Germans, even among the British, varied enormously as well. According to British prisoners, German camp commanders and guards were often brutal, their actions much like the Nazis of the next war. There were exceptions, of course, as individual officers and men could be kind. Overall though, the rule seemed to be a brutality bred from contempt and arrogance. Unfortunately, while many of the worst commanders were initially brought up on accusations of war crimes, in the postwar desire to "move on" and try and forget the war, the vast majority were never brought to trial in Leipzig for those crimes.

In fact, coming out of a war as horrific and unspeakable as World War I, most veterans shared this desire to put the war behind them and preferred to keep their experiences to themselves. In the hundred years since the war began, more and more of the personal narratives of the participants have come out. For those veterans who spent much of the war as prisoners, John Lewis-Stempel is now bringing to light their stories. The War Behind The Wire is highly readable, fascinating, and an important contribution to the study of the Great War

James Thomas


  1. Does anyone know roughly how many British soldiers were taken prisoner in WWI?

  2. Bravo. I've ordered the book and look forward. This will be a great addition to my research on German PWs in Russia. Cheers

  3. Germany held 185,329 British and Commonwealth POWs in November 1918. I have not found a breakdown into the various nationalities. There were over a Half Million French POWs and about 2500 US POWs. This does not cover POWs of the Austrians or The Turks. One can assume there were.

  4. And the Australians!