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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Prisoners of War in Russia

Austrian Prisoners at a Camp in Northern Russia

by Yucel Yanikdag

The prisoners who survived the grueling conditions of the assembly camps  and transport ended up in one of the prison camps that dotted the Russian  empire. There were not enough of these camps and those that existed did not  have enough beds, which were not really beds but only wooden racks. They  also lacked latrine facilities. Accordingly, various kinds of buildings were converted into prison camps—former army camps, exhibition halls, prisons,  stables, circus buildings, distilleries, abandoned factories, and schools.

Usually the prison camps were located outside a town. Krasnoyarsk, for  example, was 40 minutes walking distance from the town. Holding as  many as 35,000 prisoners, the Siberian camps were larger than their European  counterparts. Most camps were surrounded by wooden or wire fences that stood between 12 and 15 feet high with sentry towers at intervals. The  prisoners were usually kept at large camps, but it was not unusual for officers  to end up in large houses commandeered by the Russian government. Most of  the largest camps were former garrisons that had housed a much smaller number of Russian soldiers. In such places, the lucky ones were housed in brick or  log barracks. The unlucky ones ended up in animal stables and artillery  storage buildings. Depending on the crowding, which was almost always a  problem, each man had a personal space of between 20 and 28 inches. It  was very common for men to be in physical contact with each other as theyslept.

Housing conditions for the officers were better. In former army garrisons, officers were usually quartered in the Russian officers' barracks. Typically, the  officers were not as crowded as the enlisted men. In the earlier years of the  war, enlisted men were assigned to serve as orderlies for officers in the prison  camps.  Prisoners were always infested with lice, largely because of the lack of extra underwear. Whenever the prisoners did receive extra underwear—a rare  event especially for the Ottomans—they sold it to the peasants to  purchase tobacco. Others, who were missing socks, used the underwear as foot  rags. It seems that this practice was especially common among Ottomans, Hungarians, and Czechs. Every day the prisoners removed their clothing to kill  the lice, but their efforts were in vain as the boards and mattresses on which  they slept were also infested. Lice made the prisoners' lives miserable as they  could not rid themselves of these creatures. However, they found various ways  to deal with them; some burned them, others pricked them with needles.

According to a German prisoner, the Ottoman prisoners usually drowned the  lice, as they were convinced that drowning assured the slowest death. Presumably, the creative ways of killing lice was the only way of releasing their  stored-up hatred and frustration, for they felt helpless in defending themselves  even against these little creatures.

Overcrowding and insanitary conditions in the camps resulted in diseases  that took a heavy toll on the prisoners. Typhus, typhoid fever, and cholera were  the major killers, but other epidemics also developed. At one time or another  every camp had a typhus epidemic. In some cases, the Ottomans brought the  disease with them from the Caucasus Front.

Following their capture, the officers, usually starting at the assembly  camps, were separated from the enlisted men. Differences in treatment set the  imprisoned officers apart from their men. The Russian government paid  captured junior officers 50 rubles, staff officers 75 rubles, and generals 100  rubles a month; corresponding salaries were paid by [other countries] to its  Russian prisoners. The officers, however, had to purchase their food from the  Russians, whereas the men received theirs free.

The prisoners usually kept to their own nationality. In other words,  Ottomans lived with Ottomans, Germans with Germans, but there were cases  of mixed nationalities.   Enlisted  men did not speak the languages of other prisoners, and, unlike the officers,  they were expected to work. The work alone probably left little time to do  much else. The men's jobs could be inside the camp, like building and repairing barracks and other facilities, or outside it. In order to make up for the labor shortage created by mobilization, Russian officials used the prisoners in  various areas to help minimize the shortage. In general, those who  worked outside the camps became factory workers or farm hands.

Source: "Ottoman Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914-22,"  Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1999).


  1. Very sad, and also very useful. Another step in recovering the nearly lost eastern front's history.

  2. I believe that some German children were also held in at least one Siberian camp. Does anyone out there know anything about that and where I might find the info?