From the Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross

By | About.com

ICRC-Prisoners-of-WarDuring the First World War, about 8 million soldiers and 2 million civilians were captured and sent to detention camps. The combatant countries would periodically submit lists of these prisoners of war (POW’s) to the International Prisoners of War Agency established in 1914 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Throughout World War I, the agency received hundreds of thousands of documents recording prisoners’ names, records of capture, transfers between camps, and deaths in detention. These WWI POW records have now been digitized and placed online by the ICRC as a free, searchable database: 1914–1918 Prisoners of the First World War ICRC Historical Records.

The majority of WWI POW records from the ICRC’s archives are included in the online database, including all civilian-internee index cards. However, about 20 percent of the cards for military prisoners from Belgium, France, Germany and the UK have not yet been digitized. The digitization will continue over the next several months, with the goal of having the entire collection of approximately 5 million index cards representing 2.5 million prisoners of WWI, primarily from the Western, Romanian and Serbian Fronts, available online by the end of 2014. Indexes from the German-Russian Front are maintained in the archives of the Danish Red Cross in Copenhagen and are not included in this database.

What to Expect

For each POW registered in the lists received by the International Prisoners of War Agency, the Agency set up an index card with the prisoner’s name, service number, date of birth, and a reference number(s) to the list containing the prisoner’s name.

In many cases an additional card may exist for the prisoner which details requests from family members requesting information on their captured love ones. Again, this card includes the POW’s name and service number, followed by information regarding the individual’s disappearance as reported by the family, the address of the inquiring family member, and a summary of the correspondence by the ICRC (the original correspondence was destroyed after each card was created).

How to Locate an Individual’s Index Card

The search feature allows you to input an individual’s name, select his country of origin, and specify whether military or civilian. The results will take you to a series of index cards in roughly alphabetical order by surname. On the left-hand side is a set of index card “sets” with roughly 60-90 cards per set.  Each name listed on this side is generally the first name found in the set and does not represent all names available. There are also exceptions, so be prepared to browse a bit if you can’t find a surname you are confident should be there. POWELL in the UK, for example, is found under the listings for POVAY because the cards for this common name are first subdivided by regiment and one of the many regiment listings happens to begin with the name POVAY.

To the right are images of the actual cards through which you need to scroll to find your person of interest.

Important! Surnames are not in strict alphabetical order. Some are grouped phonetically (the names may sound similar) or graphically (the names may look similar). Examples include:

  1. Double letters are not always taken into account. The surname OLLIVON, for example, may be found grouped under either OLIVON or OLLIVON.
  2. Names that sound similar are sometimes grouped together. Example ROESER may be found combined with ROSER and ROSSER.
  3. Letters with an upstroke or downstroke such as “n” or “u” may be combined together in a single set such as the names DUBREUIL and DUBRENIL or BOUGARD and BONGARD.
  4. Names that start with a prefix may be found alphabetically without the prefix included. Example DE GAULLE may be found under the G’s as GAULLE (or GAULE).

In the case of a more common surname, the cards may be further subdivided by alphabetical order of military units, followed by alphabetical order of first names.

How to Locate Additional Records

Once you locate an index card or cards for your individual of interest, click on the card to bring up a search page for person details. Next look for a stamped or handwritten alphanumeric reference number beginning with a letter and enter this reference number in the search engine to locate a digitized image of the corresponding list on which the subject name appears. Some cards may contain multiple references due to a prisoner appearing on multiple lists for reasons such as transfer, or death in captivity. In this case review each of the reference numbers. There are also a few cases where the card may include a reference number but the original file is no longer available.

Tip! Be careful not to mistake the alphanumeric file reference number for the letters and numbers that designate the individual’s military unit.