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Remembered Today:

POWs - Medical personnel and chaplains. Did the Germans honour the Gen


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This is Grumpy’s question, which came about from a different discussion on another thread. I hadn’t really given it much thought before but since looking back at sources now believe it is a difficult question to answer.

Grumpy sent me relevant pages of the 1914 Manual Military Law. The section relating to captured medical personnel reads:-

194. Although the personnel of Medical Units and establishments may not be treated as prisoners of war, yet it is not free to act or move without let or hindrance should it fall into the hands of the enemy. If called upon it must continue to carry on its duties his directions, attending to such sick and wounded as require its services. Only when its assistance is no longer indispensable must it be sent back to its own army or its own country.

195. Thus, the medical personnel of a force which capitulates may be detained to attend to the sick and wounded included in the surrender, and may be sent back gradually.

196. Further, it is not left to the captured personnel to choose the time or route of its return, which is settled by the captor and is depended on military exigencies

197. The personnel on being returned is entitled to take with it such effects, instruments, arms, and horses as are the private property of its members.

198. In interpreting the above obligations it must be borne in mind that they are designed to secure that members of medical units shall not be in a position to take back useful information to their army. They are not meant to afford an excuse for depriving the enemy of the services of his medical personnel for a indefinite length of time.

199. The fact that they may be detained and not permitted to return when and how they wish is sufficient penalty to prevent medical units and individual members of the medical personnel proceeding anywhere they please in a theatre of war for the purpose of collecting, succouring, or removing wounded and sick. If they persist in approaching when their presence is not desired, and refuse to halt when summoned to stop, it would be lawful, as an extreme measure, to fire upon them.

200. Whilst members of the enemy’s medical personnel are in his hands, a belligerent must grant them the same allowances and the same pay as are given to persons holding similar rank and status in his own army.

In the Official Report to the British Government about ‘The Horrors of Wittenberg’, the writer states:- “From the month of November 1914 thirteen English doctors had been detained at Halle. They were none of them required for attendance upon their own men, and it is difficult to understand how, consistently with the Geneva Convention, their continued detention was justifiable. Indeed, the direct defiance of the provisions of that Convention, these doctors were treated as ordinary prisoners of war, and the committee cannot resist the suspicion that they were deliberately detained by the German authorities so that they might be made available, if need be, for work of danger in relief of their own staff.”

Another source of information comes from Capt W K Beaman RAMC, who was captured at Landrecies. He wrote a long and detailed report of his experience as a POW. A short summary of what is relevant to the question is:

1) The German officers and men who captured them (14 British Medical Officers) were polite and took nothing from them. They had the freedom of the town to get medical supplies and to assist the wounded. One German MO borrowed bandages then later returned them. During their time there a senior medical officer made an official application to the General Officer in command of the nearest Army Corps for their return either to their own lines or to a neutral country was made. He was informed they would be released but first they had to pass through a German base. (So all appears fine there then)

2) On 29th August orders were given to move all wounded capable of traveling - Capt Beaman was one of the officers to travel with the wounded and reported that all was fine until they reached Mons on 31st, then everything changed. He, along with the other MOs were separated from the wounded, were treated badly, and all medical equipment was taken from them. (Was this in breach of No 197 above?)

3) He was taken to Torgau - He stated “Medical work, nil”

4) On 25th and 26th November, he was transferred to Burg - He stated “Medical work- nil”

5) On 11th January 1915, he was transferred to Quedlinburg. Here he eventually became ‘Reserve Medical Officer’ for ‘Feld III’ and looked after 61 to 81 English. The wounded had been cared for before they arrived so he was mostly treating sickness.

I get the impression the British Medical Services thought the Germans were acting in breach of the Geneva Convention, due to comments they made and petitions they sent for the medical officers release. Even Benjamin G O’Rorke, M.A. Chaplain to the Forces wrote “We remained in Landrecies until Saturday, August 29, expecting daily to be returned to our own people in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. Our destination, however, was fated to be in the opposite direction.” It would appear though that the Germans didn’t see it that way. A letter written by a German Officer at Torgau in reply to a petition for release reads:-

“Colonel Gordon,-The doctors and chaplain are not, as was communicated to you in the beginning, looked upon as prisoners of war, and are not being treated as such. They have rather fallen into our hands and are to follow their avocation under our direction. We are only at the beginning of the enormous World War and shall still have many thousands of English wounded to care for, for which purpose the accumulation of English doctors will be detailed. The same is the case of the chaplain, who can, and does, already carry out his duty. Only when the personnel of the Red Cross is no longer required - that can only be towards the end of the War - can there be any talk of return to England. If the gentleman imagine that they cannot move freely in the town is a breach of the Convention, so must it be mentioned that the Convention expressly demands that doctors should be protected. Their detention is protective, as our populace is particularly bitter against the English as the promoters of this War. It would be almost impossible for the authorities to protect them in the interior of the town. At any rate, the above-mentioned officers obtain the same rate of pay as officers of the same rank in the German Army.” (Signed) E. BRANDE.

Capt Beaman stated that he did receive 100 Marks a month for the first five months and 595 Marks a month for the second five months, however he was not employed in any way until 11th February 1915.

I have so far traced the names of 58 British medical officers who were taken to Germany in 1914. I have only traced 6 released dates but as far as I can tell none were released until 1915. I don’t have the release date of Capt Beaman yet but according to his report he was still in Germany in May 1915. If anyone has any info, or insight, to help then that would be great.



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Barbara thank you for researching the matter and starting the thread.

It seems the Germans were walking a fine line but were just about legal. The Convention lends itself to a variety of interpretations, being a bit woolly [as I suppose it had to be, given the infinite variety of circumstances]. Once the Germans say "Doctor, you are not a PoW but I cannot let you go right now" that just about covers it.

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It seems the Germans were walking a fine line but were just about legal. The Convention lends itself to a variety of interpretations, being a bit woolly [as I suppose it had to be, given the infinite variety of circumstances]. Once the Germans say "Doctor, you are not a PoW but I cannot let you go right now" that just about covers it.

Agreed. Rev. James Tooke Hales (mentioned by Audax in post #2, above) was taken back to Germany but according to his own accounts of his 'captivity' he was allowed a reasonable degree of freedom to come and go from local prison camps where he ministered to the prisoners. I dare say that he was provided with an escort to help him 'find his way' to his destination, and the idea of remaining in Germany would have been made more acceptable by providing the man with a plausible reason to stay (i.e. "These men need you... We have only limited resources and few of us speak English...." etc).

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  • 2 weeks later...

I’ve just been looking at a hand written war diary about 1/2nd North Midland Field Ambulance. It’s not that easy to read quickly - needs transcribing. However within the diary is several hand written lists of British officers with their regiments who were held POW at Torgau. Under the heading of men listed who served with the R.A.M.C. is written “Detained at Torgau by German Gout(?) in order to ensure their personal safety. Not detained as prisoners of war.” Also listed are two B.R.C.S. civil surgeons and Rev O’Rorke.

Looks like the German message got through then :)

Would be interested to know if the British then did the same to German doctors - just out of curiosity.


Audax - Thanks for posting the newspaper article

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"Govt." for "Gout"?

EDIT: "Great minds" and all that...

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I'm fairly sure I've come across an example of German and British front-line doctors working together in the immediate aftermath of an attack, before one side or other was trooped off to become POWs. If my memory will come up trumps I'll post it.

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Thanks SeaJane

I was told once that there was an incident when a German doctor walked into a British ADS and asked if he could borrow an ambulance. Apparently he was given one and the German doctor returned it the next day. I've not come across this story myself in anything I've read yet but I'm forever looking out for it.

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