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phil andrade

French prisoners

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phil andrade

It's all too obvious that an appalling number of French soldiers were killed in 1914 : three hundred thousand, approximately.

 

What is less well known is the number who were taken prisoner.

 

If any pals have information about the scale of the capture of French POWs in the opening phase of the war - or suggestions about where I might find data - I would be grateful.

 

I have found an official mention of 255,000 Frenchmen being prisoners by the end of 1915. More startling is a German claim that roughly half of these had been captured by September 1914.

 

To add credence to that claim, I note that the French parliamentary investigation into their casualties in the various phases of the war attributed 313,000 killed, missing and prisoners to the two months of August and September 1914.  I am wondering whether more than half of these had been taken prisoner : if memory serves me, forty thousand went into the bag at Maubeuge alone.

 

I suspect that perhaps as many as two hundred thousand French prisoners had been taken by the Germans in 1914 : that equates to roughly ten times the number of British who are recorded , which accords with the ratio of Franco British casualties on the Western Front that year.

 

Phil

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charlie962

To set a perimeter for the whole war, Wiki gives these stats:

Au 10 octobre 1918, 1 434 529 Russes ont été faits prisonniers depuis le début de la guerre, 535 411 Français, 185 329 Britanniques, 147 986 Roumains, 133 287 Italiens, 46 019 Belges, 28 746 Serbes, 7 457 Portugais, 2 457 Américains, 107 Japonais et 5 Monténégrins

 

Elsewhere I've seen a figure of 300, 000 French PoWs by 1916.

 

I've seen that 40,000 quoted for Maubeuge 1914. (edit:  German sources say 32,682 prisoners taken at capitulation ?)

 

Charlie

 

 

Edited by charlie962

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phil andrade

Thanks, Charlie.

 

The thing that I find odd is that, as the Germans were advancing into France and Belgium in the opening weeks, Moltke commented on the disconcerting lack of French prisoners that were being taken.  I’ll try and find the words and cite them....but I think he alluded to the odd ten thousand or so here and there, and, more or less, asked where are the prisoners ? .

 

He appears to be wobbling in his confidence right from the start.

 

Be that as it may, such comments are incomprehensible when we countenance the prospect that the Germans might have captured well over one hundred thousand - perhaps 150,000 plus -  Frenchmen in those few weeks between later August and mid September 1914.

 

This was a greater haul than the celebrated capture of 92,000 Russians at Tannenberg .

 

More to the point, I’m wondering what such numbers imply for the state of French morale at that point.

 

Editing here : Charlie, those figures you cite are for prisoners in German hands....there would have been another million Russians in Austrian hands, and hundreds of thousands of Italians, too.

 

Phil

 

 

Edited by phil andrade

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charlie962
17 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

those figures you cite are for prisoners in German hands

agreed.

 

I was of the impression French morale was high at this time. Certainly courage was not lacking. Their country was being invaded. The disastrous French tactic of offensive  à outrance would inevitable lead to high fatalities.  Whilst one thinks of the 1918 Spring Offensive where British Regimental Histories imply a higher Death v PoW ratio than was actually the case, I would expect 1914 to have a high ratio for the French. But that is just my impression and I shall be interested to see actual figures.

 

Charlie

Edited by charlie962

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charlie962

This cumulative table only starts in 1915. Again it is for Germany. But suggests 230,000 French PoWs by March 1915. By August 1915 half of the total for the whole war had been taken.

 

1648428092_PoWsinGermany.JPG.5a242e1a6896def3b64b85b79e118c5a.JPG

 

source quoted as  Data based on Doegen, Wilhelm: Kriegsgefangene Völker, Der Kriegsgefangenen Haltung und Schicksal in Deutschland, Tafel G., Berlin 1921, pp. 28-29.

Edited by charlie962

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phil andrade

Charlie,

 

There’s something freakish about the number of French soldiers who were killed : even if the prisoners amounted to the greater part of the 313,000 recorded as killed or missing in August and September 1914, the number killed is still staggering.

 

I might be walking on thin ice if I extrapolate from the British experience in 1914 : the casualty return for August and September 1914 posted 16,090 killed and missing, and, of these, 9,403 were recorded as prisoners. That equates to 58.4%.  Using that benchmark, we might legitimately suggest that the French figure of 313,000 killed or missing implies about 183,000 prisoners.  That would still leave a balance of 130,000 killed.  We know that 27,000 are said to have been killed on 22nd August alone. I have never been able to “ get my head round “ such an appalling number, even allowing for the notoriously profligate and flawed French tactics.  It’s not just the absolute number : it’s more the shockingly high proportion of fatalites.  Why were so many killed compared with the number wounded ?  One would normally expect three wounded for every one killed.  Not so in this case.  Did the Germans kill men who tried to surrender, or dispatch the wounded, either through sheer merciless aggression, or because they were desperate to press on quickly and were reconciled to employing  the most brutal of methods ?

 

Clearly, they did take very large numbers of French prisoners, but I cannot escape the thought that there were many episodes when no quarter was given.

 

Edit : your tabulation arrived as I was writing this.  It looks just the ticket and might help me a lot.  Thanks !

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade

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charlie962
12 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

high proportion of fatalites

For a start the medical evacuation facilities will not have coped ?

 

MÉDECINE DE GUERRE (1/5) - INFOGRAPHIE - Ayant mal anticipé le nombre de blessés et le type de blessures, le Service de Santé militaire français doit, dès 1914 et dans l'urgence, réorganiser tout son dispositif de secours.

L'organisation de l'évacuation des blessés mise en place en août 1914 est basée sur des hypothèses qui se révèlent rapidement erronées. La guerre devait être courte et pourtant elle dure, l'«offensive à outrance» devait être un succès mais elle s'avère être un échec qui ne fait que grossir le flux de blessés, on s'attendait à 80% de blessures par balles or 75% des blessés présentent des plaies dues à des éclats d'obus, plus profondes et souvent contaminées par des débris. Très tôt, les médecins sur place alertent le commandement et le service de santé militaire sur les insuffisances structurelles du dispositif de secours. En septembre, le médecin inspecteur général Delorme reconnaît devant l'Académie des sciences s'être trompé et réclame une nouvelle organisation.

 

1914- Assumptions were based on 80% bullet wounds but in reality it was 75% shell wounds, deeper and often contaminated by debris.

 

 

Edited by charlie962

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phil andrade

Yes, that’s certainly a very important feature of the French casualty list. The heavy defeats  and retreats of August 1914 surely entailed abandonment of wounded who might otherwise have been rescued.  For medical evacuation facilities to cope it is , first and foremost , a question of actually being able to evacuate.....tens of thousands were not evacuated, and perished, I suppose.

 

Am I right in stating that, a few years ago, a mass grave was discovered containing the remains of French soldiers from those early battles, amongst which was the body of a high profile French poet or philosopher, or politician ?  It bothers me that I can’t remember his name. The thing that was emphasised in the story was the apparent evidence of killing of prisoners, or the suggestion that men who tried to surrender were killed and buried together.

 

If that practice was extant on a large scale, that would go some way to explaining the inordinately high proportion of killed among the French casualties. I was browsing through a book on the generalship of Foch, and found a reference to the casualties suffered by his XX corps in the period 11-27 August 1914 :

 

Killed...3,467

Wounded....1,535

Missing....1,708

 

I have never seen the like of such proportion of killed to wounded in any tabulation from modern warfare, with the exception of Japanese garrisons at Tarawa or Iwo Jima etc.

 

What kind of combat ordeal  did those poor Frenchmen undergo ?

 

Phil

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Ex-boy
4 hours ago, charlie962 said:

This cumulative table only starts in 1915. Again it is for Germany. But suggests 230,000 French PoWs by March 1915. By August 1915 half of the total for the whole war had been taken.

 

1648428092_PoWsinGermany.JPG.5a242e1a6896def3b64b85b79e118c5a.JPG

 

source quoted as  Data based on Doegen, Wilhelm: Kriegsgefangene Völker, Der Kriegsgefangenen Haltung und Schicksal in Deutschland, Tafel G., Berlin 1921, pp. 28-29.

 

I have just picked up on this thread, so am getting my head round the figures. Does anyone have a reason why the"English" officer numbers dropped during 1918?

 

Steve.

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charlie962

Alistair Horne's book on Verdun has a very similar note to that in post 7:

Price of Glory (1962)

ch5....To cope with these [shell] mutilations on so massive a scale, medical services were singularly ill equiped. In this respect- as in many others already mentioned- France in 1914 was notably, and notoriously,behind both Britain and Germany. She remained so throughout the war. Her Medical Service had been prepared for a short sharp war and was hopelessly caught out. Its doctors, inculcated in the de Grandmaison notions of war 'en rase campaign' and clean bullet wounds also reckoned on an 'asceptic' war. Their miscalculation possibly cost France an Army Corps of men; for,with wounds impregnated with dirt and debris from the explosion of shells, hideous gas gangrene became the single largest mortality factor among the wounded.
 

He discusses the priorities that had to be set by the Medical Services.

 

The Germans were particularly well equipped with heavy artillery from the start, unlike Britain and France (although of course the French had their 75s)

 

It is quite clear the French soldier was not well served by his masters.

 

1 hour ago, Ex-boy said:

anyone have a reason why the"English" officer numbers dropped during 1918?

At a guess, repatriation of serious sick and wounded. May also be some correction of PoW figures eg Missing believed PoW in the great retreat now found to have died ?

Edited by charlie962

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phil andrade
2 hours ago, Ex-boy said:

 

I have just picked up on this thread, so am getting my head round the figures. Does anyone have a reason why the"English" officer numbers dropped during 1918?

 

Steve.

 

 

Well, damn my bloody eyes, Sir, you’re right !

 

That impresses me....you’ve seen something that I would have overlooked...all honour to you.

 

I wonder if , in the initial tsunami of British prisoners taken in the spring offensive of 1918, there was a wish - either of captors or captives - to aspire to higher status.

 

British officers who were taken prisoner were subjected to courts of enquiry as to the whys and wherefores of their capture : this instigated by the British - not the Germans.

 

Perhaps a man taken prisoner in March 1918 sought to gain better treatment by declaring himself to be an officer, only to relinquish the status when he realised the pains of subsequent enquiry. 

 

There were a lot of “ temporary gentlemen “ in the BEF in early 1918, who had been promoted from the ranks.  Think of that play Journey’s End.

 

Phil

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charlie962

Weren't a number of officers transferred to camps in Holland or Switzerland ? Remember the stats above were Germany only.

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phil andrade
1 hour ago, charlie962 said:

Alistair Horne's book on Verdun has a very similar note to that in post 7:

Price of Glory (1962)

ch5....To cope with these [shell] mutilations on so massive a scale, medical services were singularly ill equiped. In this respect- as in many others already mentioned- France in 1914 was notably, and notoriously,behind both Britain and Germany. She remained so throughout the war. Her Medical Service had been prepared for a short sharp war and was hopelessly caught out. Its doctors, inculcated in the de Grandmaison notions of war 'en rase campaign' and clean bullet wounds also reckoned on an 'asceptic' war. Their miscalculation possibly cost France an Army Corps of men; for,with wounds impregnated with dirt and debris from the explosion of shells, hideous gas gangrene became the single largest mortality factor among the wounded.
 

He discusses the priorities that had to be set by the Medical Services.

 

The Germans were particularly well equipped with heavy artillery from the start, unlike Britain and France (although of course the French had their 75s)

 

It is quite clear the French soldier was not well served by his masters.

 

At a guess, repatriation of serious sick and wounded. May also be some correction of PoW figures eg Missing believed PoW in the great retreat now found to have died ?

 

Alistair Horne’s Price of Glory !

 

I was sixteen years old when I read that book,  and now, half a century later, I still rate it as the best book I’ve ever read about the Great War...perhaps about any war.

 

Here comes the BUT.....he resorts to caricature, and I suspect that his depiction of the French Medical Services is not immune from this.

 

Phil

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charlie962
14 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

I suspect that his depiction of the French Medical Services is not immune from this.

But strangely his 1962 depiction is reflected directly  in Le Figaro (a conservative French newspaper) centenary article !

 

Le Figaro give their sources:

sources: Le service de santé 1914-1918, de Marc Morillon et Jean-François Falabrègues, Service de Santé des Armées, Bernard Giovanangeli éditeur, 2014.

1914-18: guerre, chirurgie, image. Le Service de Santé et ses représentations dans la société militaire, Christine Debue-Barazer et Sébastien Perrolat, Sociétés & Représentations 2008/1 (n° 25), Publications de la Sorbonne.

Edited by charlie962

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Ex-boy

With reference to the officer tally, and looking at the large increase in OR numbers at the same time, perhaps the surmise that some who claimed to be officers and subsequently thought better of it has some substance. 

 

Steve.

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phil andrade
10 hours ago, charlie962 said:

But strangely his 1962 depiction is reflected directly  in Le Figaro (a conservative French newspaper) centenary article !

 

Le Figaro give their sources:

sources: Le service de santé 1914-1918, de Marc Morillon et Jean-François Falabrègues, Service de Santé des Armées, Bernard Giovanangeli éditeur, 2014.

1914-18: guerre, chirurgie, image. Le Service de Santé et ses représentations dans la société militaire, Christine Debue-Barazer et Sébastien Perrolat, Sociétés & Représentations 2008/1 (n° 25), Publications de la Sorbonne.

 

Charlie,

 

Rest assured that I’m ready to eat my words here.

 

There was an outcry in the public about the deaths  of several thousand  French wounded in the forward ambulances in April 1917 : the failure of medical services was something that caused consternation and contributed to the mutinies in the early summer of 1917.

 

Statistical  evidence might be cited to give the French medical achievements a more sympathetic depiction. An authoratitive  reckoning of French army battle casualties for the war gave figures of 925,000 killed on the field ( including missing subsequently classified as dead ) and 250,000 died from wounds in medical facilities.  The British figures were 526,000 and 151,000 respectively : the proportions here suggesting that things were very similar.

 

I’ll cite sources if required.

 

Phil

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phil andrade

The 1914 BEF experience, as tabulated in Medical Services, Casualties and Medical Statistics , shows a remarkable parity between the numbers killed and the number taken prisoner : 19,605 killed and 19,915 taken prisoner.  There were 3,657 died of wounds in addition.

 

If this holds true for the British, then mightn’t we assume that it applies to the French, too ?

 

The French Parliament source attributes 417,000 morts sur le terrain, disparus et prisonniers in the period August - November 1914, which implies upwards of 200,000 prisoners, if we use the British figures as a yardstick.

 

The citation of 234,000 French prisoners in German hands in March 1915 in that tabulation that Charlie posted makes this 200,000 or more for the first four months look very plausible.

 

This has been a rewarding and informative thread for me.  Thanks for helping me.

 

Phil

 

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charlie962

Phil,

These stats are very interesting and frustratingly hard to tie down. You will, I'm sure, already have seen the relevent bits in Stats of the Military Effort Britain and Empire (Archive.org) where there are British figures and also some figures for Allies and Enemies. But never quite what one is looking for. And the different countries compiled their stats on a different basis.

 

One day someone is going to digitise the individual PoW records of the ICRC so that analysis can be done of numbers by unit and/or date and place of capture. And it can cover the different Armies and the different Theatres.  That will be a fascinating database, even if a percentage of PoWs were never properly recorded. I wonder who is going to do this and when ?

 

I did note in these SMEBE stats that the Officer casualties 1918 are given monthly and that a very high figure of 'missing incl PoWs' in April 1918 was adjusted down in June 1918- mainly as a result of those not being reported as PoWs being presumed to have died and being now included in the killed column. This would fit with the comment I made in my post 10 ?

 

Early in the war I think the French forbade the publishing of the names of those killed. Clearly the huge numbers were likely to dent morale if actually known.

 

Charlie

 

 

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phil andrade

Charlie,

 

How right you are abut the slippery nature of so many of these statistics !  I do think, though, that there are significant consistencies that can also become apparent , provided we seek reasonable approximations rather than exactness.  

 

Your comment in post 10 certainly makes sense when applied to the British tabulation, but it wouldn’t work in the case of figures compiled by the Germans, who were, supposedly, compiling records of prisoners in their hands. They would not have been involved in the recategorisation of missing into dead.

 

I have become aware of the time lag apparent in the way the Germans marshalled their figures. Huge numbers of Allied prisoners captured in the spring and early summer of 1918 are not evident in the count for May 1918, but they’re on display in October, several months after they had been captured.  The same is apparent in their own casualty figures compiled by the Central Statistical Office in Berlin : the total for 1914 is understated, while the figure attributable to 1915 is inflated by a commensurate amount, as the losses of 1914 were eventually tabulated.

 

I wonder how long it took before the French people were informed as to the huge size - and the inordinately lethal composition - of their casualty figures in the opening weeks of the war.  The parliamentary source that I allude to was not publicised until 1920.  The official army returns for August and September 1914 provide totals of 419,959 casualties, of which 229,529 were posted as killed or missing. By 1920, it was apparent that the real total of killed and missing was 313,000, more than 26% higher than the official totals which were used in the history of the French Army in the Great War.  Even if more than half were prisoners, the total of deaths was still truly appalling.

 

I suppose that it was all so intense and violent that people just didn’t know what had happened to hundreds of thousands of men caught up in the maelstrom .  The officials were not lying : they just didn’t know....but I suspect you’re right about the impact on morale of acknowledging the best part of 200,000 deaths in six weeks.

 

Phil

 

 

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trajan
7 hours ago, phil andrade said:

... This has been a rewarding and informative thread for me.  

 

I suspect the same for many of us. I have never looked at casualty figures that much - no time rather than no interest - but these ones for the French are indeed shocking. It is a theme that comes through some of the German texts, not just Junger but Ahrens also, IIRC.

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phil andrade

The French nation entered the war with an acute sense of demographic fragility.

 

The events of later August and much of September 1914 did rather more than confirm  worst fears.

 

The reason for my particular interest in the thread is because many commentators have failed to allow for the fact that the tabulations of killed and missing presented in the French histories include prisoners : many a time I’ve seen allusions to 454,000 French deaths between August and November 1914 or 163,000 French  killed at Verdun in 1916....the capture of 200,000 or more French prisoners in 1914, and of 65,000 at Verdun in 1916 - included in the figures cited - seems to have been overlooked.

 

Phil

 

 

Edited by phil andrade

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phil andrade
On 28/04/2019 at 16:56, trajan said:

 

I suspect the same for many of us. I have never looked at casualty figures that much - no time rather than no interest - but these ones for the French are indeed shocking. It is a theme that comes through some of the German texts, not just Junger but Ahrens also, IIRC.

 

 Poor France !

 

Three hundred thousand dead and two hundred thousand prisoners by the end of 1914  : five hundred thousand in five months...an awful forfeit ; and the hundreds of thousands of wounded to be reckoned with in addition.  The enemy consolidating on home soil, and the prospect of all the horrors that lay ahead.

 

Much has been written about the failure of French tactics, the dismal standards of medical care, and the general sense of squalour and harshness that confronted the poilus.

 

The record of phenomenal resilience should also be acknowledged, and some truly remarkable triumphs.  By the end of the war, the French had captured nearly four hundred thousand Germans.

 

Phil

 

 

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phil andrade

Thanks, Charlie....there’s a serious danger of me buying that !

 

In the meantime, I seek to find out more about the ratio of officers that were taken prisoner, vis a vis that of the other ranks, with an eye to discerning the difference early in the war compared with later.

 

The differential between French officers and the men they lead is more apparent in the first tabulation of early 1915 : one officer for every sixty  one men ; in the final reckoning the ratio drops to one officer for every forty eight men. That is significant.  

 

In the case of the British samples, the earliest gives one officer for every forty men ; the penultimate one ( I am convinced, now, that the final anomaly is a typo or a transposition error, Steve ) gives a strikingly different ratio of one officer for every seventeen men.  I am sure, but cannot prove, that the final count should be about 6,500 officers and  177,500 men.....one to twenty seven.

 

The Medical Services volume of the official history gives an endorsement of the earliest  German tabulation : for 1914, 530 officers and 19,385 men ( one to thirty seven ) , for the war as a whole ( France and Flanders ) , 6,648 officers and 168,278 men ( one to twenty five ).

Not an exact click, so to speak, but certainly reasonably in harmony.

 

What might we infer from this ?

 

The reluctance of officers to surrender  - or the refusal to offer quarter to them - is far more apparent in 1914 than it was to be later.  It might be a simple reflection of the more conspicuous role of the officers in fighting that tended to be at closer quarters.

 

The disparity is greater in the British army than in the French.

 

Talking of French officer POWs, one of them was Charles de Gaulle, taken after he had been wounded by a bayonet thrust into his thigh in the early phase of the Battle of Verdun in 1916.  This leads me onto another question : were the figures for prisoners inclusive of the wounded ?  I am under the impression that British claims of German prisoners were purely for unwounded, or very slightly wounded, captives.  This might have been different in the case of German - or French - claims.

 

The proportions of killed to wounded implicit in the French figures for the August to September battles are grotesquely high...in some cases, the dead numbering more than the wounded.  Perhaps this might be explained by the two hundred thousand or so French prisoners from those early battles  containing a significant proportion of wounded ; were they not counted as such because they had not entered French hospitals ?

 

Editing : I’ve treated myself to a birthday present, and bought the book !

 

Phil

 

 

 

 

Edited by phil andrade

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charlie962
Posted (edited)

The early French stats should show a high officer casualty rate if they were rather distictively dressed wearing white gloves and waving swords as they bravely led their men. Easy high profile targets.

 

Of course comparing different countries would require knowledge of the standard Officer/SNCO/OR ratios for the fighting units of respective countries. And did these change as the war progressed ?

 

Charlie

Edited by charlie962

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