Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War (POWs) are those captured by the enemy while fighting in the military, a by-product of relatively sophisticated warfare. In primitive fighting, prisoners were rarely taken, the vanquished being tortured (often ritualistically) or killed. The concept of permanent enslavement of a defeated enemy developed, and from that the idea of ransom in the case of the rich or powerful. These options were practised by the indigenous inhabitants of North America, and all, except ritualistic torture, by the early European settlers. By the end of the 18th century, however, most communities had accepted the principle of simply quarantining prisoners, either by confining them or paroling them in some fashion. Such were the usual practices in the Anglo-French wars, the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

International rules to govern the treatment of POWs were first formulated at Geneva in 1864 and were refined at The Hague in 1899 as part of a broader codification of the rules of war. Canadians taken prisoner during the South African War had little need of these rules, since the Afrikaners, fighting a guerrilla campaign for most of the war, had no facilities for holding prisoners. After being relieved of their weapons, equipment and supplies, prisoners were usually released.

The Hague Convention was revised in 1907, and the 2818 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force taken prisoner during World War I, as well as the 2005 German POWs held in Canada, were treated in accordance with the revisions. But in Europe there were many complaints that the spirit of the convention was not observed. In 1929 a Geneva Convention relating specifically to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was negotiated through the League of Nations. Prisoners were to be treated humanely, subject to the need to secure them. A prisoner need only give his captors his name, rank and number; he might be required to work but must not be assigned to work with direct military implications.

In World War II about 8000 Canadians became German POWs and were generally treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Two glaring exceptions were the execution of some participants in a mass escape attempt from Stalag Luft III in March 1944 and the manacling of British and Canadian prisoners in October 1942 as a reprisal for the temporary tying up of German prisoners taken at Dieppe and in a minor British commando raid. The British retaliated by shackling some of their prisoners and asked the Canadians to do likewise. Canada acquiesced and some Germans were handcuffed until the British and Canadian governments decided in December 1942 that retaliation was counterproductive. The Germans continued shackling until November 1943, but long before that most of the prisoners were only manacled while on parade.

Among the 30 000 German and Italian POWs held in Canada during the war, Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Franz von Werra distinguished himself as "the one that got away," escaping from a train near Prescott, Ontario, the night of 23-24 January 1941, crossing into the US, and subsequently returning to Germany. He was later killed in action. Others escaped but did not succeed in recrossing the Atlantic; one, at least, got to Mexico. Several POWs were murdered by their fellow prisoners for not conforming to Hitlerian standards of conduct.

Thirty-two Canadians were taken POW during the Korean War and treated harshly, neither North Korea nor the People's Republic of China being signatories to the revised Geneva Convention of 1949. Efforts were made to "brainwash" them in attempts to alter their political perceptions; none died in captivity. Canadian soldiers were briefly used to guard POWs after a rising of North Korean and Chinese POWs in a UN prison camp on Koje-Do in May 1952.

See also Internment.