Researching a soldier
Finding records of British POWs of the First World War
During the Great War of 1914-1918 some 7,335 officers and 174,491 other ranks of the British Army were captured by the enemy. Of these, about half fell into captivity between 21 March and 11 November 1918. Unfortunately, for those wishing to research men who became prisoners, there are relatively few sources of information about what happened to them. Most records of British POWs of the Great War are no longer in existence or easily accessible.
Fragmentary records in the UK
There are very few records of British POWs held in the United Kingdom.
- A (relatively very small) number of records of debriefing interviews and reports from the Red Cross and other observers, compiled for a committee investigating cases of mis-treatment of British POWs, is held by the National Archives in document series WO161.
- The records have been digitised and are available at the National Archives website.
- A printed list of officers taken POW was produced during the war and has been reprinted in recent years: there is a copy in the National Archives Library and it can be found on the used book market. It is the List of officers taken prisoner in the various theatres of war between August 1914 and November 1918. It was originally published by Cox & Co.
- The “Times”, “Irish Times” and “The Scotsman” newspaper printed official War Office lists of the missing and also notifications when a man previously declared missing was now known to be in enemy hands, although this helpful practice petered out during 1915-1916.
- Records of men who died in enemy captivity are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- Local newspapers often recorded men who were declared as missing or as POWs.
- The British Red Cross & Order of St John of Jerusalem produced lists of wounded and missing British personnel in all theatres of war about whom enquiries had been made; the list is up to and including 20 July 1917 had been reprinted by the Naval & Military Press.
- Unit war diaries occasionally name officers or men who were reported missing.
- POWs are often mentioned, or are the subject of, Foreign Office correspondence. Try searching for the man’s name using the National Archives website Discovery search engine (also entering FO in the ‘Enter a reference’ field). Foreign Office papers are not online but can be consulted as original documents at the National Archives
Records in Switzerland
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva holds more records.
- This was the single largest archive retaining records of POWs from the Great War period, but access is restricted. There is an appropriate form to complete, available on the ICRC Archives website. This is a paid service and ICRC will provide details of costs once you have submitted the form. Stop Press: the service is not available while the ICRC digitises the records. We understand that they are aiming for release in 2014.