A prisoner of war (POW, PoW, PW, P/W, WP, or PsW) or enemy prisoner of war (EPW) is a combatant who is held in continuing custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict. The earliest recorded usage of the phrase is dated 1660.
According to John Hickman, captor states hold captured combatants and non-combatants in continuing custody for a range of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. They are held to isolate them from combatants still in the field, to release and repatriate them in an orderly manner after hostilities, to demonstrate military victory, to punish them, to prosecute them for war crimes, to exploit them for their labor, to recruit or even conscript them as their own combatants, to collect military and political intelligence from them, and to indoctrinate them in new political or religious beliefs.
For most of human history, depending on the culture of the victors, combatants on the losing side in a battle could expect to be either slaughtered or enslaved. The first Roman gladiators were prisoners of war and were named according to their ethnic roots such as Samnite, Thracian and the Gaul (Gallus). Typically, little distinction was made between combatants and civilians, although women and children were more likely to be spared. Sometimes the purpose of a battle, if not a war, was to capture women, a practice known as raptio; the Rape of the Sabines was a large mass abduction by the founders of Rome. Typically women had no rights, and were held legally as chattel.
In the Fourth Century AD, the Bishop Acacius of Amida, touched by the plight of Persian prisoners captured in a recent war with the Roman Empire - who were held in his town under appalling conditions, and destined for a life of slavery - took the initiative of ransoming them, by selling his church's precious gold and silver vessels, and letting them return to their country. For this he was eventually canonized - which testifies to his act being exceptional.
Likewise the distinction between POW and slave is not always clear. Some of the Native Americans captured Europeans and used them as both labourers and bargaining chips; see for example John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802–1805.
During Childeric's siege and blockade of Paris in 464, the nun Geneviève (later canonised as the city's Patron Saint) pleaded with the Frankish King for the welfare of prisoners of war and met with a favorable response. Later, Clovis I liberated captives after Genevieve urged him to do so.
In the later Middle Ages, a number of religious wars were particularly ferocious. In Christian Europe, the extermination of the heretics or "non-believers" was considered desirable. Examples include the 13th century Albigensian Crusade and the Northern Crusades. Likewise the inhabitants of conquered cities were frequently massacred during the Crusades against the Muslims in the 11th century and the 12th century. Noblemen could hope to be ransomed; their families would have to send to their captors large sums of wealth commensurate with the social status of the captive. Many French prisoners of war were killed during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the samurai-dominated Japan there was no custom of ransoming prisoners of war, who were for the most part summarily executed.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, upon capture, those captives not executed were made to beg for their subsistence. During the early reforms under Islam, Muhammad changed this custom and made it the responsibility of the Islamic government to provide food and clothing, on a reasonable basis, to captives, regardless of their religion. If the prisoners were in the custody of a person, then the responsibility was on the individual. He established the rule that prisoners of war must be guarded and not ill-treated, and that after the fighting was over, the prisoners were expected to be either released or ransomed. However, the leader of the Muslim force capturing non-Muslim prisoners could choose whether to kill prisoners, to ransom them, to enslave them, or to cut off their hands and feet on alternate sides. The freeing of prisoners in particular was highly recommended as a charitable act. Mecca was the first city to have the benevolent code applied. However, Christians who were captured in the Crusades were sold into slavery if they could not pay a ransom.
The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, established the rule that prisoners of war should be released without ransom at the end of hostilities and that they should be allowed to return to their homelands.
There also evolved the right of parole [French > "discourse"], in which a captured officer surrendered his sword and gave his word as a gentleman in exchange for privileges. If he swore not to escape, he could gain better accommodations and the freedom of the prison. If he swore to cease hostilities against the nation who held him captive, he could be repatriated or exchanged but could not serve against his former captors in a military capacity.
About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the American Civil War – almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During the 14 months the Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 (28%) died. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10% of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25%, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville.
During the 19th century, efforts increased to improve the treatment and processing of prisoners. The extensive period of conflict during the Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), followed by the Anglo-American War of 1812, led to the emergence of a cartel system for the exchange of prisoners, even while the belligerents were at war. A cartel was usually arranged by the respective armed service for the exchange of like ranked personnel. The aim was to achieve a reduction in the number of prisoners held, while at the same time alleviating shortages of skilled personnel in the home country.
Later, as result of these emerging conventions a number of international conferences were held, starting with the Brussels Conference of 1874, with nations agreeing that it was necessary to prevent inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of weapons causing unnecessary harm. Although no agreements were immediately ratified by the participating nations, work was continued that resulted in new conventions being adopted and becoming recognized as international law, that specified that prisoners of war are required to be treated humanely and diplomatically.
Specifically, Chapter II of the Annex to the 1907 Hague Convention covered the treatment of prisoners of war in detail. These were further expanded in the Third Geneva Convention of 1929, and its revision of 1949. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention protects captured military personnel, some guerrilla fighters and certain civilians. It applies from the moment a prisoner is captured until he or she is released or repatriated. One of the main provisions of the convention makes it illegal to torture prisoners and states that a prisoner can only be required to give their name, date of birth, rank and service number (if applicable).
However, nations vary in their dedication to following these laws, and historically the treatment of POWs has varied greatly. During the 20th century, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were notorious for atrocities against prisoners during World War II. The German military used the Soviet Union's refusal to sign the Geneva Convention as a reason for not providing the necessities of life to Russian POWs. North Korean and North and South Vietnamese forces routinely killed or mistreated prisoners taken during those conflicts.
To be entitled to prisoner-of-war status, captured service members must be lawful combatants entitled to combatant's privilege—which gives them immunity from punishment for crimes constituting lawful acts of war, e.g., killing enemy troops. To qualify under the Third Geneva Convention, a combatant must have conducted military operations according to the laws and customs of war, be part of a chain of command, wear a "fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance" and bear arms openly. Thus, uniforms and/or badges are important in determining prisoner-of-war status; and francs-tireurs, terrorists, saboteurs, mercenaries and spies do not qualify. In practice, these criteria are not always interpreted strictly. Guerrillas, for example, do not necessarily wear an issued uniform nor carry arms openly, yet captured combatants of this type have sometimes been granted POW status. The criteria are generally applicable to international armed conflicts. In civil wars, insurgents are often treated as traitors or criminals by government forces, and are sometimes executed. However, in the American Civil War, both sides treated captured troops as POWs, presumably out of reciprocity, though the Union regarded Confederacy personnel as separatist rebels. However, guerrillas and other irregular combatants generally cannot expect to simultaneously benefit from both civilian and military status.
The United States Military Code of Conduct, Articles III, are for United States service members who have been taken prisoner. They were created in response to the breakdown of leadership which can happen in a typical environment such as a POW situation, specifically when US forces were POWs during the Korean War. When a person is taken prisoner, the Code of Conduct reminds the service member that the chain of command is still in effect (the highest ranking service member, eligible to command, regardless of armed service branch, is in command), and that the service member cannot receive special favors or parole from their captors, lest this undermine the service member's chain of command.
During World War I about 8 million men surrendered and were held in POW camps until the war ended. All nations pledged to follow the Hague rules on fair treatment of prisoners of war, and in general the POWs had a much higher survival rate than their peers who were not captured. Individual surrenders were uncommon; usually a large unit surrendered all its men. At Tannenberg 92,000 Russians surrendered during the battle. When the besieged garrison of Kaunas surrendered in 1915, 20,000 Russians became prisoners. Over half the Russian losses were prisoners as a proportion of those captured, wounded or killed. About 3.3 million men became prisoners.
Germany held 2.5 million prisoners; Russia held 2.9 million, and Britain and France held about 720,000, mostly gained in the period just before the Armistice in 1918. The US held 48,000. The most dangerous moment was the act of surrender, when helpless soldiers were sometimes shot down. Once prisoners reached a POW camp conditions were better (and often much better than in World War II), thanks in part to the efforts of the International Red Cross and inspections by neutral nations. There was however much harsh treatment of POWs in Germany, as recorded by the American ambassador to Germany (prior to America's entry into the war), James W. Gerard, who published his findings in "My Four Years in Germany". Even worse conditions are reported in the book "Escape of a Princess Pat" by the Canadian George Pearson. It was particularly bad in Russia, where starvation was common for prisoners and civilians alike; about 40% of the prisoners in Russia died or remained missing. Nearly 375,000 of the 500,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war taken by Russians perished in Siberia from smallpox and typhus. In Germany food was short but only 5% died.
The Ottoman Empire often treated prisoners of war poorly. Some 11,800 British soldiers, most of them Indians, became prisoners after the five-month Siege of Kut, in Mesopotamia, in April 1916. Many were weak and starved when they surrendered and 4,250 died in captivity.
The most curious case came in Russia where the Czechoslovak Legion of Czechoslovak prisoners (from the Austro-Hungarian army), were released in 1917, armed themselves, and briefly became a military and diplomatic force during the Russian Civil War.
At the end of the war in 1918 there were believed to be 140,000 British prisoners of war in Germany, including 3,000 internees held in neutral Switzerland. The first British prisoners were released and reached Calais on 15 November. Plans were made for them to be sent via Dunkirk to Dover and a large reception camp was established at Dover capable of housing 40,000 men, which could later be used for demobilisation.
On 13 December 1918 the armistice was extended and the Allies reported that by 9 December 264,000 prisoners had been repatriated. A very large number of these had been released en masse and sent across Allied lines without any food or shelter. This created difficulties for the receiving Allies and many released prisoners died from exhaustion. The released POWs were met by cavalry troops and sent back through the lines in lorries to reception centres where they were refitted with boots and clothing and dispatched to the ports in trains. Upon arrival at the receiving camp the POWs were registered and "boarded" before being dispatched to their own homes. All commissioned officers had to write a report on the circumstances of their capture and to ensure that they had done all they could to avoid capture. Each returning officer and man was given a message from King George V, written in his own hand and reproduced on a lithograph. It read as follows:
"The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries & hardships, which you have endured with so much patience and courage.
During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant Officers & Men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.
We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived, & that back in the old Country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home & to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return. George R.I."
The Empire of Japan, which had never signed the Second Geneva Convention of 1929, also did not treat prisoners of war in accordance with international agreements, including provisions of the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), either during the Second Sino-Japanese War or during the Pacific War. Moreover, according to a directive ratified on 5 August 1937 by Hirohito, the constraints of the Hague Conventions were explicitly removed on Chinese prisoners.
Prisoners of war from China, the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Philippines held by the Japanese armed forces were subject to murder, beatings, summary punishment, brutal treatment, forced labor, medical experimentation, starvation rations and poor medical treatment. The most notorious use of forced labour was in the construction of the Burma–Thailand Death Railway.
No access to the POWs was provided to the International Red Cross. Escapes among Caucasian prisoners were almost impossible because of the difficulty of men of Caucasian descent hiding in Asiatic societies.
Life in the POW camps was recorded at great risk to themselves by artists such as Jack Bridger Chalker, Philip Meninsky, Ashley George Old and Ronald Searle. Human hair was often used for brushes, plant juices and blood for paint, and toilet paper as the 'canvas'. Some of their works were used as evidence in the trials of Japanese war criminals. Many are now held by the Australian War Memorial, State Library of Victoria and the Imperial War Museum in London.
According to the findings of the Tokyo tribunal, the death rate of Western prisoners was 27.1% (American POWs died at a rate of 37%), seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians. The death rate of Chinese was much larger. Thus, while 37,583 prisoners from the United Kingdom, Commonwealth and Dominions, 28,500 from Netherlands and 14,473 from USA were released after the surrender of Japan, the number for the Chinese was only 56.
The death toll among POWs in general is estimated at between 6 and 10 million. Germany and Italy generally treated prisoners from the British Commonwealth, France, the U.S. and other Western allies in accordance with the Geneva Convention (1929), which had been signed by these countries. It is noteworthy that this also applied to Jewish POWs wearing the British Army's uniform, who were treated on an equal footing with other British soldiers and excluded from application of the murderous Final Solution policies effected against virtually all other Jews who fell into Nazi hands. (For example, Major Yitzhak Ben-Aharon—later a prominent Israeli trade unionist and politician—was captured by the Germans at Greece in 1941 and underwent four years of captivity under fairly tolerable conditions).
In German camps, when soldiers of lower rank were made to work, they were compensated, and officers (e.g. in Colditz Castle) were not required to work. The main complaints of British, British Commonwealth, U.S., and French prisoners of war in German Army POW camps-especially during the last two years of the war-concerned the bare bones menu provided, a fate German soldiers and civilians were also suffering due to the blockade conditions. Fortunately for the prisoners, food packages provided by the International Red Cross supplemented the food rations, until the last few months when allied air raids prevented shipments from arriving. The other main complaint was the harsh treatment during forced marches in the last months, resulting from German attempts to keep prisoners away from the advancing allied forces.
Germany did not apply the same standard of treatment to non-Western prisoners, such as the many soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, who suffered harsh conditions and died in large numbers while in captivity. Between 1941 and 1945, the Axis powers took about 5.7 million Soviet prisoners. About 1 million of them were released during the war, in that their status changed but they remained under German authority. A little over 500,000 either escaped or were liberated by the Red Army. Some 930,000 more were found alive in camps after the war. The remaining 3.3 million prisoners (57.5% of the total captured) died during their captivity. According to Russian military historian General Grigoriy Krivosheyev, 4.6 million Soviet prisoners were taken by the Axis powers, of which 1.8 million were found alive in camps after the war and 318,770 were released by the Axis during the war and were then drafted into the Soviet armed forces again. In comparison, 8,348 Western Allied (British, American and Canadian) prisoners died in German camps in 1939-45 (3.5% of the 232,000 total).
An official justification used by the Germans for this policy was that the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention. This was not legally justifiable, however, as under article 82 of the Geneva Convention (1929), signatory countries had to give POWs of all signatory and non-signatory countries the rights assigned by the convention. Beevor indicates that about one month after the German invasion in 1941 an offer was made by the USSR for a reciprocal adherence to the Hague conventions. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials. In contrast, Tolstoy discusses that the German Government as well as the International Red Cross made several efforts to regulate reciprocal treatment of prisoners until early 1942, but received no answers from the Soviet side. Further, the Soviets took a harsh position towards captured Soviet soldiers as they expected each soldier to fight to the death and automatically excluded any prisoner from the “Russian community”.
On 11 February 1945, at the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, the United States and the United Kingdom signed a Repatriation Agreement with the USSR. The interpretation of this Agreement resulted in the forcible repatriation of all Russians (Operation Keelhaul) regardless of their wishes. The forced repatriation operations took place in 1945-1947. Many Soviet POWs and forced laborers transported to Nazi Germany were on their return to the USSR treated as traitors and sent to GULAG prison camps. The remainder were barred from all but the most menial jobs.
As a result of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers became prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Thousands of them were executed; over 20,000 Polish military personnel and civilians perished in the Katyn massacre. Out of Anders' 80,000 evacuees from Soviet Union gathered in Great Britain only 310 volunteered to return to Poland in 1947.
According to some sources, the Soviets captured 3.5 million Axis servicemen (excluding Japanese) of which more than a million died. One specific example of the tragic fate of the German POWs was after the Battle of Stalingrad, during which the Soviets captured 91,000 German troops, many already starved and ill, of whom only 5,000 survived the war. The last German POWs (those who were sentenced for war crimes, sometimes without sufficient reasons) were released by the Soviets in 1955, only after Joseph Stalin had died. At least 54,000 Italian POWs died in Russia, with a mortality rate of 84.5%. See also POW labor in the Soviet Union, Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, Romanian POW in the Soviet Union.
During the war the Armies of Allied nations such as the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada were ordered to treat Axis prisoners strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention (1929). Some breaches of the Convention took place, however. According to Stephen E. Ambrose, of the roughly 1,000 U.S. combat veterans that he had interviewed, roughly 1/3 told him they had seen U.S. troops kill German prisoners.
Although thousands of Japanese were taken prisoner, most fought until they were killed or committed suicide. Of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers present at the beginning of the Battle of Iwo Jima, over 20,000 were killed and only 1,083 taken prisoner. Of the 30,000 Japanese troops that defended Saipan, less than 1,000 remained alive at battle's end. Japanese prisoners sent to camps fared well but many Japanese were killed when trying to surrender or were massacred just after they had surrendered (see Allied war crimes during World War II in the Pacific). Some Japanese prisoners in POW camps died at their own hands, either directly or by attacking guards with the intention of forcing the guards to kill them.
Towards the end of the war in Europe, as large numbers of Axis soldiers surrendered, the U.S. created the designation of Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF) so as not to treat prisoners as POWs. A lot of these soldiers were kept in open fields in various Rheinwiesenlagers. Controversy has arisen about how Eisenhower managed these prisoners (see Other Losses). Many died when forced to clear minefields in Norway, France etc. How many died during the several post-war years that they were used as forced labor in France, the Soviet Union, etc, is disputed. The "London Cage", a MI19 prisoner of war facility in the UK during and immediately after WWII, was subject to frequent allegations of torture.
The North Vietnamese captured many U.S. service members as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, who suffered from mistreatment and torture during the war. However the South Vietnamese also behaved badly towards the North Vietnamese they captured.
Regardless of regulations determining treatment to prisoners, violations of their rights continue to be reported. Many cases of POW massacres have been reported in recent times, including October 13 massacre in Lebanon by Syrian forces and June 1990 massacre in Sri Lanka.
During the Gulf War in 1991, American, British, Italian and Kuwaiti POWs (mostly crew members of downed aircraft and special forces) were tortured by the Iraqi secret police. An American military doctor, Major Rhonda Cornum, a 37-year-old flight surgeon, captured when her Blackhawk UH-60 was shot down was also subjected to sexual abuse.
In 2001, there were reports that India had actually taken two prisoners during the Sino-Indian War, Yang Chen and Shih Liang. The two were imprisoned as spies for three years before being interned in a mental asylum in Ranchi, where they spent the next 38 years under a special prisoner status. The last prisoners of Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) were exchanged in 2003.
About six months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S Army, abuse of Iraqi prisoners started to occur. The best known abuse incidents occurred at the large Abu Ghraib prison, some of them involving Iraqi POWs in addition to crime and insurgency suspects.
Occasionally, individual members of the U.S. Congress pushed for action in regard to possible U.S. POWs from prior U.S. military involvements and from the Cold War itself, with varying results. One of these was Republican Senator from North Carolina and ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Jesse Helms in his efforts in behalf of the World War II and Vietnam eras servicemen, as well as the passengers and crew of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, shot down by the Soviets on Sept. 1, 1983.
This is a list of nations with the highest number of POWs since the start of World War II, listed in descending order. These are also the highest numbers in any war since the Geneva Convention, Relative to the treatment of prisoners of war (1929) entered into force 19 June 1931. The USSR had not signed the Geneva convention.
|Prisoner nationality||Number||Name of conflict|
|Soviet Union||4—5.7 million taken by Germany (2.7—3.3 million died in German POW camps)  (ref. Streit)||World War II (Total)|
|Nazi Germany||World War II|
|France||1,800,000 taken by Germany||World War II|
|Poland||675,000 (420,000 by Germans, 240,000 by Soviets in 1939; 15,000 Warsaw 1944)||World War II|
|United Kingdom||~200,000 (135,000 taken in Europe, does not include Pacific or Commonwealth figures)||World War II|
|Iraq||~175,000 taken by Coalition of the Gulf War||Gulf War|
|United States||~130,000 (95,532 taken by Germany)||World War II|
|Pakistan||90,368 taken by India. Later released by India in accordance with the Simla Agreement.||Indo-Pakistani War of 1971|