Saturday, 2 January 2016

P.O.W.s on Parole

     They don't fight wars the way they used to. I was surprised to discover, for example, that during the War of 1812 American prisoners were released by the British authorities with letters of parole. Essentially, they were let go when they signed a promise not to take up arms against His Majesty again. This they were able to do because, for the most part, they were militia who had signed up for six months' service, and were free to resign after that.
     (And at the risk of offending my American readers, I might add that I find it a rather inefficient way to run a war. From memory, their achievements in that conflict were not stellar.)
     Meanwhile, back on the other side of the Atlantic, Britain had to deal with 100,000 French and allied prisoners. A lot of them would have been repatriated during the short peace between 1802 and 1803. Nevertheless, anyone captured after 1803 could expect to spend up to eleven years as a P.O.W. By 1810 Britain was holding 51,354 P.O.W.s, while 11,458 Britons were held in France. Opposing sides normally repatriated enemy invalids ie those too sick or injured to fight anymore. However, in this matter, Napoleon refused to play ball, and between 1803 and July 1811 only 13 Britons were released, compared to 10,457 French and allies P.O.W.s. (I am quoting someone called PaulC on this discussion board. He cites his sources.)
     Prisons, of course, were pretty miserable places at the time. Also, up till then countries had no real experience in handling enormous numbers of captives for lengthy periods. But if the French prisoners suffered, it was because of the nature of the beast, not from any intended cruelty. The big P.O.W. camp at Dartmoor was, in fact, intended as a model holding facility.
     So much for the rank and file. But the officers were given parole. Yes, this was class distinction. But you must remember, these were the days when a gentleman's word was his bond. They were provided with the terms of their parole, and permitted to move around within certain boundaries, collect an allowance (after all, they would have to have been fed and clothed in prison), and were able to earn additional income and acquire their own lodgings. The most celebrated prisoner, Napoleon's own brother, Lucien, was even allowed to purchase a country house.
     But I shall refer you to Antoine Vanner's excellent article for further details. What inspired this present article was what I read in Robert Southey's Life of Nelson. Spain was an ally of France during the Battle of Trafalgar, and contributed ships to the French fleet, and some of them had been captured as prizes by the British. Just a couple of minutes before Nelson breathed his last, the last shots of the battle were heard, and the French cannons were fired, not only into the British vessels, but also into the captured Spanish ships.
     After the battle, the wounded Spanish prisoners were set ashore in their own country, having given their word of honour that they would not serve again until they had been officially exchanged for British prisoners. The Spanish then offered the use of their own hospitals for the British wounded.
     Then a gale came up, and some of the French prizes escaped, while some were driven onto the Spanish coast. The British soldiers and seamen on board the prizes were now in Spanish hands. However, the Spanish insisted they would not be treated as P.O.W.s, and Spanish soldiers even gave up their beds to their shipwrecked enemies.
     Meanwhile, the healthy Spanish P.O.W.s aboard the British ships were still rankled over the way their allies had treated them. So, when H.M.S. Argonauta came across some of the disabled French prizes, the prisoners asked to be allowed to man the guns against them. Their request was granted.
     And all this was long before the Geneva Conventions; it was just a matter of gentlemen's agreements.

1 comment:

  1. This happened during WW2 in America. Nazi POWs were allowed to work on farms, go out, etc.