Catalogue description Foreign Office: Prisoners of War and Aliens Department: General Correspondence from 1906

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Details of FO 383
Reference: FO 383
Title: Foreign Office: Prisoners of War and Aliens Department: General Correspondence from 1906

This series contains records of the Prisoners of War and Aliens Department, and is one of the series of Foreign Office records arising from, and employing, the FO central registry system for correspondence for the period from 1906. The records in FO 383 relate to the imprisonment or internment of members of the armed forces, civilians and merchant seamen during the First World War, both allied and foreign, and during the period following the Armistice, leading up to the conclusion of the various peace treaties with the enemy countries in 1919.

The correspondence concerns prisoners and internees in all the First World War theatres of war. Apart from relating to the UK, the records are designated according to the countries and territories specified in the FO's correspondence system from 1906 (these are the countries and territories which are stamped on the actual documents and which appear in the first line of the individual catalogue descriptions for each piece). Specifically in FO 383 these countries and territories are as follows: Austria-Hungary, Balkans, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, America, and Portugal. It should, however, be noted that there are also references to prisoners and internees in various other countries. These include British dominions and colonies where there were prisoner camps (in particular Australia, Canada, India and South Africa) or internment issues (for example, in Ceylon, New Zealand, Gibraltar, Malta), but also German colonies in Africa and the Pacific, together with other countries in Europe, the Far East, North and South America, Africa, and the Middle East.

Several of the prisoner of war and internment camps feature prominently in the records, particularly Ruhleben camp near Berlin in Germany. There are papers concerning many other camps and places (including ships) of internment in the UK, such as Donington Hall in Leicestershire, Alexandra Palace in London, Lofthouse Park camp at Wakefield in Yorkshire, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (notably Knockaloe camp, and also Douglas), and also overseas, particularly Australia (at Liverpool, NSW), India (at Ahmednagar, near Bombay) and South Africa (at Pietermaritzburg), and others.

At government level, there are high-level policy documents relating to negotiations between the British and German and other foreign governments (through the channel of a neutral foreign embassy, primarily the USA until they joined the war in 1917) on policy matters such as the age limits for release or repatriation of prisoners, and issues such as reciprocal schemes for the repatriation of sick and injured prisoners. These documents also reflect the activities regarding requests to the neutral power to carry out inspections of prisoner camps in both countries, and to ask for investigations into particular cases. These include investigations into alleged breaches and violations of the Geneva Convention(s) and The Hague Convention of 1907. There are also documents in respect of the frequent contacts by the Foreign Office with other UK government departments about the advisability of repatriating certain prisoners or the fate of prisoners. There are also papers relating to specific outstanding cases, such as the shooting of the British nurse Edith Cavell.

No overall consolidated nominal list of prisoners of war survives, but many FO 383 documents contain lists (of variable size and content) of individuals, including prisoners and civilian internees of both sides.

The correspondence in these records originates from a variety of sources. There is a large quantity from the prisoners and internees themselves, as well as from their friends, relatives and other interested parties, such as Members of Parliament and representatives from neutral consulates who acted as the liaison points between the hostile countries. Requests include those by relatives to send money and food parcels to prisoners; or by firms to send clothing or sports goods ordered by prisoners, or enquiring after the welfare of their interned employees. The mediation of the International Red Cross, the Vatican, and foreign royalty is represented; and the work of benevolent institutions and hospital units (often founded and run by society ladies, for example Lady Paget in Serbia), religious groups or trade unions. The content of the records is wide-ranging in reflecting many issues relating to imprisonment and internment, and includes the following recurring subject areas and key themes, amongst others:

  • Enquiries into the welfare or fate of individual prisoners or groups of prisoners, and searches for missing soldiers and individuals in alien countries.
  • Treatment of prisoners of war; official reports of camp inspections, interviews with escaped or repatriated prisoners, and conditions of prisoners of all nationalities and living conditions in camps (many of which are first-hand accounts by prisoners of their experiences).
  • Nationality issues, including investigations into proof of nationality of individuals requesting relief and assistance, or from seamen removed from neutral merchant vessels.
  • Arrangements for the compilation and transfer between governments of lists of prisoners, with many documents containing those lists.
  • Individual requests for repatriation and financial assistance.
  • Queries regarding the delivery of letters and parcels.
  • Censorship of correspondence.
  • Arrangements for repatriation or transfer of individuals to neutral countries.
  • Personal papers, including applications for emergency British passports (most of which have photographs of the individuals and details of their family), and some birth, death or marriage certificates.
  • Investigations into accusations of espionage and contraventions of alien restrictions legislation.
  • Trade issues, such as trading with the enemy, and firms requesting whether they may supply prisoners of all nationalities with goods.
  • Communications with missionary societies regarding missionaries in Africa and India.
  • Property matters, including safety of houses, furniture and personal effects in the belligerent countries, and applications for assistance in recovering luggage and property.
  • Relief organisations, including activities of the national British Relief Fund and private and charitable schemes.
  • Red Cross activities in distributing parcels of food and medical supplies to prisoners, and the transmission of mail between prisoners and their families.
  • Legal matters, such as transference of powers of attorney, the execution of legal estates following deaths of internees and prisoners, and the disposal of personal effects.
  • Financial enquiries regarding individual insurance policies, bank accounts, share dividends, inheritances, pensions, deposits of securities, etc.
  • Refugees, including treatment and care of refugees, such as the deportation of Jewish refugees.
  • Casualties and survivors, including lists and reports from specific campaigns, or from lost ships and submarines.
  • Visits, including requests by representatives of official and voluntary organisations or other individuals to travel to neutral countries, or foreign subjects to come to the UK.
  • Consular and diplomatic arrangements.
  • Minutes and agendas for meetings and conferences of various bodies and inter-departmental committees.

This is not an exhaustive list, and many other associated subjects are to be found amongst the documents.

Some documents include reports that are contained in the indexes to the First World War Unregistered Papers in WO 161/101 which do not exist in WO 161/95-100.

Note: The documents in FO 383 were re-catalogued during 2004. The description for each piece provides a comprehensive overall account of the files and dockets within the bound volume. The user should note that the contents are listed in the order in which they appear, but that files are only described at their first occurrence within that piece (i.e. later dockets relating to the same subject or individual within the same document, will not necessarily have been described in that later position in which they appear). It should, however, be possible to find earlier and later dockets in the volume by using the correspondence numbers in the 'Last Paper' and 'Next Paper' boxes on the individual docket covers. Where appropriate specific docket numbers have been included in the descriptions to highlight papers of particular interest, and to specify files in instances of recurring subject matter.
Date: 1915-1919

The series is arranged by date, and then by country or territory.

The individual documents in FO 383 comprise bound volumes within which are arranged files and dockets of correspondence. The file ranges appear on the spines of the volumes, together with the country or territory as designated by the Foreign Office central registry system from 1906. Those countries or territories are then stamped at the top of the individual docket covers for the correspondence within each volume. These internal docket covers also contain two numbers. The file number is the number in the top right-hand corner of the docket cover, either handwritten and preceded by 'F' or stamped 'File No'. The number appearing in the middle at the top of the docket cover is the specific correspondence number. The correspondence for each file number is then arranged in chronological order. All of the files adopt the number of the first correspondence docket number within the sequence of that file. Some files contain a different sequence of docket covers, included as enclosures.

Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Foreign Office, Prisoners of War and Aliens Department, 1915-1919

Physical description: 547 volume(s)
Access conditions: Open unless otherwise stated
Immediate source of acquisition:

Foreign Office

Custodial history: Records were transferred from the Foreign Office between 1942 and 1949, as follows: pieces 1-112 in February 1942; pieces 113-358 in March 1943; pieces 359-475 in February 1948; pieces 476-547 in December 1949.
Accruals: No future accruals expected.
Unpublished finding aids:

Reference is by means of the FO card index and registers in FO 566 and FO 662

Administrative / biographical background:

The Prisoners of War and Aliens Department was set up in 1915 and functioned until 1919. It co-ordinated certain aspects of work concerning prisoners of war and internees carried on in other government departments, and was to some extent independent of the Foreign Office.

At the beginning of the war, the Treaty Department was given special additional responsibility for prisoners of war and aliens, but in 1915 this responsibility was passed firstly to the Prize Court Department, and then very soon afterwards to a separate Prisoners and Aliens (later Prisoners of War) Department, responsible for the treatment of prisoners of war and other aliens in the UK, the colonies, and the dominions.

In its co-ordinating role in respect of prisoners of war and aliens across government, the department was responsible not only for the treatment of military prisoners of war, but also for civilian internees. During the First World War, both sides set up internment camps to hold enemy aliens; these were civilians who were believed to be a potential threat and have sympathy with the enemy's war objectives. Internees were treated differently to prisoners of war as they were given privileges inside the internment camps (for example, playing sports and putting on theatrical productions).

The department's responsibilities therefore included the treatment of British prisoners interned in foreign camps, but also the treatment of foreign prisoners in the UK after the commencement of internment in the UK and Germany in 1914 following the start of the war:

  • In the United Kingdom, the Aliens Registration Act was introduced on 5 August 1914. This and subsequent legislation required that enemy aliens of military age should be interned and others repatriated. The legislation required thousands of enemy aliens who were living and working in the United Kingdom to register with their local police station. People had to supply personal and employment details. From 28 November, it was decreed that everybody (British or foreign) must register with the police when moving into hotels or boarding houses. Internment camps (in addition to prisoner of war camps) began to be set up across the United Kingdom in a variety of locations, including an old wagon factory at Lancaster, the racecourse at Newbury, in London at Alexandra Palace and Islington, and other makeshift camps such as York and Frimley, and also internment ships moored at Southend, Portsmouth, and elsewhere. A number of these were unsatisfactory, and the bulk of the internees came to be housed on the Isle of Man, at Knockaloe and a smaller camp at Douglas. The alien civilian camp at Knockaloe, near Peel, was originally intended to house 5,000 internees, but by the end of the war some 24,500 were held there (effectively over half of the island's population), in wooden huts covering 22 acres split into 23 compounds divided between four camps each of which had its own hospital, theatre, etc. The wealthier men were allowed to live together in a special camp at Lofthouse Park near Wakefield in Yorkshire and in 'privileged' sections of other camps (for this they paid the Government a weekly sum, and in addition they were able to add many improvements to the official quarters provided). Officers were held at Donington Hall, a former stately home near Derby.
  • In Germany, on 5 November 1914, all British males within Germany became subject to internment. These individuals came from all aspects of society, and included merchant seamen, individuals from the professional classes and business community, as well as academics, students, sportsmen and even travellers and holidaymakers. A racecourse near Berlin named Ruhleben became the principal prison camp for the men, who were then interned en masse. During the First World War the camp at Ruhleben had over 4,000 internees.

The Prisoners of War Department, which became virtually independent in October 1916, was wound-up in 1919.

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