The Canadian Centre for the Great War recently posted about Special Service companies that guarded military prisons and prisoners of war. This reminded me of the archives of the International Prisoners of War Agency at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva, which I visited last fall. The Agency was established in August 1914, with a mandate to restore contact between people separated by war – prisoners of war, civilian internees, and civilians in occupied territories. During the war, its volunteers documented close to 2.5 million POWs.
Using the lists of prisoners of war provided by the warring States as a basis, the Agency made out an index card for each prisoner. These cards were classified by nationality, in files which also contained requests for information. As soon as a piece of information was matched with a request, the Agency was able to send a reply to the family or the place of origin of the prisoner of war concerned. (ICRC Resource Centre)
According to THE INTERNATIONAL PRISONERS-OF-WAR AGENCY: The ICRC in World War One, the archives has 400 linear metres of records, including:
- 20 linear metres of general records recounting the activities of the Agency
- 2,413 volumes of information – 600,000 pages – provided by the belligerents (lists of prisoners, lists of persons who died in combat or in captivity, investigation reports, lists of persons repatriated, etc)
- 5,119 boxes, containing about six million index cards.
These photos show some of the original index cards. A simple display, effective at conveying the overwhelming numbers. The deteriorating records have been digitized and are searchable at http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/.