Treatment of POW's during the Napoleonic War?

#1
Afternoon gents,
I was watching one of the 'Sharpe' films last night, and in it, a group of French soldiers were taken prisoner towards the end of the film. And it got me wondering as to how POWs were usually treated, during that conflict.
Now, as arrse has more than it's fair share of SMEs on the subject of 'military history' I am sure that someone can enlighten me as to the treatment of the average en 'squaddie' in the days before rules as to the treatment of en combatants were introduced. Obviously, I know that a captured Officer would be treated differently to enlisted men, but can anyone offer me an insight in to the rules back then.
 
#2
I saw this a while back, I didn't know anything about the subject so there was a lot of this that was new to me;

 
#3
Officers could be given a remarkable amount of freedom by both Britain and France if captured and giving their parole (ie promising not to escape). Living in houses in towns within France/UK with pretty much no guard whatsoever. IIRC some British officers left pretty good accounts of their time under loose house arrest in France.

Men were basically as per the Geneva Covention - you can use them for labour. In Britain this led to the construction of the Plymouth breakwater, HMP Dartmoor, Princetown church. etc/
 
#4
Not sure of 'rules', but 'troops' were generally locked in prison camps or old fortifications where they could whittle away their time making scrimshaw carvings to sell/trade fro food/'baccy/etc until the war ended, or they were exchanged. There was a 'Time Team' programme some years back about a Napoleonic camp (in Cambs?).

Officers, as you've alluded to, were often effectively housed as boarders, with quite a lot of physical and financial freedom if they had given their parole.
 

LancePrivateJones

MIA
Book Reviewer
#5
From Memory;
I don't think there were any 'rules' as such but a tacit recognition of the 'Hors de Combat' principle.
From what I have read treatment varied considerably from the despair of Dartmoor Prison to more enlightened POW camps where parole and limited assimilation were accepted.
An interesting subject.
 
#6
worth also making the point that there is a qualitative difference between services, and *when* capture took place. In the earlier part of the Napoleonic wars, when it was still very revolutionary in France, officers and men alike had a harder time, as being seen as potential counter-revolutionaries/symbols of the old order. Incarceration for all concerned with no differentiation by rank much more common (although some still given parole). Many returned home after the Peace of Amiens when the whole war went into hiatus for a year or two just after the turn of the century, then after that banging everyone up was much less frequent.

Naval types were also more likely to be locked up than army *if captured in France* because they had the skills to get back to England via
-nicking French ships
-causing chaos in ports on the way out
-etc

whereas your average line infantry officer without his men, cavalry officer without his horse, or gunner without his cannon was rather more emasculated.
 

chrisg46

LE
Book Reviewer
#7
I seem to recall being told that one of the large warehouses in Portsmouth dockyard was built by French prisoners - the Rope house or something?
 
#8
I believe the matter was discussed in depth in the last series of Poldark.

Or perhaps it was the one before.
 
#9
This is why, I knew to post this question on arrse. Less than an hour, after I posted the question, I have already received some excellent replies to it.
Thank you gentlemen. I knew that I could rely on you. Some interesting and knowledgeable responses thus far.
 
#10
Apparently quite a few PoWs were allowed to go and work in local agriculture, which was a mutually beneficial way of keeping them nourished and occupied. No doubt quite a few ended up adding to the local gene pool, or even marrying and staying on after the peace treaties.

IIRC there was also an option for experienced seamen to switch sides and either be pressed into the RN, or crew for merchant vessels (themselves having been stripped of men for the RN). I suppose that for a man at the very bottom end of society, a job and a full belly may have trumped notions of loyalty to state!
 
#13
One of the storylines featured loads of RN crews in a dungeon, gradually dying to death of starvation, brutality and disease. I don't know what the story was but being the BBC, they probably threw loads of money at it, striving for historical accuracy.
 
#14
One of the storylines featured loads of RN crews in a dungeon, gradually dying to death of starvation, brutality and disease. I don't know what the story was but being the BBC, they probably threw loads of money at it, striving for historical accuracy.
Pretty accurate IMO given it was dealing with the Revolutionary War rather than the Napoleonics proper. Late 1780s-early 1790s... Also the BBC were just filming in that case what Winston Graham wrote in the 1940s. Also crops up like that in the Hornblower novels. Neither Forester nor Graham were *that* off piste with how they portrayed it. Certainly true enough for me to recognise it when I studied the period for real at university having been inspired by their books as a teenager.
 
#15
researchers may also find this of use.


1793

THE IMMIGRATION ACT

The Immigration Act of 1793 required that the Master or Commander of every Ship or Vessel arriving at any port in the UK, should immediately on his arrival, declare in writing to the Collector and Comptroller, or other Chief Officer of the Customs, whether there were any foreigners on board. It also required the alien to state in writing his name, rank, occupation and description to Customs and to obtain from the Customs Officer a certificate of having made a Declaration, containing the full particulars given.

Clause XXII of the 1793 Act read: 'Every Custom House Officer, Magistrate or Justice as aforesaid shall, with all convenient Diligence, transmit to one of His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State copies of all such Accounts in Writing ... keeping all ... all such Passports and Certificates, as far as may be, from being made publick.'

It follows that somewhere there should have been ledgers which would have recorded the arrival of prisoners. In the old days they were kept at KINGS BEAM house just of Lower Thames Street in Mark Lane. These ledgers would have recorded the day to day work of the Collectors. I can remember seeing some sent for rebinding the mid 1970's and they were really stunning pieces of work, full copperplate the lot.

Since Customs was an offshoot of the RN and our uniforms reflected that fact there's probably a very close connection to these Prisoners somewhere.
 
#17
Many were held in prison hulks, particularly at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. The contemporary and immediate post-war French accounts of conditions are now mostly regarded as negatively biased: indeed, many, on research, were found to be complete works of fiction.

The historian Patricia Crimmins wrote:

The prison diet was monotonous and dietetically unbalanced, but it compared favourably with that of civil prisoners in British jails and not unfavourably with the fare of British seamen. Prisoners had a quart (two pints) of beer, one and one-half pounds of bread and one-third of an ounce of salt daily; three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef on six days; half a pint of dried peas on four days; four ounces of butter or six ounces of cheese on Friday; but no fresh fruit or vegetables or wine except to the sick. British sailors had a pound of biscuit per day; and four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one and one-half pounds of oatmeal, six ounces each of sugar and butter, and twelve ounces of cheese per week, plus a gallon of beer and half a pint of rum per day.

Crimmins also writes of prisoners who obtained their release by volunteering to serve in the navy, and who found conditions so bad they petitioned to be returned to the hulks.
 
#18
Were they not used to build the dry stone walls around the country, like Northumbria and Cumbria specifically
 
#19
From Memory;
I don't think there were any 'rules' as such but a tacit recognition of the 'Hors de Combat' principle.
From what I have read treatment varied considerably from the despair of Dartmoor Prison to more enlightened POW camps where parole and limited assimilation were accepted.
An interesting subject.
When you say from memory do you mean you were there? Surely even you couldn’t be that old.
 

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