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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Prisoners’ Welfare

Prisoners’ Welfare

THE RED CROSS parcels which have been mentioned so often in the course of these surveys of the life of prisoners in enemy hands did not come into their camps by magic. The International Red Cross, with its headquarters in Geneva, undertook the distribution of food parcels, clothing, and recreational and educational material to prison camps. The parcels and other commodities were supplied by every country of the British Commonwealth and by the United States, if not directly then in the form of money subscribed through each national Red Cross. The New Zealand Patriotic Fund supplied money for the welfare of prisoners of war.

The route taken by Red Cross supplies was by sea to Lisbon, thence by sea to the south of France and inland to Geneva, which was the clearing house. In Switzerland, too, the central records of all prisoners of war, the Germans and Italians in British and American hands as well as the British and American prisoners in Germans and Italians hands, were faithfully kept and the necessary information passed promptly to the belligerent countries. Thus the Swiss, with some assistance from other neutrals, particularly the Swedes, undertook to look after the physical welfare of prisoners and also to mitigate the effects of their captivity on themselves and on their relatives by providing the channel of communication for letters and personal information. The Swiss handled these vast problems of organisation, affecting the life and happiness of millions, with characteristic efficiency and the humanity for which their nation is famous.

New Zealand had an organisation of its own at New Zealand House, London, to deal with all aspects of the welfare of prisoners of war, though food parcels and military clothing were handled from a central pool in Geneva. Whenever a man was reported as a prisoner of war, even if casually in another prisoner’s correspondence, New Zealand House immediately sent him a clothing parcel and followed it with monthly tobacco parcels, each of which contained 200 cigarettes or an equivalent amount of tobacco. In close collaboration with the New Bodleian Library at Oxford, which was supplying books to the British Red Cross, New Zealand House sent to prisoners the educational books they required to carry on courses of study. A weekly news-letter giving prisoners the New Zealand news gleaned from cables and official sources was also compiled.

Apart from its work for the material welfare of prisoners of war, New Zealand House was a clearing house for information about all New Zealanders in Italian or German hands or about casualties in general. Innumerable personal and special services were given to individuals by the Prisoner-of-war Section, and the staff’s persistent and unremitting care did much to keep up the morale of men wearied by long captivity. The service to their relatives was no less valuable and important.