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Prisoners of War


page xxiii


THERE comes a stage in battle when the members of one side who are still alive, if unable to withdraw, are either incapacitated by wounds, or weaponless, or opposed by incomparably superior force. To avoid a purposeless death they have no alternative but to make some gesture of surrender and throw themselves on the mercy of their enemies. Since, in normal circumstances, no soldier desires to be a prisoner in enemy hands, almost all of those who are captured have surrendered only on finding themselves in one or other of these hopeless situations. To the Western mind of today there is nothing inherently dishonourable in such a choice of action. But this point of view and the enhanced status of captives which it implies have only become widely accepted comparatively recently.

Until the latter half of the nineteenth century the soldiers of a beaten army who surrendered to the enemy had no generally recognised rights. Their treatment in ancient times was at the whim of the victorious commander or of the person into whose power they passed. If they were not slaughtered, they became more often than not mere chattels in the possession of enemy citizens, and their subsequent life was likely to be one of servitude in an enemy country. Indeed, even those of the civilian population of a defeated country who fell without resistance into the hands of the enemy often shared the fate of the troops who had striven unsuccessfully to defend them.

History, however, provides plenty of examples of humane treatment of captives taken in battle both by their immediate captors and by their later masters, no less than of consideration of the local inhabitants by invading enemy forces. Philosophers and religious teachers have at various times been able to influence their rulers against both the ill-treatment of defenceless civilians and the brutal discipline and bad living conditions endured by war captives, practices which might otherwise have gone on being accepted as normal. But it is only over the centuries that there has slowly spread acceptance of the idea that a soldier disarmed and taken prisoner is a defenceless human being with a claim to protection against further violence and ill-treatment; and that, moreover, he is entitled, during his temporary detention, to treatment comparable to that of soldiers of the country in which he is detained. It is less than a hundred years ago that this claim began to receive international recognition.

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The first Geneva Convention of 1864, which followed the humanitarian efforts of Henri Dunant and the Geneva Committee of which he was the moving spirit, protected only the sick and wounded of opposing armed forces. Similar provision for the protection and relief of prisoners of war was the next step in the Committee's plans for helping the victims of war. But it was not until 1899, in the Hague Convention dealing with the laws and customs of war on land, that the major powers agreed that prisoners ‘must be humanely treated’1 and set down in detail the manner in which this undertaking should be carried out. As slightly amended at the Hague Conference of 1907, this was the authority for the treatment of prisoners in the First World War. For the first time, an international convention with safeguards for prisoners of war against neglect and ill-treatment was applied on a large scale and became widely known.

Approximately a decade after the end of this first world conflict these safeguards were again reviewed. The result was a separate Convention dealing entirely with prisoners of war, signed in Geneva in 1929 by 47 countries.2 The 97 articles of this Convention covered broadly almost every contingency then thought likely to arise during captivity; and their observance according to a liberal interpretation would have ensured the welfare of prisoners of war from almost every aspect. Thus, some ten years before the events described in this book, a stage had been reached where a considerable part of the world had accepted not only the principle that prisoners should be humanely treated, but the detailed standards of conduct towards them which such an undertaking implied. Paradoxically, the Second World War produced some of the worst examples of the ill-treatment and neglect of prisoners that have been recorded.

For the protection of civilians in enemy or enemy-occupied territory during hostilities there existed at the outbreak of the Second World War only the draft for an international agreement similar to that for prisoners of war. This draft had been approved by the fifteenth International Conference of Red Cross Societies in Tokyo in 1934, and a diplomatic conference to secure governmental agreement to a treaty in these terms was to have been held in 1940. Instead, the International Red Cross Committee had, on the outbreak of war, to invite belligerents either to accept the draft convention or to treat enemy civilians in their hands along the lines laid down by the 1929 Convention for prisoners of war. Both Britain and Germany agreed to the latter alternative, and this was page xxv the basis adopted for the treatment of civilian internees in New Zealand.

Two agencies were recognised which might assist in the protection of those regarded as being covered by the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929: the ‘Protecting Power’ and the International Red Cross Committee. The Protecting Power, a neutral government accepted as representing the interests of one belligerent state within the territories of another, was authorised to send either diplomatic personnel or specially appointed delegates to visit all places of internment. These representatives could have conversations in private with prisoners of war and could receive complaints from them. In general they were to act as intermediaries between the prisoners and the camp authorities, and they were to mediate in the settlement of disputes between belligerents regarding the provisions of the Prisoners of War Convention.

The International Red Cross Committee was concerned mainly with the organisation of a central agency for the exchange between the belligerent powers of information regarding their respective captives, and with the distribution of relief supplies to them. But it was also stipulated in the 1929 Convention that there should be no restriction on their engaging in other humanitarian tasks on behalf of prisoners of war, including the visiting of camps and the conduct of negotiations with the governments of belligerent powers.

The outbreak of war in 1939 found the International Red Cross Committee well prepared. As far back as September 1938 it had planned in minute detail the conversion of its organisation to a war footing. Adequate premises and staff for the future central information agency had been arranged; the text of the Notes to be sent to belligerent powers offering its services had been drafted; its future delegates had been selected. By mid-September 1939 the Committee had moved its augmented staff into a large building formerly used by the League of Nations and had set to work.

It is probable that few people of the countries which became involved in the Second World War knew in these early stages anything of the arrangements made to protect their compatriots who fell into enemy hands. In the First World War only 500 New Zealand servicemen had been taken prisoner, and the problems of their protection and relief had not become widely known. Nearly every one of the 9000-odd New Zealanders held captive in the Second World War will say that the last thing to which he had given any thought was the possibility of being captured. A few had heard of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929, but the vast majority knew nothing of its provisions. To many of them it came as a pleasant surprise to find the extent to which their page xxvi safety and welfare were protected. It goes without saying that before long nearly all these men had more than a nodding acquaintance with the international law governing their position. It is also true that many thousands of their relatives and friends soon heard of the Geneva Convention and learnt something of the protection it gave. Even with this protection the story of captivity in the war of 1939–45 is at times grim and sombre. The fate of many of those who were without it gives some idea of the terrible story this might have been had protection not existed at all. Those who laboured over the centuries to achieve it have earned the gratitude of humanity.

1 Annex on Regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Section I, Chapter 2, Article 4.

2 The British Minister in Berne signed on behalf of New Zealand.