POWS on the Eastern Front

September 1, 2013

In 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand,the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was assassinated along with his wife by Serbian rebels. The Serbs at the time had been campaigning for the independence of several provinces held by the Austrian Empire, but to no avail. This event set off a chain reaction which would encompass the World in a global war.

Europe at the time of 1914 was composed of several imperial empirePre-World War Is- German, Russian, French, Austria-Hungary, and The United Kingdom. At the time these imperial powers had been creating empires that stretched the globe. This created an uneasy tension in Europe with a mindset of suspicion towards each other. Because of this each empire created alliances with each that involved all of Europe. The Russians were allies with most Eastern European countries and the United Kingdom which was in turn allied with the French. The Austrians were allied with the Germans. With the escalation of threats and mobilization orders following the incident, war broke out  by mid-August to the outbreak of World War I, which pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (Central Powers) against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan (Allied Forces).

Europe was divided into a Eastern and Western front, with the East primarily being fought at the beginning of World War I. Russia moved mobilized their forces which composed of some 12 million soldiers, their army though was not well trained nor had modern military equipment. The country was also engaged with a internal problem that was dividing the elites against the peasants. This would eventually chttp://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/images/p87_2067__00279_.jpgause the Russian front to collapse along with the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

The picture on the left shows an image of Austrian-Hungarian Prisoners of war.Russian POW camps were some of the worst during the WWI, During World War I, around “2.5 million soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army”, as well as some “200,000 German soldiers”, entered Russian captivity. Many of the POW camps were located in Siberia, there thousands would die of starvation and the pitiful conditions. Some prisoners worked as farm laborers and to a lesser extent
as miners in the “Donbas and Krivoi Rog”, but most would work as forced laborers on the construction of various projects-Railway that connects Eastern and Western Russia, in which many would die because of the intensity of the labor. The Russian government struggled during the war to provide the necessary food and basic amenities to the their prisoners due to the vast numbers of prisoners they had-though they claim that they acted in the same manor as the Germans and Austrians treated their prisoners. After the surrender of Russia many of the POWs though freed would not make it home till 1922 due to the distance they had to travel and the conditions many were in.

In 1918 Russia surrendered unconditionally to the Central Powers, due to their collapsed economy and and an internal civil war brewing from among the peasants. What might have happened though if Russian decided not to enter the war? Would the government still have changed and become a communist regime, for it was the influence of German philosophy and politics that were imported in? How would the outcome of Europe been changed, because if Russia did not enter the war the Germans and Austrians combined power would have been enough to push back the French and stall the United Kingdom into peace? World War I changed the structure of Europe both politically and geopolitically and opened the door to the rise of the Nazis.


Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Austrian Prisoners of War Near a Barrack, 1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. (LC-DIG-ppmsc-04423) (3)

Gatrell, Peter. “Project MUSE – Prisoners of War on the Eastern Front during World War I.” Project MUSE. The Johns Hopkins University Press, July 2005. Web. 02 Sept. 2013. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/kri/summary/v006/6.3gatrell.html



  • Kelsey Shober says:

    I really liked how far you took just one picture. I know that personally (despite actually being a history major) I often fail to remember the importance of World War I, and if I do consider it, I usually only think about the Western Front. Your post was full of information that ultimately lead to some very important ‘What If..” questions. It was awesome that you did all of that and began with a simple picture. On a separate note, I have to admit that I knew very little of Russian WWI prison camps. I thought that it was really interesting that their labor contributed to the E-W Russian Railway. Good job, and thanks for the information!

  • A. Nelson says:

    Some good material here, and we will be talking a lot about WWI and the eastern front in the next couple of weeks. Can you provide the citation details for the photograph? Good job finding the review essay in the journal Kritika. I’d love to hear more about what you learned from reading it. Can you provide a complete citation for that as well?

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