Illustrating Prisoners in the Great War

By Intern Jonathan van Harmelen
An illustration of a head of a man. He has a floppy cap on with a green ribbon and a large mustache and appears to be smiling.

When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, the U.S. Army commissioned eight professional artists to record the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in an effort to shape popular opinion back home. America's first official war artists would eventually sketch, draw, and paint over 700 pieces of artwork, depicting everything from military combat and technology to daily life in a war zone for both soldiers and civilians. While most of the artists would focus on American soldiers and their activities, a few of the artists included depictions of another common sight in war: prisoners of war.

An illustration of a head of a man. He has a floppy cap on with a green ribbon and a large mustache and appears to be smiling.

A portrait of a head of a man who is wearing a floppy olive-colored cap with an orange ribbon going around the brim.

A portrait of a man in an olive uniform hat with a green ribbon around the band. He wears wire-ribbon glassed and the collar of his shirt is partially sketched out

While drawing the French battlefields and shipyards, Captain William James Aylward developed an interest in German prisoners of war (POWs). During the war, the U.S. Army took thousands of German prisoners, especially after such major victories as Château-Thierry and Belleau Woods. Aylward drew three of these prisoners in beautifully detailed color drawings he titled "German Prisoner Type." In American advertising at the time, the German "Hun" was caricatured as a fiendish brute without any sense of humanity. Presenting the faces of these soldiers with a sense of character allows the viewer to empathize with them. Aylward humanized them, drawing them as ordinary, if perhaps somewhat picturesque, human beings.

A graphic poster. A large ape-like creature holds a woman in a blue dress as it emerges from the water with a giant club.

Two other war artists documented German prisoners performing a duty that was common to all armies: stretcher bearing. According to Richard Van Emden's book Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, although it was fairly common for armies to press POWs into service as stretcher-bearers, there were some unique cases wherein soldiers volunteered for work. While some were motivated by preferential treatment from their captors, there were rare instances in which POWs would do so for the sake of helping others. Private Edward Munro wrote in his diary on August 3, 1917, about his work as a medic during the Battle of Passchendaele, later published as Diaries of a Stretcher-Bearer 1916-1918 by Edward Charles Munro. When he saw that the field ambulance didn't have enough men to carry the wounded, he saw an opportunity: "instead of delivering the prisoners to the P.O.W. compound . . . I asked the Germans if they were willing to go back for more wounded. Most of our meaning was conveyed in sign language, for we knew no German and they no English. However, they got the message and after a palaver amongst themselves a self-appointed leader nodded acquiescence to the arrangement."

An artwork that depicts men in military uniforms walking in a group. Some are injured with bandages and one lies on a stretcher carried by other soldiers.

Captain Harvey Dunn and Captain George Harding depicted German POWs performing this work and, whether consciously or not, they reinforced Aylward's portrayal of the enemy as human beings rather than beasts. In his watercolor titled "Prisoners and Wounded," Dunn shows us a group of fatigued German prisoners, wearing gray uniforms, bearing wounded men on stretchers amid walking American wounded. American guards march along the wounded to ensure the Germans fulfill their duties.

An artwork in shades of grey depicting solders. Some are seated and a few walk holding a stretcher. Many of the people are wearing bandages. There is a structure with an open door and a flag with a red cross on it.

Likewise, in Harding's drawing titled "First Aid Station with American Wounded" we see German and American wounded alike at an American dressing station, with German prisoners carrying the American wounded. While the two scenes share a number of similarities, it is important to note that both Americans and Germans are treated at the dressing station and endure the same misery together. Whether the artists desired to humanize the prisoners is uncertain; what can be interpreted is that both Germans and Americans alike experienced the same suffering during the war and had similar experiences on both sides of the trenches.

Events like those described by Munro in his journal emphasize the point made by Aylward with his portraits and by Dunn and Harding in their depictions of the wounded: while the Germans were the enemy in the Great War, they could rise beyond the caricatures made of them by propaganda. Although their service was often forced upon them, there were those who chose to go beyond their roles as prisoners to show kindness, proving that they could be just as humane as the men on the other side of No Man's Land.

After the war, the War Department transferred approximately 500 pieces of the official artwork of World War I to the Smithsonian. The collection is now held by the Division of Armed Forces History. To learn more about the war artists and their artwork, visit our Picturing World War I object group. You can also view the exhibition Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War, a collaboration between the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History.

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently an intern in the Division of Armed Forces History and the Division of Medicine and Science.