An order

In Henry Williamson’s novel The Golden Virgin, he includes a list of orders given to his unit before the Battle of the Somme.

One of these is:

PRISONERS: These will be escorted on scale of 10 per cent of their numbers. Prisoners will be searched at once for concealed arms or documents, always in the presence of an officer. Guards are forbidden to talk to prisoners, or to give them food or tobacco. Identity discs will be taken from them.

In Geoffrey Malins’ documentary film The Battle of the Somme, however, we see a scene where soldiers offer cigarettes to prisoners. The episode looks a little stagey, with the Tommy offering the fag seeming rather self-conscious about it.
There seem to be three possibilities about this apparent contradiction.

  1. The official order was “No cigarettes”, but this was routinely ignored.
  2. The film-maker was making a propagandist point about the good treatment of prisoners, and breaking the rules to do so.
  3. The order quoted by Williamson only applied to the field of battle, and once prisoners were behind the lines, things were more relaxed.

If anyone has a theory about this, I’d be pleased to hear it.

In Malins’s film, the relations between guards and captives seem mostly relaxed and human.  Some of the prisoners smile for the movie camera – maybe glad to see a feature of civilian life that reminded them that while the war continued its horrible progress, they were now well out of it.


  1. Elizabeth Plackett
    Posted November 1, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    According to Niall Ferguson, this was part of a propaganda effort to prevent the fairly widespread killing of POWs, especially those taken in the heat of battle. In the official mind such killing was undesirable,not so much for humanitarian reasons, but because it discouraged the enemy from surrendering. As for the cigarettes, from what I’ve read about POWs, they were more likely to have cigarettes taken from them than given to them.

    • Elizabeth Plackett
      Posted November 1, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      That is to say the film was part of a propaganda effort. Sorry.

      • Posted November 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the film was made with propagandist intent, but Malins and his colleagues were keen to be truthful in most respects. The commentary on the recent DVD re-release is good on this, and does not mention that the cigarette-giving might have been frowned on by some.
        At the time the film’s objectivity and lack of bombast got it many showings in neutral countries, unlike the German equivalent, which was too obviously flag-waving.

  2. Posted November 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Towards the end of the Second World War a distinction was often made between SS and ordinary Wehrmacht prisoners, the latter being spared when the former might not be. Although the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ enemies might have been less intensely felt in the First World War, I wonder if some prisoners might have fared better or worse depending on their particular unit? I’m thinking perhaps of the difference between “Hunnish” Prussian and Saxon/Bavarian troops, for instance.

  3. Jim Brown
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Philip Gibbs also describes sharing of cigarettes with German prisoners behind the line in his report on the events of 1 July 1916, as reprinted in The Battles of the Somme, 1917:
    “Some of his fellow-prisoners lay on the ground all bloody and bandaged. One of them seemed about to die. But the English soldiers gave them water, and one of our officers emptied his cigarette-case and gave them all he had to smoke.”

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. Gibbs is always so good on the human realities of War, behind what was supposed to be happening. At the moment I’m reading his ‘Adventures in War: with Cross and Crescent’, about his experiences as a war correspondent during the First Balkan War of 1912. I’ll be blogging about it soon.

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