Prisoners of war

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Description

Prisoners were usually kept for short periods of time, until traded or ransomed by the compatriots of said prisoners. To facilitate this, treaties called "cartels" were signed between the opposing sides, with the cartels specifying a barter price for any particular soldier, be it in kind or cash. There were several cartels during the Seven Years' War:

  1. between Prussia with the Holy Roman Empire (1757)
  2. between France and Prussia (1759)
  3. between Great Britain and France (February 6, 1759), which was made in the convention of Sluys.

Rates varied, but a field marshal was swapped for another field marshal, or an equivalent number of private soldiers (e.g 3000), or officers and NCO's. If there was any imbalance in number of men, or none were to be found on one side, the amount was made up in cash. this could range from ~8 shillings for a private to ~2,500 pounds for a field marshal, or about 15,000 gulden.

However, until such a swap was carried out, the officers were housed in private houses or were free to wander round on parole. If things got ugly, as happened to Prussian general Fouqué while under Austrian captivity, the prisoners would be forced to reside in an isolated castle. Privates on the other hand, were either forced to join the captor's army (as many a Saxon's case in 1756), or housed in the casemates of castles, under some of the worst conditions, till exchanged.

This was at least the theory. In practice, the arrangements, especially between Prussia and Austria, broke down, meaning that prisoners could expect to be held until the end of the war. This was in part due to the shear disparity in prisoners held by the Austrians, versus those held by the Prussians, with the Prussians having taken far more prisoners.

Küstrin Breakout

As a result of the terrible conditions many prisons had, as well as the breakdown of the cartels between Prussia and Austria, some prisoners began to plan and attempt escapes from their captivity. The most famous attempt took place in June 1762, in Küstrin.

Küstrin had imprisoned within its walls 5,000 Austrian prisoners, 1,000 of whom were Croats, who had been captured at the Battle of Prague in 1757, and had been waiting to be exchanged till then. They were housed in the casemates of the local fort, with little food and no bedding, and were forced to take up work rebuilding the town in the aftermath of its bombardment by the Russians in 1758, in order to obtain the money to buy sufficient food. The garrison, approcimately 550 men in number, were stretched thin manning the defenses, guarding the prisoners, and maintaining order. In addition, many were invalids and militia men, when made the job all the more difficult.

Seeing this as an opportunity, the Croats planned an escape: they would seize the ammunition and cannon, loot the town, and break out to link up with an Austrian Army near Kottbus. The other prisoners did not take part, though they were hoping to take advantage of any potential success in the plan. The plan was kept secret from the Prussians in spite of it being common knowledge among the prisoners, preserving the element of surprise.

at about 5 AM, the Croats began their attempt at a breakout: they overpowered the detachment sent to guard them, seizing their weapons and chasing the guards away. they then split up into three detachments: one would spike or seize the guns on the walls; another would obtain ammunition from the magazines, and the last would seize the gates of the town to keep them open.

However, the magazine could not be broken into, and the garrison had been alerted. Accordingly, a Lieutenant Thiele took a group of 30 men out, and collecting more men along the way, sallied to a part of the wall not held by the Croats. There they took an advantageous position, and were able to keep the Croats from breaking out altogether, though at the cost of Thiele's life. In the meantime, the garrison chaplain managed to convince three Austrian priests to talk down the Croats, telling them that the chances of linking up with the Austrian army were minimal, with Prussian and by now, Russian detachments roaming the countryside. The Croats promptly surrendered.

ON hearing of the news of the attempted breakout, Frederick II had five of the ringleaders executed, with one in ten of the others (drawn by lot) being caned with 100 blows. the remaining prisoners (Croat or not), were made to watch.

References

Duffy, Christopher, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York City, NY , 1987

Anonymous, An attempted breakout by Austrian prisoners of war from Küstrin, http://syw2.tripod.com/kustrinpow.html, 2007. Accessed 17/2/2012

Acknowledgments

User:Ibrahim90 for the initial version of this article