For many the newly released Red Cross prisoner of war records are the final part of the puzzle in the research of their WWI ancestors.

The records were collated by the International Prisoners-of-War Agency in Geneva, this agency was established in 1914 to collect lists of prisoners from all nations involved. These lists gave the names of the prisoners they held, the date of their capture, transfers, deaths and in some cases more personal details. Index cards were then made out for each individual the total of which reached an incredible two million prisoners.

After an immense digitization project these records can now be searched online

For the unwary though, getting off the ground can be tricky process. You are prompted to enter a name but you must only enter a surname, don’t enter a forename first or it will search for that instead.

I entered the name of my grandfather Charles Matthews. I knew he was a marine so could scroll down to find all marines, there were 16. It is then easy to find the individuals index card, click for my records.

Red Cross POW Index cards
Index Card for Charles Matthews

For the next stage the number you need is the PA number. This needs to be entered in the prompt box. This releases any existing records.

These are the detailed records for Charles Matthews
These are the detailed records for Charles Matthews

Return to the index page and now enter the ‘R’ number and search, this will show you when the individual was repatriated.

Repatriation records
Repatriation records

So what do these POW records reveal?

First column name, second his rank, a private soldier, third the unit he served in 1st Royal Marine Light Infantry. The next column tells us where he was taken, Havrincourt and the date of his capture 21st March 1918. Then it tells us the place and date of his birth, Hornsey 14th July 1893 and his home address 11 Hertford Rd East Finchly London. We now know he was repatriated to Dover on 27th November 1918.

But where was he taken prisoner?

Written in red at the top of the document is the name Gustrow. Gustrow was a POW camp in Meklenburg Germany.

What next?

Finding out more about the camp and the conditions for prisoners. I am also lucky enough to have Grandad’s service papers so can check for any discrepancies between the sets of documents. See here how his service record says he was captured on the 24th March 1918, not the 21st. Quite significant in terms of what was going on in Havrincourt at that time.

WWI Red Cross records
WWI Service records for Charles Matthews

Most of all I am pleased to be able to complete the story of my Grandfather’s war, which was, by all accounts an incredible one of survival. He served as a Marine in Gallipoli, Arras, The Somme and Passchendale before being taken prisoner of war. His war was a brutal one. On his return he became a nurse, caring for those men who had returned with shell shock. He must have been quite a man, my Grandad and thanks to these POW records I can complete his story.