Value and Handling of Prisoners in World War I

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

“Prisoners or deserters constitute one of the most fruitful sources from which information of the enemy is obtained.”
Intelligence Regulations, American Expeditionary Forces, October 21, 1918

By the time of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918, the US held nearly 48,000 prisoners of war. The majority had been captured within the final months as the war moved out of the trenches.  The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan put much emphasis on the information obtained from enemy prisoners. After the war, he remarked, “[A prisoner] can, as a rule, tell you much more than a spy…who is trying to get around and find out about the enemy.  [A prisoner] knows and the other man is frequently guessing at it.”

In mid-October 1918, Capt. Ernst Howald (standing right), the lead interrogator for the 28th Division, Second US Army, used prisoner statements to construct a detailed template showing the enemy facing the division. After the war, his estimates were proven to be highly accurate.

As Nolan shaped his formal intelligence organization in the early months of American involvement, he recognized prisoners could be captured any time on any battlefield, and commanders at every echelon wanted to examine the prisoners they captured.  He also realized that, due to a lack of personnel and the high operating tempo, in-depth interrogations at lower echelons were not practicable or effectual.  Nolan developed a hierarchical system for the examination of prisoners at all echelons and outlined clear guidelines for handling prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and Instructions for Regimental Intelligence Service. Those same guidelines were published in the Army’s first (provisional) Combat Intelligence Manual, also printed in 1918.

Nolan’s system started at the regiment.  The Regimental Intelligence Officer, typically a first lieutenant, determined the name, rank, and organization of any prisoners, as well as the time and place captured.  Prisoners were searched and then quickly transferred to division assembly points.  The division G-2 sections, led by a lieutenant colonel or major, conducted limited questioning, with the help of commissioned linguists from the Corps of Interpreters.  This questioning focused on necessary tactical information about the division sector to a depth of two miles behind the enemy front lines.

From the division, prisoners were transferred to the corps collecting centers, where more in-depth questioning began.  The number of prisoners, especially during offensive operations, often stressed the corps G-2 sections.  At those times, Army headquarters dispatched teams of four sergeants and one officer to augment the corps’ interrogation efforts.  During the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives in the fall of 1918, French interrogators also supplemented the US interrogators.

The corps intelligence sections found that simple and direct questioning, combined with kindness and courtesy, was the most effective method for eliciting information.  Many of the AEF’s interrogators had been lawyers in their civilian lives and could coax information out of the most recalcitrant prisoner.  Corps interrogators used a variety of other tactics to elicit information, as well.  One interrogator found that he could get prisoners to talk openly if he showed them aerial photographs with landmarks they recognized. The II Corps G-2, Col. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, recruited a drafted German soldier, who had previously lived in the United States and yearned to return there, to “work the prisoner cages” and glean information from his fellow prisoners.  Additionally, US interpreters donned German uniforms and wandered the collection points to eavesdrop on prisoners bragging about intentionally misleading their interrogators.  This use of “stool pigeons” was common practice throughout the war.

The quality and veracity of the information varied with the rank of the prisoner.  Lt. Col. Walter Sweeney, who served in the AEF G-2 during the war, claimed that “noncommissioned officers were by far the best sources for gaining information” and “few of them resisted insistent interrogation.”  About 60 percent of officers “invoked military honor” and refused to cooperate.  A typical German soldier had little knowledge about the larger battlefield, but he provided details on his own unit, weapons, troop losses, and general morale.  Enemy soldiers from Poland, Denmark, the Alsace-Lorraine region and southern Germany were particularly cooperative.  Unquestionably, the most important information obtained from prisoners was enemy order of battle, but they also gave up their routes of movement; the position and condition of trenches, dugouts and wire entanglements; their capacity to attack; and how susceptible they were to being attacked.

Based on the preceding outline, it is clear that World War I was no different than any other war in US Army history: prisoners of war have always been proven and valued sources of intelligence.  However, formalizing and standardizing the process for handling and examining prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and provisional manuals was one more step in modernizing US Army Intelligence.  While field manuals published in 1940 provided more details on accepted interrogation techniques, the system for prisoner-of-war handling Nolan developed for World War I continued, with minor changes, throughout the 20th century.