I’ve fallen down a most interesting research rabbit hole, reading records, reports, personal accounts and research about prisoners on both sides during the long war between France and Britain that began with the French Revolution and ended after Waterloo.
Prisoners of war formed part of war policy. Each nation had to balance the benefits of keeping the other nations men against the cost of caring for them. This led to the practice of each nation paying a food allowance for their own people, and appointing an agent to oversee fair treatment.
In earlier wars, European nations had also practiced prisoner exchanges (or paid ransom if they did not have an equal number of prisoners). In an article on Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, Patricia Crimins suggests several reasons for the rarity of prisoner exchanges between Britain and revolutionary and imperial France.
- France was ideologically opposed to prisoner exchanges, seeing them as traditional
- France had far fewer British prisoners than Britain had French prisoners, and could simply not afford to make the exchange—in 1796, Britain held 11,000 French prisoners, while France held fewer than 5,000 British prisoners. By 1799, the number of French prisoners of war in Britain had doubled, but the number of British in France had scarcely changed.
- During the Napoleonic period, more than 100,000 French prisoners of war were held in Britain, and French policy was to “force Britain to bear the entire cost of the prisoners it held in the hope that this would weaken the economy”.
In Napoleon’s Lost Legions, Gavin Daly says the Napoleonic wars mark the end of the ancient practices of parole, return of non-combatants, and prisoner exchange, and the beginning of the modern practice of internment until the war is over.
For the French on parole in British towns, the war must have been long enough. For those of lower rank kept in prisons—or worse, on the terrible prison hulks that I’ll write about another time—it must have seemed forever.