Red Cross digitizes world war prisoner files

Marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross has digitized its files documenting the fate of two million prisoners during the 1914-1918 war.

Red Cross digitizes world war prisoner files
Photo: Julius Kusuma

From Charles de Gaulle to the teenage son of Rudyard Kipling, and forgotten names from across the globe, the story of the millions captured or missing in the First World War is now laid bare with a mouse-click, after the Swiss government funded the $4.3-million digitization project.
"It took us three years to restore the index cards, and another three to digitize them," said David-Pierre Marquet, archivist at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The haul of files is searchable at
The originals, inscribed into UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in 2007, are stacked in tall glass cases filling an entire hall at the ICRC museum in Geneva.
The ICRC created a special tracing division just two weeks after the war broke out in 1914.
Hundreds of ICRC volunteers spent the war matching family enquiries passed on by local Red Cross branches with lists of POWs obtained from the belligerents.
"The ICRC would be able to reply that 'Your father's alive, he's in this particular camp,' and they could send a Red Cross message to re-establish family ties," Marquet told AFP.
The ICRC continues to play that role in the age of Skype.
ICRC staff also visited POW camps worldwide, and their reports have likewise been digitized.
"The ICRC was an intermediary, guaranteeing correspondence between prisoners and their families, and verifying conditions of internment and captivity," ICRC historian Fabrizio Bensi told AFP.

Wonderful gift

Most of the card-file volunteers were women, since Swiss men aged 20 to 50 were called up to protect the borders.
They produced alphabetical index cards with basics such as name, regiment, date and place of capture and site of detention.
Sub-files detailing tracing efforts and ICRC responses swelled the total number of cards to six million.
It was a mammoth task in the pre-computer era. "It was the first time that so much international information had been centralized," said Marquet.
A century on, history buffs are thrilled.
"What a wonderful gift to the descendants of the men of all countries who fought in World War I," said Briton Jenni Dobson, who found details of her 24-year-old grandfather William Allen, captured in France in September 1916.
"I got a real buzz," she told AFP.
The file confirmed the family story that Allen's parents received a letter from him saying he had been wounded and captured.
"The ICRC records show he was in a hospital. He recovered enough to survive his imprisonment and return home to marry and raise a family," said Dobson, who was ten when her grandfather died in 1957.
Fellow Briton Stephen Laccohee found information about his grandfather James Donovan, captured in Belgium in April 1918 at the age of 19.
"The family used the Red Cross tracing service," Laccohee told AFP.
Donovan, who died in 1962 when Laccohee was seven, never discussed his time as a POW but was clearly marked by his tough times.
"At the dinner table he would say 'You must eat your dinner, do not leave any'," said Laccohee.

Deep wartime scars

The files include individuals who later won fame.
One is future Second World War French leader and later president Charles de Gaulle.
The 25-year-old captain was wounded and captured in 1916. He spent the rest of the war in a string of camps, despite multiple efforts to escape.
"He writes regularly," says a penned note on his card.
Overwhelmingly covering the Western Front, the files underscore the global impact of a war that drew in 44 countries plus their colonies.
Besides Britons, French and Germans, the POWs number Australians, Canadians and Indians, and counterparts from French-ruled West and North Africa.
Hints of heart-rending stories are offered by POW death dates added to the cards, or the "negative sent" note which indicated that the person was not traced.
The entry for 18-year-old Second Lieutenant John Kipling, missing in action in September 1915, details repeated requests by his author father.
British writer and patriotic icon Rudyard Kipling had pulled strings to get his short-sighted only son John into uniform.

He is said to have been consumed by guilt for the rest of his life.
The 2007 film My Boy Jack, starring Daniel Radcliffe as John, told their story.
Such files offer snapshots of deep wartime scars, said London School of Economics historian Heather Jones.
"Unprecedented numbers of men who were reported missing were in fact dead and their bodies never found due to the nature of the heavy shelling of the battlefields," POW expert Jones told AFP.
"It took years before the public in Europe realized this: only in the decade after the war did many families finally accept that the 'missing' with no known grave were truly lost forever."

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Austria’s ‘original influencer’: Ten weird facts about the Austrian Royal Family and Empress Sissi

The Austrian Royal Family will be the next to get The Crown treatment by Netflix, with a new series The Empress planned to be broadcast in spring next year. 

Empress Sissi
A portrait of Princess Sissi displayed in her Imperial Apartments in Venice.(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP

Netflix’s The Empress will chart the life of the Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, commonly known as Sissi. She was the Empress of Austria for the latter half of the 19th century after marrying Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary as a teenager.

Starring German actress Devrim Lingnau in the main role, the six-part series will delve into the royal’s dramatic life, covering events such as her life at court, the tragic murder-suicide of her son and his young mistress, ending with Sissi’s assassination in 1898, when she was stabbed through the heart with a stiletto blade by an Italian anarchist.

Princess Sissi
A portrait of Empress Sissi By Emil Rabending – Scanned by User:Csanády, Photo: Public Domain

‘World famous’ trendsetter who washed hair in eggs and brandy

Princess Sissi was world famous in her lifetime as a fashion icon and trendsetter. Tall (172cm), but with a tiny waist measuring between 40cm and 50cm, she was famous for her physique and long hair, which reached to the floor.

Styling her mane took up to three hours every day, and her hairstyles were copied across Europe. One every three weeks she would wash her hair with raw eggs and brandy, a procedure which took an entire day.  

Raw meat juice anyone?

Sissi constantly starved herself with a diet of raw meat juices, eggs, oranges and raw milk. It’s reported she travelled with her own cow to ensure a regular supply of raw milk. In addition she wore tight corsets which shrank her waist even further.

Sissi adopted the practice of “tight lacing”, importing corsets from Paris such as those worn by French courtesans. Lacing could take up to an hour every morning. The Prince of Hesse is said to have described her as “almost inhumanly slender”.

Actor Romy Schneider is also famous for playing Empress Sissi in a previous adaptation (Photo by AFP)

Corset allowed her to survive longer after being stabbed through the heart, doctors believed

After Sissi was stabbed through the heart with a stiletto blade by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, she was able to stand again and walk some distance before fainting and dying later in her hotel.

Doctors theorised that her practice of reducing her waist in size to 19.5 ins (50cm) could have stopped her immediately bleeding to death, even though her rib, lungs and heart had all been pierced by the weapon. 

A portrait of Princess Sissi is displayed in the audience room of the Imperial apartments of the Royal Palace on December 3, 2012 at the Correr museum in Venice. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Gym bunny

As well as barely eating, Sissi had a long daily workout regime. She started the day with 20 pull ups on a specially designed home gym.

She then completed a self-devised workout using dumbbells and rings incorporating circus skills, before spending the day energetically hiking, fencing and riding. 

Raw veal face masks and goats’ milk baths

Sissi’s beauty routine rivalled Gywneth Paltrow’s for weirdness. She regularly wore a face mask lined with raw veal and crushed strawberries, bathed in goat’s milk and drank five salted egg whites a day to reduce bloating. 

Sissi often refused to be drawn or photographed once in her 30s

Nonetheless, fearing she was ageing, once she reached 32, Empress Sissi began to refuse to sit for portraits and photographs in an effort to retain her youthful image. This is believed to have only enhanced her mystique. 

These Chinese brides and grooms even hired a  Empress Sissi look-a-like after getting married at King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle.  (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)

She wasn’t a fan of court life and loved Hungary

Empress Sissi did not particularly like court life in Austria and often escaped to nearby Hungary, where she could live a more relaxed life away from her difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria.

She married her older sister’s suitor

Princess Sissi was not actually intended to marry Emperor Franz Joseph, who had been promised to her older sister. However, once he met Sissi, he decided to ditch the older sister for the younger one. 

Her son died in a murder-suicide pact, setting in train events which led to the start of the First World War

Princess Sissi is said to have never recovered from the death of her only son, Rudolf in a murder-suicide pact with his 17-year-old mistress Mary Vetsera in a hunting lodge in Mayerling in 1889. 

Ruldolf’s death changed the succession of the Habsburg monarchy, meaning the crown passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, and his eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The change of succession endangered relations with Hungary and indirectly set in motion the Archduke’s assassination. This event led to the First World War and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.