Food parcels for prisoners of war

British prisoners of war sitting together on the ground during the First World War.

British prisoners of war were in dire need of food and clothing during the First World War. (Credit : British Red Cross)

Many wrote letters home to tell family and friends that they were starving. Although their loved ones sent them supplies, many packages did not reach their destination or were poorly packed. Others had secret messages hidden in the food, so they were destroyed by the German forces.

During the war the British Red Cross and the Order of St John worked together. Through the Central Prisoners of War Committee they co-ordinated relief for British prisoners of war.

Every prisoner would receive an adequate supply of food and clothing. Parcels of food, each weighing about 10 pounds, were delivered fortnightly to every prisoner who had been registered. 

The food parcels

The standard emergency parcel contained:

  • three tins of beef
  • 1/4 pound of tea
  • 1/4 pound of cocoa
  • two pounds of biscuits
  • two tins of cheese or loaf goods
  • one tin of dripping
  • two tins of milk
  • 50 cigarettes

Each parcel contained enough food to keep two men going for approximately one week. The Red Cross was permitted to keep a total of 12,000 of these emergency parcels at any one time in the various German prisoner-of-war camps.

There were also some special parcels:

  • Turkish and Bulgarian parcels
  • Invalid parcels
  • Vegetarian parcels
  • 'No tins' parcels (due to the rules implemented in certain camps by the Germans)
  • Indian parcels
  • Enclosures from relatives


Packages of games and entertainment were also sent to prisoners of war to alleviate their boredom. The Red Cross received a request for these entertainments from a prisoner of war at Doebritz Camp:

"British prisoners of war in Doebritz Camp, Germany are sorely in need of indoor and outdoor games. Cricket and tennis are not allowed, but gifts of rope and rubber quoits would be welcomed, also books for the library and music for the string orchestra which the prisoners have started."

Letters from prisoners

The Central Prisoners of War Committee tried to keep the prisoners in touch with their families. They received many requests for help from men who did not hear regularly from home. 

They also received numerous letters expressing thanks for the food parcels and other comforts.

One prisoner wrote: "So you can see that the men have to rely entirely on the parcels sent from England. I regret to state that the bread which we received during last summer was in such a state that we could not eat it, but it was on account of the hot weather; but during autumn and up to the time I left Germany, it arrived regular and in very good condition.

"I must say that the parcels that I received were very good and to my knowledge I don’t think they need any alteration, as I was quite satisfied with the parcels, although many of the parcels which I received there was some item or other missing, but where it is done we cannot say, only it is somewhere in Germany."

2.5 million parcels

By the end of the First World War, over 2.5 million parcels had been organised, packaged, wrapped and despatched to prisoners of war in camps abroad.

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