World War 1

Russian soldiers, the Red Cross and Imperial Russia

Top-photograph: A Red-Cross nurse from the Russian Imperial Legation receiving Russian soldiers, formerly prisoners-of-war in German prison camps, at the harbor at Elsinore, 1919. © Europeana Collections, creative commons

Emperor Nicholas II decorating Kuban Cossacks, 1915. © Ballerup Museum

World War I lasted from the 1st of August, 1914 to the 11th of November, 1918. It played out in the bloody battlefields of Europe as well as in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The war claimed more than nine million lives and became one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. The consequences of the war were devastating to the European continent. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. Germany, on the losing side, went from a monarchy to an unstable republic. The collapse of the Russian empire after the October Revolution in 1917 and the abdication of the Czar paved the way for the Leninist take-over and the Soviet Republic.

 In 1914, many men went to war because of patriotism and lust for adventure and convinced that the war would be a heroic struggle that would end before Christmas. This was an illusion. The war was not short, and heroism faded in the face of the bloodshed. Machine guns, artillery and poison gas were new weapons manufactured by industrialism. The concept of shell shock hails from World War I. On the front the soldiers lived in constant fear of deadly raids and suffered during long periods in which boredom, rain, cold, poor hygiene, sickness and insufficient supplies were their main adversaries. Their time was spent in the muddy trenches, waiting for bombardments and enemy attacks. Thousands froze to death in the mountains whereas swamps and woodlands made advances and retreats a pure hell on the eastern front. Epidemics raged among the soldiers. In 1916, discontent spread among all armies.

Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna at her war-effort, surrounded by her attending Ladies-in-waiting wearing Red Cross uniforms. The Imperial Russian army desperately needed uniforms, knitted socks, shirts and linen © Ballerup Museum

In the course of 1917, great parts of the Russian Army disintegrated, and in May of that year, mutiny spread in the French Army. Many soldiers sought individual ways out of the war, by letting themselves be captured by the enemy, by deserting, or by injuring themselves. In most armies, court martials were busy sentencing deserters to death. The world had become a devastated and burnt-down wasteland. enmark was neutral in World War I. While the warring countries lost generations of young men on the battlefield, Denmark steered clear of the conflict. But Denmark was not totally untouched by the war. There were import troubles, food shortage and ration coupons on groceries.  Danish soldiers were sent to the front. Men from what was then German Silesia had to say goodbye to their families and fight for Germany. An incredible number of soldiers perished during the war, and a great number were taken prisoner. Germany alone took 1,700,000 prisoners, most of whom were Russian.

In Denmark several private persons suggested receiving and nursing prisoners so they could be sent home. The government was compensated for expenses and eventually made an official payment agreement with Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Two prison camps were established: Hald near Viborg and Horserød near Elsinore. 100,000 prisoners of many nationalities were shipped to a temporary stay in Denmark until larger ships could bring them home. But they were not well when they arrived in Denmark; mistreatment, malnutrition, typhoid and post-traumatic stress disorder, which was called “shell shock” when no one could diagnose it, followed many of them.

Russian war-invalids greeted at Elsinore north of Copenhagen, debarking from the sequestered German ship Imperator in 1919 © Europeana Collections, creative commons