The Mystery of the German POW of WWI: A Photographic Study

It’s been a long month for us here at PortraitsofWar, and we apologize for a lack of posting since the last photo on April 3rd.  In today’s post we will be looking at a different side of the war than normally highlighted on this blog.  Normally focused on American portraits, photos, and slides, we will be dissecting the story behind a German prisoner of war being held in Marseilles, France in 1918.

Unteroffizier Grießbach as a POW in France

Unteroffizier Grießbach as a POW in France

Before delving into the biographical information hand inscribed on the reverse side of the image, we will inspect and identify the visual imagery captured on the obverse.  The first thing of note is the format of the image.  The photo was printed as a real photo postcard (RPPC) and was likely obtained in a pack of 6 or 12.  It’s not uncommon to see identical copies of WWI RPPC’s pop up on the market from time to time.  The consistent size, quality and subject matter of these images make them a highly collectable form of WWI militaria.

The three major identifying features present on the front of the RPPC will need some research using easily-accessible internet resources.

  • Buttons
  • Collar Insignia
  • Cap/Headgear


Upon quick glance it’s clear to see that the buttons running down the center are a rimmed (see the raised edge along the outside of the button) with a crown in the center.   This type of button is widely known as the standard button of a WWI German soldier and were made to be removable to allow for the cleaning of the uniform. This was a common standard of many nations during WWI.

Rimmed Crown Button

Rimmed Crown Button

Collar Insignia

The next identifiable feature of the tunic is the visible decoration of the collar. Here at PortraitsofWar, we’re use to identifying WWI doughboy collar insignia, but had to rely upon outside sources to help with this particular post.  The first thing to call attention to the neck region is the disc on the left side of the sitter’s uniform.

Collar Details

Collar Details

The disc on the left hand side of the photo is known as an Non Commissioned Officer collar disc (sometimes as disk) and can infrequently be seen in period studio photographs.  A lengthy internet-based search only turned up a small handful of images, the best of which can be seen below.

NCO Discs

NCO Discs


The third and final identifying feature of the obverse side of the photo is the headgear worn by the sitter.  It appear to be an easily bendable version of the Prussian feldmutz field cap.  This style of cap was popular with NCO’s and were easily folded or packed for transport.  WWII versions were popularly known as “crushers.”

Prussian Feldmutze

Prussian Feldmutze

Cap Cockades (Kokarden)

The circular insignia seen on the cap above are known as cockades, or kokarden in German.  Sadly, the photo we’re working with is in black and white, but typically each cockade color helps identify the unit type, region and era of creation.

Visual Observations

So what do we know just by viewing the front of the image?  We certainly know the soldier is an NCO in the German Army during WWI.  He’s sporting all the fittings associated with a non commissioned officer of the period, but doesn’t have all the extra tidbits normally associated with a WWI period phograph. Where are his ribbons, medals and weaponry?

Hand Written Reverse Side

In the world of identifying WWI photos, the really important research material is always included on the backside (reverse) of the image.  In this case, the German soldier oddly wrote in French to an unmarried friend or relative of his who was living in Dresden during the time. It’s very likely that he was writing to a girlfriend or close female friend, as the wording is very proper.  Please see below for a low resolution scan of the backside.

Photo Backside

Photo Backside

What does the backside tell us? 

Firstly, it’s clearly a real photo postcard created to be sent to recipients.  The CARTE POSTALE header is a clear indicator of it’s origin: France.  The sender of the postcard notes Marseille as his current location, and Dresden, Germany is the destination.  How do we interpret a real photo postcard without knowing anything else about the people included?  Isn’t it strange that the postcard doesn’t include a message?  This infers a close connection between the writer and recipient.  Perhaps she already knows about his wartime status.

Writer Section

This section is typically reserved for messages but, in this case, relays the status of the photographed soldier’s military situation.   His handwriting is careful and is strangely written in French without the normal stylistic handwriting nuances of Germanic writing of the period, it becomes easy to make out the passage.

“Uzfdir. Griessbach

pris. de guerre

6283, depit de Marseille,

detacbhment coulou

(Ceceille) france”

The surname of the sitter is uncertain at this point.  Is is Greissbach, Greissback, Greissbarf or possibly Greiss back?  The prefix Uxfdir. is short for Unteroffizier and can be easily related to a rank between corporal and sergeant most worldwide military rankings. It’s odd that an Unteroffizier would wear an NCO collar disc, but that is an issue best left to the armchair historians who browse this blog.

Who was it sent to?

“Frau Gerfrun Griecfsbahn


Weinbergstraße 1/73 I”

Was this woman living in Dresden at the time?  Does Weinbergstraße 1/73 I correspond with an apartment number in the city?

If so, this is the location of the house the postcard was meant to be delivered to:

Weinbergstraße 73, Dresden

Weinbergstraße 73, Dresden

And is this the house that the card was meant to be sent?  I recognize the Audi in the carport! I used to have the same model.

Weinbergstraße 73

Weinbergstraße 73

I need the help of German speaking friends to help decipher the last names of the sitter and the recipient. Hopefully we can narrow down the search using the power of the internet.  If you have a clue that may help, please don’t hesitate to comment on this post!

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of the German POW of WWI: A Photographic Study

  1. Hi Brennan — can I get permission to use one of your photos of the Uboats surrendering in Portsmouth? It’s for a VERY small museum exhibit. If possible, I’d like to get a file photo without the overprint. Any advice for me?

  2. The NCO appears to be a Saxon. The collar disc matches the pattern for Sachsen NCOs and the hat cockade is the correct color pattern: white-green-white rings. The recipient of the card being in Dresden, Capital of Saxony in WWI would seem to confirm this as well. Hope this is helpful.

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