Prisoners of war in earlier centuries, especially officers, could be given temporary or permanent freedom in return for various conditions: A parole.

This overlaps with the modern civilian use of parole for criminals. Variations including day-release; occupation or location restrictions; refraining from misdemeanors; restrictions on free association and so forth. Indeed, civilian parole has become a very popular social mechanism.

Militaries on the other hand, no longer endorse or utilise parole any more.

So when did parole of prisoners of war fall out of fashion?

Do we know why this shift occurred - considering the millennia of prior tradition?

  • 6
    In "earlier centuries", you didn't take prisoners of war, except officers which essentially were taken so they could be released for ransom. Well, unless you were practising human sacrifice, when prisoners of wars was very handy. So I suspect you really are talking about different types of prisoners of war. The last few centuries prisoners are taken to stop them from fighting, and usually are released at the end of hostilities. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 5:30

3 Answers 3


The officers were paroled, and without any ransom as late as at start of WW1. For example the later marshal Tuchachevsky was a "poruchik" (senior lieutenant) then and was taken as a prisoner by Germans. As with all other officers, he was allowed to walk into the town and had his freedom, only he gave his honest word that he'll return into the barracks.

But he tried to escape. 5 times! The fifth attempt was successful. You can imagine the "strictness" of the guard! Only after the first attempt to escape and a mutiny he was forbidden to have walks in the town!

So, the parole system worked. But for officers only.

As for the system "free for a promise not to fight", the last war that used it, as far as I know, was the Russian-Japan war of 1904/5. And it worked these times.

The same system was tried for use by Chechens in the first year of the first Russian-Chechen war (1995-98). But then it didn't work. The fact of "word" was irrelevant to the contemporary Russian state machine.

So, the question is not in acceptability, but in usability of the practice.

  • 2
    The same happened to a British POW, Capt Robert Campbell, who was paroled from Magdeburg after writing to the Kaiser asking for a leave of absence after he discovered his mother was dying of cancer. The Kaiser granted him two weeks leave, with 2 days travel either side. He went home, spent time with his mother and then returned to Germany. I read this here: telegraph.co.uk/history/10284851/…
    – Kobunite
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 8:17
  • 1
    Yes, an aristocrate to another aristocrate, so it worked. Alas, it already stopped to work on the other side. The Britain even haven't given the refuge to the Russian emperor or his family in 1917. Maybe because it "guarded" the jewelry of the Russian Crown.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 6:51
  • "the last war that used it" but it used successfully, or not?
    – o0'.
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 9:40
  • @Lohoris Yes. These "barbaric" states took a honest world very seriously. I have read about cases when they went into beforehand lost battles in order not to give such word.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 15:19
  • Interestingly, Tuchachevsky shared quarters with de Gaulle, who tried to escape 4 times, but wasn't successful.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 5:45

Military paroles became impractical when mass conscription led to the formation of armies of tens or hundreds of thousands of men that were too hard to keep track of.

Military parole was used as late as the American Revolution. This was when "armies" typically numbered in the thousands, and both sides spoke the same language (English). Also, the British armies contained a number of pro-British Americans, who could often identify and recognize their "countrymen" on the other side. The American military paroled a whole army, the one that they captured at Saratoga (although Congress reversed this parole). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_of_Saratoga#Convention_of_Saratoga

Paroles typically preceded prisoner exchanges. The prisoner was set free, on the condition that he refrained from fighting, unless exchanged as a prisoner of war.

During the Napoleonic Wars, which followed the American Revolution, armies were ten times as large, making parole impractical. It was not generally practiced after the 18th century, although there were some attempts in the "smaller" conflicts.

The reasons that nobles were "paroled" (for ransom) in the Middle Ages was because there were only a few hundred of them, and they were well known internationally. So they were easy to keep track of.

  • What about the Dix-Hill Cartel during the American Civil War? More generally [this paper] from the Military Law Review includes a potted history of parole indicating that it was used in the Napoleonic period, in the Boer War and even to a limited extent in WW1. Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 23:41
  • Parole was an intrinsic part of Dix-Hill. Prisoners were required to be paroled within 10 days of capture and delivered back to their own side, even if there was no-one to exchange them for at that time. They remained on parole until they were matched with a prisoner going the other way. Parole camps were set up to house returned prisoners who were still on parole until their exchange was completed. Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 0:13
  • @NigelHarper: They "tried," and exchanged a few thousand prisoners under Dix-Hill but the arrangement broke down after six-twelve months when 1) the scale of the war made it impractical, and 2) the two sides couldn't agree on the details. Parole was MUCH more manageable with the smaller wars.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 0:18
  • @Nigel Harper: But the Napoleonic Wars and World War I were basically too large scale to make paroles a viable option GENERALLY. The Boer war was a "step back" in scale, more like the American Revolution. And the British had enough Boers with them to identify the rebellious ones, same as in the American Revolution
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 0:20
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    USA after American Revolution can not be taken as a valid example, because then they had no aristocracy. And the questioned parol system in Europe was not for plebs. As for napoleonic wars, you are mistaken, the parol system was widely known and used. Look The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard of Conan Doyle, for example.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 14:43

In summer 1940, the German Wehrmacht had captured 2 million Dutch, Belgian and French soldiers. All of the Dutch and Flemish and about a third of the French POWs were released on parole because the Germans coulnd't supply them and already had half a million Polish POWs as workforce (de facto: slaves). Mark Mazower, Hitlers Imperium: Europa unter der Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus. C.H.Beck, Munich 2009. Page 152

  • 3
    Do you believe this is the last instance of parole in recent warfare? If so, are you saying that this was point after which parole became unacceptable?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 13:05
  • I personally think so. WW2 was the last war with hundreds of thousands of POWs. Since then (and already then), war has become more and more charged with ideology (Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq-Iran War) and the opponent woudn't trust the sincerety of a parole, and also more asymmetrical with irregular troops and guerilla tactics (Vietnam, Afghanistan, "Africa's World War" in Congo etc.). Also, wars have become much shorter (Desert Storm, several US invasions) so there was no need to release POWs due to supply problems like said example from WW2. (cont'd)
    – H Tuttle
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 18:31
  • The number of POWs has become much smaller since the era of huge battles with thousands of soldiers involved is gone. So it's more useful to keep POWs for exchanges (example: 500 POWs from the 1980-88 war to be released by Iran in 2002). There's hardly any years or months long "conventional" war between regular armies any more, today covert and low intensity wars that result in frozen conflicts are much more common (Kashmir, Karabakh, Abchasia, Eastern Ukraine). The character of war has changed.
    – H Tuttle
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 18:40
  • You should edit the information in the comments into the question so that you have a complete answer. Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 22:03
  • A caveat here is that these prisoners were released after the Germany won the war against the Dutch, Belgians and French. Also, the Germans kept the French generals imprisoned.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 5:51

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