Book Review : The Huguenots
Books - Documents on the Jewish Community of 18th Century Paris

Did Your Ancestor Die a Prisoner of Napoleon?

Tracing a soldier's or sailor's death that occurred during warfare is often a struggle, especially when trying to conduct the research online. The death may appear in the files of his military service, though it may at times be quite vague, understandably. If the man died in battle, there is a better chance of a death having been noted in his military file than if he died later of wounds or in a prisoner of war camp, as communications between enemies are always fraught.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), many thousands of prisoners of war were taken by the French and sent to camps, called dépôts, throughout the country. We have written before of the civilian British prisoners, of whom some writers say there were over nineteen thousand, though the French records we have seen admit to only about sixteen thousand.
In addition to the civilian prisoners, there were, of course, military, naval and merchant marine prisoners. They were of many nationalities and vast numbers. There were so many Spanish that they ended up imprisoned in fifty-one departments. Seventy thousand Polish, Russian, and Austrian prisoners were taken after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and twenty thousand more Austrians were taken and sent to France the following year. The archives are full of frantic missives from local mayors across France insisting that they cannot house, feed or guard the thousands of prisoners being sent to their towns.
Should you be tracing an ancestor who was not French but may have been such a prisoner who died in France, there is a good chance -- now that so many of the Departmental Archives have put their actes d'état civil online -- of finding a death registration. Firstly, however, you need to know the towns where the prison depots were. The main ones were:
  • Bitche in the department of Moselle
  • Sarrelibre or Sarrelouis, now in Germany
  • Valenciennes, Maubeuge and Cambrai, in the department of Nord
  • Arras, in the department of Pas-de-Calais
  • Auxonne, in the department of Côte-d'Or
  • Besançon, in the department of Doubs
  • Longwy, in the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle
  • Briançon and Mont-Dauphin, in the department of Hautes-Alpes
  • Givet, Charlemont and Sedan, in the department of Ardennes
  • Joux in the department of Rhône


Many of the towns above were chosen because they had fortresses built by Vauban, from which it was as difficult to escape as the defenses of which were difficult to breach. Many coastal towns with fortresses, such as Brest, Dunkirk and Marseilles, also held prisoners, as did anyplace with a big enough jail in a pinch, especially when they were being marched from one place to another.
If a prisoner died, a death registration was written. Depending on the local officials, it may have been quite simple, giving only the man's name and nationality, as in the example below showing the death of "François Kersten, prisoner of war, prussian, native of Breslo [Wroclaw], department of Sillesie [Silesia, Poland]"  aged twenty-eight, died in hospital at the prison town of Briançon in 1814.




Some give the names of parents. By reading through the death (and marriage, by the way!) registrations for the years from 1803 to 1815  in these towns, you may find your ancestor. We hope so! 

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy