Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, December 9, 2019

Australia's Prisoners of War

Australians Captured at the Somme

One of the areas of the history of the Great War that needs more research is the plight of the millions who were prisoners of war. The Australian War Memorial has done much excellent work on its nation's soldiers, including their prisoner of war experience. Australia might be  a representative example, in spite of its relatively low population, but it's soldier/captives certainly experienced much misery.

The Great War was to be a terrible experience for the newly federated nation of Australia. In 1914 hardly any Australians knew what being a prisoner of war meant. In the Boer War a few dozen Australians had been captured and quickly released. The Great War that became a baptism of fire, killing tens of thousands of young men, also creating the foundation for new traditions of patriotism, and an increasingly distinct national identity apart from Britain.

Some 60,000 Australian military personnel were killed during the Great War, and about 160,000 were wounded. Of the 3,853 Australians captured by the Germans, 310—about one in 12—died in captivity.

Graves of Australian POWs in Turkey

The Gallipoli campaign saw the first of 217 Australians captured by Ottoman [Turkish] forces. The AE2, Australia’s second war submarine, was sunk in the Sea of Marmara on 30 April 1915. Torpedoed by the Turkish boat Sultan Hissar, the 32-man crew was forced to abandon ship and all were taken prisoner. Though their captors at first treated them as “honoured guests,” the submariners were sent to work on the railway being built through the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey. In that harsh climate, they suffered from malnutrition, overwork, disease, and brutality. Four died, of typhus, malaria or meningitis

Other Australians were captured during the Gallipoli and Middle Eastern ground campaigns, and Australian airmen were also captured in what is now Iraq. One quarter of Australian POWs died in Turkish captivity due to poor food and disease. “It was hell,” an Australian recalled. "We had to fight hard to keep alive.” The last of the AE2 men, Stoker Charles Suckling, who died in 1983, recalled: “I don’t think, if we had known what was ahead of us, that one of us would have left the boat.”

On the Western Front battlefields from 1916 to 1918, 3,853 Australian troops were taken prisoner by German forces, most of them held in Germany. A third of these Australian prisoners were captured on 11 April 1917 at the First Battle of Bullecourt in northern France. A number of Australian airmen were also shot down and captured by the Germans.

Australians Captured at Fromelles, July 1916

Although these Australian prisoners survived in proportionally higher numbers than their comrades in Ottoman camps, their experience was a difficult one and their captors were generally harsh. Many non-officer POWs were made to work for the Germans in war-related capacities—a direct breach of the Hague Conventions. 

Mrs. Chomley
The conditions they endured varied greatly. In 1917, though, many were held in appalling conditions in Fort MacDonald near Lille, in Belgium, despite the Hague Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Private Horace Ganson, 16th Battalion, AIF recalled, "The Germans … put us in a fort at Lille. They never gave us anything. We may have had a slice of bread a day, nothing else. We were building dugouts, huts, carrying and loading shells. We had one slice of bread in the morning and at lunchtime a pot of soup, which was more or less like water." Others, often starved and treated brutally, worked for months under shellfire close behind German lines.

In camps in Germany conditions were better, but prisoners suffered increasingly from shortages caused by the British blockade. Many survived only because of regular Red Cross parcels. Elizabeth Chomley, an Australian living in London, ran the Red Cross prisoner of war office in London that supported Australian prisoners in Europe. For thousands of Australians in German camps, Miss Chomley’s parcels reminded them that they had not been forgotten. Her album and the Red Cross records in the memorial contain hundreds of letters and cards thanking her for her work.

Sources:  Photos and text from the Australian War Memorial

1 comment:

  1. For a story of a great Aussie POW from an unlikely background see
    Cheers Gordon - Librarian ASWWIAH