Australian internees and prisoners of war in World War I
About 4000 Australian service men and merchant navy men were captured as prisoners of war (POWs) by German or Ottoman forces during the war. The Hague Convention of 1907 protected the officers, but service men of other ranks could be used as labour by their captors. Of the 397 Australians who died in captivity, about 288 died from wounds they received during an action.
Captured at sea
A short time after the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landed on Gallipoli peninsula, HMA Submarine AE2 was scuttled nearby in the Sea of Marmara. The Turks captured all 35 officers and crew, including 19 members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
For the rest of the war, the RAN had no sailors taken as prisoners by enemy forces.
During 1917 and 1918, the armed German merchant raider SMS Wolf destroyed 35 merchant ships and two warships, including 14 ships sunk or captured.
SMS Wolf docked at Kiel on 24 February 1918. On board were 467 prisoners of war, including some Australians who were members of either the Australian and Naval Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) or the merchant navy.
Gallipoli and the Middle East
Turkish forces captured over 200 Australians during the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Sinai and Palestine campaigns.
Most Australian POWs of the Ottomans were captured in the Middle East during the last 2 years of the war. The fighting in the Middle East was much more fluid and mobile than the static nature of trench warfare at Gallipoli. This is why more Australians were captured there than at Gallipoli.
Australian mounted troops conducted long-range reconnaissance patrols and raids deep into the desert. They incurred over 4800 battle casualties during these operations, and 102 men were taken prisoner.
Also in the Middle East, 24 Australian airmen were captured over Ottoman lines. Their aircraft went down due to aerial combat, enemy ground fire or mechanical failure.
The first four Australians captured in World War I were taken when they landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915.
By the time the AIF was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915, the Turks had captured 70 Australians.
The way Allied POWs were treated varied over time and depending on where they were imprisoned.
The treatment received on our way to Constantinople was on the whole good from the escort, but one party of reinforcements we passed stoned us and our escort had to drive them off. At other places we used to be jeered and spat at etc.
On our arrival in Constantinople we were put in prison, 80 of us in a room that would hold about 30, and the place was filthy and crawling with bugs, fleas and lice. After we had been there about 15 days we went to Angora. There we were given a sack mattress and a quilt. The rations we received consisted of a loaf of bread about a pound and a half. At 11 a.m. boiled lentils, mostly water. the next meal was at 4 p.m. and that was boiled wheat. We never received much meat.
During my imprisonment in Turkey I have been in four different camps. The next camp I went to was Khangeri. We marched there in 4 days and after staying there 3 months we returned in 5 days though deep snow, with many sick owing to low rations. My next move was to Belemedik, at this place we were working under the Germans. At this place treatment was good. The pay for working was 8 to 12 piastres per day, out of which we had to feed ourselves. I stayed at Belemedik 8 months. My next move was back to Angora. I went there with a party of 44 and after we had been there was only 17 of us alive. The rest died of bad treatment in hospital, not enough nourishing food, bad attention and if you lingered on too long they would help you on your way.
Employed, yes, on pick and shovel from sunrise to sunset. The food here consisted of boiled wheat morning and night, with sometimes a change to beans or peas, also when you work you get a loaf of black bread weighing 3/4 an oke, non workers for any reason received 1/2 oke. The pay we received averaged about 5 piastres per month. The best treatment I had was from the Germans.
[AWM 30, B1.35, 1333 Pvte. H. N. Brown, 14th Battalion A.I.F]
When most Australians were engaged on Gallipoli, the Mesopotamia Half Flight helped the British to capture Ottoman territory in modern-day Iraq.
Three pilots were caught by the Ottomans when they had to land their faulty aircraft behind enemy lines.
After the fall of Kut-al-Amara, over 10,000 Allied troops were captured on 29 April 1916, including nine Australian air mechanics. The Turks marched their prisoners over 1200km to Aleppo, in modern-day Syria.
The POWs worked on the Berlin-Baghdad railway in the Taurus Mountains of modern-day Turkey. Many of the prisoners died from dysentery, malaria and typhus.
2000 POWs of the Mesopotamia Campaign survived to the end of the war. Only two of them were Australian:
Two Australians died on the way to Aleppo, at Nisbin:
Five Australians died in the Taurus Mountains region:
- Air-Mechanic Leo Williams
- Air-Mechanic William Rayment
- Air-Mechanic Francis Adams
- Air-Mechanic William Lord
- Air-Mechanic James Munro
At the outbreak of war, Germany interned many Australian civilian men of military age in Germany.
The Germans captured 3853 Australians in the fighting on the Western Front. Australians were captured as prisoners when undertaking hundreds of small-scale trench raids, patrols, and minor attacks throughout the campaign. The largest numbers were captured at:
- Fromelles between 19 and 20 July 1916 (470 prisoners)
- Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 (1170 prisoners)
- Dernancourt on 4 April 1918 (400 prisoners)
The Germans captured 21 pilots from the Australian Flying Corps when scout squadron planes crashed behind enemy lines.
Australian troops captured on the Western Front often came from a unit that had been cut off or surrounded soon after achieving its objective. German troops sometimes collected wounded Australians and gave them medical treatment. Uninjured soldiers were forced to surrender on the battlefield.
During major attacks, German defensive doctrine called for squad-based counter-attacks when the Allies broke into their trenches. Parties of German troops would try to slow the attacking force while other Germans worked their way around the exposed flanks. Then they cut off the attacking force to prevent the soldiers from withdrawing. In this way, capturing prisoners was a function of tactics used in battle.
AIF soldiers were not immune to demoralisation. At least two Australians willingly deserted to the German forces to become prisoners.
Interrogation of Australians in captivity
At the start of the war, no formal training was offered to Allied soldiers to prepare them for capture.
In 1916, the British War Office discovered that some Australian prisoners shared sensitive information with the Germans during the Somme Offensive. So the AIF began to instruct soldiers on their obligation not to reveal name or rank if captured.
A study of German intelligence documents revealed that AIF prisoners continued to divulge sensitive information to their German interrogators. Often they were captured carrying operational orders, photographs and personal diaries. Sometimes the men spoke freely to their captors about the AIF defences and life behind the lines.
Officers and non-commissioned officers were targeted by German intelligence and examined more intensely. Captured officers, particularly airmen, were usually held in designated 'listening hotels'. German intelligence recorded their conversations about operational matters.
Treatment of officers and other ranks
German and Turkish forces gave proper medical treatment to wounded Australian prisoners, although like most armed forces, they treated their own casualties first.
Of the 372 Australians who died in captivity during World War I, 288 died from their wounds received during action.
Wounded prisoners could take up to 6 months to recover in a German or Turkish field hospital before being moved to a prison camp. The journey for uninjured prisoners could sometimes take longer, especially on foot.
The Hague Convention recognised officers as members of the upper class. This protected them from working as manual labourers to support their captor's economy. Officers were transported to camps within days of capture, and the Australian Red Cross Society in London was notified of their whereabouts soon after.
Prisoners of other ranks lived a life in captivity that was defined by their ability to work. The Hague Convention allowed captors to use the labour of other ranks prisoners if the work was not connected to military operations.
Along the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, men assigned to work parties in the Taurus and Amanus mountains laboured for up to 12 hours a day. Arduous tasks included:
- making tunnels
- timber cutting
- laying track
Once the tunnel work was completed in 1917, most were moved to Mosul (in current-day Iraq) or other locations in the Ottoman Empire.
Conditions in Turkish work camps
Conditions varied according to the work parties and the front on which a prisoner was captured.
Other ranks men were often subjected to the same harsh living conditions and limited supplies as their Ottoman captors. Many prisoners died from sickness, hard labour and the prolonged effects of malnutrition. Of the 62 Australians who died in Ottoman hands as prisoners, 39 were other ranks prisoners who died of disease.
Officers were treated better, and none died during their Ottoman captivity.
Conditions in Germany and the German reprisals
In 1916, both officers and other ranks were transported to Germany within days of capture.
Then in 1917, most Australians POWs remained in France to work behind the German lines. This coincided with the largest capture of Australian prisoners in a single action on the Western Front - at the First Battle of Bullecourt.
The British and French armies had been making German prisoners work behind Allied lines, within range of German guns. The German Army began a reprisal policy against the mistreatment of German POWs. The strategy tried to force the Allies to change their POW policies.
Over 1500 Australians captured at Noreuil, Bullecourt and Lagnicourt in April 1917 were subjected to reprisals that disregarded the Hague Convention.
Australian prisoners were taken to Lille. They were locked in the casements of Fort MacDonald for 10 days. Then they returned to the German front line, under British shellfire, to:
- bury bodies
- clear roads
- dig trenches
- labour at engineering and ammunition dumps
The Germans encouraged the Australian POWs to write to the British War Office and the Australian High Commission in London about their mistreatment and poor conditions. The Australian Red Cross was misinformed that the men were at a Limburg prison camp and sent thousands of clothing and food parcels to Germany.
Conditions behind German lines were poor. Hard labour and malnutrition made prisoners vulnerable to illness.
Some Australians died of disease during the German reprisal period. At least seven Australians were killed by Allied shellfire while working near the German lines.
Officers in German captivity
Officers in German camps lived fairly well in spacious quarters. They were permitted to have other ranks prisoners cook and clean for them.
Many officers in captivity spent their days reading, studying, playing sports, gambling and participating in camp theatres. The German government paid the imprisoned Australian officers at the same level as their corresponding rank in the German Army. Officers were also permitted to go on escorted walks outside the camp.
Life for Australian POWs in Germany
Once they were transported to Germany, other ranks prisoners were employed to support Germany's domestic needs. Since 1915, the German economy had struggled to cope with:
- voids in essential home front industries
- British naval blockade
- increasing demands of war on multiple fronts
Millions of prisoners were assigned to work parties that supported the German domestic economy. These POWs spent the rest of the war working on farms, in mines, forests and factories.
Living conditions and treatment varied between work parties, but treatment could be harsh. The barracks in the camps were sometimes overcrowded, filthy and susceptible to disease outbreaks.
Australian prisoners in contact with the Red Cross Society could survive on food consignments sent from London every 2 weeks. By 1918, they were among the best-fed people in Germany.
Few Australian prisoners of World War I succeeded in their escape attempts. Of the 3848 Australians taken prisoner by German forces, only a few escaped to neutral or friendly borders:
- 3 Australian officers - one from Ottoman captivity and two from German captivity
- 40 other ranks prisoners working close to the Dutch, Swiss, and Russian borders
Towards the end of the war, POWs began to be assessed by neutral Swiss medical commissioners. Some long-term prisoners, mostly officers and non-commissioned officers, who were sick, seriously wounded or suffering from psychological conditions became eligible for internment in Switzerland and The Netherlands.
About 200 Australians were moved from Germany to The Netherlands before the war ended in November 1918.