Internment camps in Australia during World War I
Australia kept thousands of civilian internees and military prisoners of war (POWs) during the war. The government set up camps around Australia and interned nearly 4500 residents because of their Austrian or German descent. Most internees were deported from Australia after the war.
Merchant navy 'prizes' and interned crews
At the beginning of the war, all German and Central Power ships coming into, or already in Australian ports were seized as 'war prizes'.
Most ships were seized and put back into service with Allied crews. The ships’ cargoes and some ships were sold through prize courts, and the owners usually received some of the sale proceeds.
Germans crews captured in Australian ports were interned for the duration of the war. At first, they lived in makeshift camps at:
- Torrens Island in South Australia
- Rottnest Island in Western Australia
Later, the sailors were moved to Berrima gaol and Holsworthy camp in New South Wales.
Classification of 'enemy aliens'
In the first week of the war, the Australian Government asked residents with German and Austro-Hungarian descent to register with the police.
Laws were also changed to forbid German-Australians from:
- leaving Australia
- sending money overseas
In the interests of national security, the Australian Government established camps to:
- hold military prisoners of war transferred to Australia
- prevent certain groups from assisting enemy powers
- intern civilians as enemy aliens
Many men, women and children interned in the camps were classed as 'enemy aliens'. This term meant they had ancestral or citizen links to countries at war with Australia.
About 7000 people were imprisoned by 1918, including 4500 'enemy aliens'. Most of the internees were Germans.
Some people interned themselves voluntarily. Sentiments towards German-Australians had worsened so much that many people lost their jobs or felt unsafe in the community.
After the war, most internees were deported from Australia. Others chose to leave Australia after feeling mistreated.
Treatment of internees and prisoners
Many historical records don't make a clear distinction between:
- civilian internees
- military prisoners of war (POWs)
The terms 'prisoner' and 'internee' are often used interchangeably. But the two groups had different rights and could be treated differently by Australian authorities.
For example, POWs could be made to work but internees could not. Internees had to be paid for any work they undertook.
Controversy of internments
Internees and POWs lived in either makeshift or purpose-built camps, often in remote locations. A long way from their family and friends.
Conditions in camps depended on the location, who lived there, and the personality of the Australian officer in charge.
Australia's treatment of POWs in the war has been considered fair. But the reasons behind civilian internment remain a contentious issue. It is easy to understand how resentful many internees and their families would have felt. Some of them had lived in Australia all their lives.
Camp life through one man's lens
One internee was young apprentice photographer, Paul Dubotzki. He had been on an expedition to South-East Asia before the war. At the time of his arrest and internment, he was running a photographic studio in Adelaide.
Over 5 years of confinement in Australia, Paul documented inmate life with his camera.
Paul's early photographs focused on the mistreatment of inmates at the Torrens Island camp in South Australia. His images were used as evidence in a Defence Department inquiry into the camp's operation, after which the inmates were transferred to camps in New South Wales.
At Berrima gaol, Holsworthy and Trial Bay camps, Paul photographed the community and culture that developed around him.
What is clear from Paul's photographs is the strength of the human spirit.
His insightful photographs show fellow inmates making the best of their situation. To pass the time and bolster spirits, they:
- built things
- participated in small business ventures
- performed theatrical plays and musical events
- played in sporting contests
The internees came from all walks of life and acted as muse for the young photographer. Among Paul's fellow inmates were:
- beer baron Edmund Resch
- budding illustrator Kurt Wiese, who would go on to illustrate the original Bambi book