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Between 1916 and 1918, more than 3,800 men of the Australian Imperial Force were taken prisoner by German forces fighting on the Western Front. Australians captured in France and Belgium did not easily integrate into public narratives of Australia in the First World War and its commemorative rituals. Captivity was a story of surrender and inaction, at odds with the Anzac legend and a triumphant national memory. Soldiers captured on the Western Front endured a broad range of experiences in German captivity, yet all regarded survival as a personal triumph. Surviving the Great War is the first detailed analysis of the little-known story of Australians in German captivity in the First World War. By placing the hardships of prisoners of war in a broader social and military context, this book adds a new dimension to the national wartime experience and challenges popular representations of Australia's involvement in the First World War.
Throughout September and October 1918, Allied forces made a series of offensives that threatened and destabilised the last of the German Army’s defensive positions on the Western Front. The BEF broke through German lines between the Schelde and the Sambre rivers in early November, leading to the capture of hundreds of German prisoners and scores of field and heavy siege guns. Suffering a series of defeats from which it could never recover, the German Army collapsed. An armistice was signed at Compiègne on 11 November 1918, bringing an end to four years of fighting on the Western Front. German sailors of the High Seas Fleet had by then mutinied at Kiel, Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated and moved to Holland, and Germany was in the midst of revolution. The war had ended, and for 2.5 million Allied prisoners in German captivity, the day of being released after years of deprivation and hardship had finally arrived.
On the evening of 23 July 1918, twenty-nine British prisoners at the officers’ camp at Holzminden in Lower Saxony escaped after spending nine months digging a tunnel beneath their enclosure. Among them was Lieutenant Peter Lyons, a Western Australian of the 11th Battalion, who had tried to escape from Holzminden on two other occasions. Armed with a compass, a map of Germany, some money and a cut of bacon, this time Lyons was successful and took off across Germany towards neutral Holland with two other British officers. Lyons recalled hiding in woods during the day and avoiding all major roads and villages by night. ‘When night came and things were quiet, we would set out again … we travelled in this manner for 12 days, covering 185 miles [298 kilometres].’
As the military and economic situation deteriorated in Germany, so did the military’s ability to respect the pre-war agreements on the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Shortages worsened throughout 1917 and 1918, causing all social classes to feel the effects of the war in the pits of their stomachs. Tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in Germany had no option but to rely on whatever their captors could feed them. Conditions were dire, but Germany was able to defray some of the long-term costs of feeding prisoners of war by granting some of them access to humanitarian aid from the Red Cross. The food situation at Karlsruhe had become so desperate in 1917 that British officers imprisoned there were offered 30 pfennigs a day to forgo the German-supplied rations so that they could be used to feed starving civilians.
This book has argued that Germany’s treatment of Allied prisoners during the First World War was neither brutal nor benign, but somewhere in between. Through the experiences of Australian prisoners of war captured on the Western Front, we see that Germany largely adhered to the pre-war agreements as best it could. Although there were cases of deliberate mistreatment, ex-prisoners of war testified that their captors had largely treated them humanely, provided them with food, shelter and medical assistance, and respected the rank of captured officers.
Captain Charles Mills was captured at Fromelles on the morning of 20 July 1916. At first light, German soldiers showered his position with grenades before rushing in from the flanks, firing their rifles from the hip. A German NCO stopped his men on the parapet, jumped into the waterlogged ditch and seized Mills by his wounded hand. ‘Why did you not put up your hands, officer?’ he asked. As the fighting came to an end, Mills and the surviving members of the 31st Battalion were escorted along a communication trench to a farmhouse the Germans called Neuhof. In the courtyard there, they joined three officers and 200 other ranks in what was evidently a collecting station for prisoners of war. A German medical officer took care of the walking wounded, and Mills had his hand cleaned and bandaged. What happened next altered German knowledge of British intentions in the Fromelles area.
No sooner had the barrage lifted from the Australian trenches on the night of 5 May 1916 than two German raiding parties entered the shattered remnants of the Bridoux Salient and began searching through the smoke and debris for underground mining galleries. They picked their way through the tangle of sandbags and smashed timber, lobbing grenades into makeshift shelters where the surviving Australian garrison sought refuge. Three grenades were lobbed into a dugout and exploded, after which five stunned and terrified figures emerged with hands raised above their heads. After eight minutes, three sharp whistle blasts signalled the raiders to return across No Man’s Land. With them went two 3-inch Stokes mortars and eleven men of the 20th Battalion, who had the misfortune of being the first Australian soldiers taken prisoner by German forces on the Western Front.
Not all captured Australians survived the tumult of battle. After the 7th Brigade’s failed attack on the Windmill at Pozières on 28 July 1916, a German officer approached an Australian Lewis gunner nursing a bullet wound to his leg. ‘You are the Machine Gunner?’ asked the officer. ‘Yes, sir,’ the man replied. Without hesitation, the officer drew his automatic pistol and shot the man through the heart and the head, killing him instantly. ‘That’s the way to deal with English swine.’
Towards the end of Somme Mud, Edward Lynch’s fictionalised memoir of fighting on the Western Front, the book’s protagonist, Nulla, encounters a group of British and French soldiers who had spent the previous three years as prisoners of war. Among them is a ‘tall, gaunt figure’ who sways up to Nulla and introduces himself as an Australian who ‘got knocked’ and was taken prisoner at Fleurbaix in July 1916. ‘Can you spare a couple of tins of bully beef?’ he asks. Nulla looks pitifully on the ‘poor, half-starved wretches. All dirty yellow skin, hollow cheeks and sunken, hopeless eyes.’ He gives food and cigarettes to these ‘scarecrows on legs’ that clutch with ‘long, claw-like, grasping fingers that shake’. Nulla was appalled. ‘How we pity these poor beggars! How we thank our lucky stars we escaped the ordeal of being prisoners of war. We look upon [these] fellow men reduced to skin-clad skeletons and are sickened.’