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In 1915, four months after the first convoy of Australian soldiers disembarked in Egypt, venereal disease (VD) infected roughly 10 per cent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).1 In the Official History, Butler described it as ‘a startling outburst’ that resulted in 3 per cent of the force being ‘constantly sick’.2 Given that a significant number of soldiers were not only incapacitated but also occupying hospital beds that would be needed once combat casualties started to arrive, VD had serious implications for the efficiency of the AIF and its medical services.
In November 1914, an Australian couple living in Middlesex, England, offered their house for use as a convalescent home for sick and wounded Australian soldiers recovering from injury. The AAMC accepted Mr and Mrs Charles Billyard-Leake’s offer, and their house and its grounds, Harefield Park, became a convalescent hospital before eventually becoming 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital (1AAH) Harefield. The AAMC originally intended it to house fifty to a hundred patients plus staff but, eight months after opening, the accommodation had been increased to provide a thousand beds for convalescing soldiers. While at least one soldier mused that its purpose was to house those who were not ‘fit to die in their own homes’, its main function was to rehabilitate sick and wounded soldiers for a return to duty.1 The hospital eventually included surgical, medical, X-ray, massage and electric therapy as well as recreation and study departments. Along with the other auxiliary hospitals in the Australian network – 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital (2AAH), Southall, and 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital (3AAH), Dartford – it formed an integral part of the medical services provided to Australian soldiers wounded in the First World War.
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.
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.
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.’
Six months after his capture at Fromelles, Captain Charles Mills was at a camp for Allied officers at Hanoversch Münden in Lower Saxony, where he wrote to his commanding officer describing life as a prisoner of war. ‘Our daily life is much as we make it. Daily routine is in our own hands, and except for a roll call at 9.30 morning and night, we are left alone, which suits us very well.’ Mills spent his days reading, exercising, studying French and German, and enjoying walks beyond the prison walls. His captors were ‘uniformly courteous’, and the food was decent and better than expected. His greatest concern was the uncertainty of the war’s duration. ‘Time hangs! Day after day with absolutely nothing to do! I have led a busy and active life and find this enforced lack of occupation very trying.’
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