The University of Newcastle, Australia

Journal article reveals little known truths about Australian prisoners of war

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Centre for 21st Century Humanities and Centre for History of Violence member and historian Dr Kate Ariotti has published a co-authored journal article with Dr Aaron Pegram of the Australian War Memorial, titled Australian POWs of the First World War: responding to the challenges of captivity and return in the History Australia journal.

Dr Ariotti’s research brings into focus the experiences of Australian prisoners of war during the First World War. This article explores some of the challenges the prisoners of war (POWs) faced both during and after the war, and how they responded to these challenges.

Just over 4000 Australian servicemen were taken prisoner by Ottoman and German forces during the First World War. Dr Ariotti says their distinctive stories are rarely considered in Australian histories and memories of the war and that capture was seen as a failure of Australian martial masculinity.

“The Australians of the First AIF prided themselves on their supposedly innate soldiering qualities, especially their bravery and inner fortitude; characteristics that were reflected in the 'bushman' ethos of the time. Being taken prisoner or surrendering (even though many men that were captured were badly wounded or even unconscious at the time) was seen as 'giving up' and was therefore shameful,” Dr Ariotti observed.

“Captivity itself was (wrongly) associated with passivity and powerlessness. So the whole situation of being taken prisoner and then held captive sat awkwardly against the triumphalist celebration of Australian soldiering capabilities, particularly in the aftermath of the war.”

POWs faced many challenges during the war including a lack of communication with the outside world, not knowing how long they would be held prisoner, limited rations and access to medical care, hard physical labour and boredom.

In the case of the prisoners of the Ottomans, though, one of the biggest challenges was culture clash.

“Ottoman culture was completely foreign to most white Australians - the prisoners couldn't speak the language, had no idea about the food, were confused by their religious practices, found their methods of punishment confronting; it was a difficult situation!” Dr Ariotti said.

The POWs responded to these challenges bytrying to amend the circumstances of their confinement such that they could be as comfortable as possible.

“This meant supplementing rations with comforts provided by the Red Cross, and crafting beds and other furniture to furnish their quarters. Sporting competitions and camp libraries/education classes were a way of mitigating boredom, too. Of course, not all were in a position to do this - this is something we see more commonly among POW officers, who were given certain privileges,” Dr Ariotti said.

In several cases this meant that POWs actually benefited from their time in a POW camp.

“As we discuss in the article, access to libraries and grassroots educational classes meant that POWs could learn different skills to put them in a good position for post-war life. And of course, even though the conditions of captivity could be tough, the prisoners were protected from the dangers of the battlefield, so the survival rates were pretty good.”

In the journal article Dr Ariotti says that like most returned servicemen, many of the former POWs struggled to transition back to civilian life.

“Some were still carrying the effects of wounds received in battle, or diseases contracted in captivity like malaria and dysentery. But many were also haunted by those feelings of shame and inferiority, and felt isolated from the ways in which the war was being remembered - as a triumphant victory in which Australians played a key role,” she notes. “Many felt that, because they had finished the war in a prison camp, they weren't able to participate in this sense of victory.”

Dr Ariotti says it’s important to study this little known aspect of the war to diversify our understanding of the Australian experience of the First World War, and to counter long-standing perceptions of POWs as passive and powerless.

“When you examine how prisoners responded to the challenges of their captivity, you see just how active and engaged they really were.”

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