When enlisting, few soldiers, sailors and aircrew would ever expect to become a prisoner and spend the war at the whim of the enemy. Yet just as death and disease are an inevitable part of warfare, so too is captivity.
Australians have experienced imprisonment from the Boer War to the Korean War, but when it comes to the place of POWs in the Australian military story, some have been relatively ‘forgotten’. There is a tendency to focus on ‘operational’ military stories – in other words the people and events that directly affected the course and outcome of wars.
Still, not all Australian POWs have been neglected. When most Australians today think of POWs, they will probably recall stories of the men and women who were prisoners of the Imperial Japanese army during the Second World War. There are some understandable reasons for this: they represented the highest number group of Australian POWs of any conflict, then or since; and their experience was of unprecedented brutality and horror.
While this story may continue to overshadow other Australian POW experiences, it is important to remember all the others, and understand what each Australian POW experienced. Captivity in war is a difficult and confronting experience, regardless of the particular conflict.
As long as recorded history has existed, captives have been taken in times of war – both those who fight and civilians. Until the 20th century there were few internationally agreed upon ‘laws’ to govern how captors must treat their prisoners of war. Prior to this many POWs were either released, or died in captivity either through execution or mistreatment.
The international Hague Regulations of 1899 and 1907 contained guidelines on the treatment of POWs but the unprecedented conditions of the First World War showed that the regulations needed to be amended and strengthened.
It was not until after the First World War that a group of nations passed a resolution called the ‘Convention relative of the Treatment of Prisoners of War’ in Geneva on 27 July, 1929. This convention set out broad rules regarding the treatment of POWs and it was aimed at protecting vulnerable and defenceless individuals. After the Second World War, the Third Edition of the Geneva Convention, 1949 replaced the 1929 Convention.
Whether or not these guidelines are actually followed during times of war differs between nations, commanders and particular individuals. Those countries that were not signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention could claim they had no obligation to uphold its regulations. Japan had signed the Geneva Convention, but their Parliament had not ratified it (formally approved it), so Japanese forces claimed the right to use their POWs for whatever labour purposes they saw fit.
The First World War, also known as the Great War was to be a terrible experience for the newly federated nation of Australia. A war that became a baptism of fire, killing tens of thousands of young men, also creating the foundation for new traditions of patriotism, and an increasingly distinct national identity apart from Britain.
Some 60,000 Australian military personnel were killed during the Great War, and about 160,000 were wounded. More than 4,070 Australians spent the war as prisoners.
The Gallipoli campaign saw the first of 217 Australians captured by Ottoman [Turkish] forces. The AE2, Australia’s second war submarine, was sunk in the Sea of Marmara on 30 April 1915. Torpedoed by the Turkish boast Sultan Hissar, the 32-man crew was forced to abandon ship, and all were taken prisoner. The crew of the AE2 were put to work on building a railway in southern Turkey. Suffering from disease and starvation, four died in captivity.
Other Australians were captured during the Gallipoli and Middle Eastern ground campaigns, and Australian airmen were also captured in what is now Iraq. One-quarter of Australian POWs died in Turkish captivity due to poor food and disease.
On the Western Front battlefields from 1916-1918, 3,853 Australian troops were taken prisoner by German forces, most of them held in Germany. A third of these Australian prisoners were captured on 11 April 1917 at the First Battle of Bullecourt in northern France. A number of Australian airmen were also shot down and captured by the Germans.
Although these Australian prisoners survived in proportionally higher numbers than their comrades in Ottoman camps, their experience was a difficult one, and their captors were generally harsh. Conditions were crowded (the Germans held over five million Allied POWs during the war), and food supplies were often disrupted, particularly during the Allied blockade of 1917-1918. Many non-officer POWs were made to work for the Germans in war-related capacities – a direct breach of the Hague conventions.