Alexander, Kristen: They also served: Australians dealing with the challenge of captivity during the Great War

Kristen Alexander*

‘They also served: Australians dealing with the challenge of captivity during the Great War’, Honest History, 13 March 2020

Kristen Alexander reviews Surviving the Great War: Australian Prisoners of War on the Western Front, 1916-18, by Aaron Pegram

9781108486194Captivity is one of the most challenging of human experiences. The 3848 Australians taken prisoner on the Western Front considered it an ordeal they had to endure. Not only did they confront this arduous test, they survived it, as Aaron Pegram demonstrates in Surviving the Great War: Australian Prisoners of War on the Western Front, 1916–18.

Prisoners of war (POWs) were less than two per cent of Australia’s Western Front battle casualties. Because of their small numbers, compared with 60 000 Australian deaths, thousands of wounded, and the returned ‘shattered Anzacs’, the experiences of Australia’s Western Front POWs have been overlooked. This, as Pegram explains, is because captivity does not fit easily into the First World War’s dominant narratives.

Our favoured stories of the Great War focus on Australian martial success, the bronzed Aussie fighter of the Anzac Legend, and commemoration of wartime loss. Within these national narratives, captivity is perceived as a story of defeat. POWs are passive contradictions of the Anzac Legend’s martial masculinity.

Western Front captivity also sits awkwardly alongside two Second World War tropes. The first, extrapolating from the experiences of prisoners of Japan, portrays captivity as a powerless state where POWs are emasculated, but honourable, victims of unabating trauma. The second, deriving from a European experience (erroneously) noted for daring and occasionally successful escape attempts, celebrates captivity as an exciting adventure story replete with heroic escapers.

Pegram deftly establishes a new captivity narrative. He constantly relates captivity to service: Australian soldiers and airmen were captured as a consequence of battle. They may have surrendered – because there was no alternative other than death – but they had immediately beforehand proven their martial agency and, in many cases, battle success. While Surviving the Great War is not an account of extreme trauma at the hands of captors and ensuing heroic victimhood, it does recognise that some POWs experienced ‘barbed-wire fever’ and conditions which were difficult and, in some cases, impossible to bear.

Pegram counterbalances this side of the story, however, with details of the Australians’ successful mitigation of hardship through their own agency and that of the Australian Red Cross Society. The personal triumph of each man’s survival has no taint of heroic victimhood or the inherent (almost condescending) pitifulness of that trope, because, by attempting to manage and ameliorate challenging conditions and treatment, they exercised agency – just like those soldiers embraced by the Anzac Legend.

Surviving the Great War is the first major study of Australian captivity on the Western Front and the effects of captivity in post-war life. It draws on contemporary personal and official evidence held in Australian, British, and German repositories. Pegram privileges contemporary personal evidence, rather than late-life memoirs and oral histories which may have been affected by prevailing narratives of victimhood published or created as public attention turned to the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese. The personal documents used include 2500 repatriation statements, fifty wartime diaries and near contemporary unpublished manuscripts, as well as, from German archives, captured Australian diaries and letters.

These ego documents ensure a raw, unpolished immediacy of experience, response, and emotion. As well as illustrating Pegram’s argument, salient extracts explicate what happened and how the men felt about it. They remind the reader that Australian prisoners of war are human individuals, not simply data sources.

While Surviving the Great War is structured thematically, each chapter outlines significant phases of the war. The introduction positions Great War captivity within Australian historiography. Six chapters then explore and analyse capture, the reciprocity principle, POWs as intelligence assets, the fortifying work of the Australian Red Cross Society and its volunteers, the myth and reality of escape, and autonomy and independence within captivity. Recognising that captivity did not end at liberation, the seventh chapter examines repatriation, homecoming, and the post-war experiences of 264 men of the 13th Battalion.

Surviving the Great War includes a number of photographs, mainly from Australian War Memorial collections, as well as two useful maps which detail Western Front trench warfare and German advances in 1914 and 1918 and the main German prisoner-of-war camps. Printed on facing pages, these maps reinforce the interconnectedness of battle and capture.

The narrative is also complemented by three tables: ‘Mortality of British and dominion POWs’; ‘Australian POW deaths in captivity’; and ‘Australian escapes from German captivity’. Drawing on a detailed mortality study, Surviving the Great War is supported by sound statistical analysis as well as details of individuals’ family, social, and military backgrounds.

A01551-1600x950A German collecting station, 20 July 1916, after the battle of Fromelles (Fleurbaix) with wounded Australian prisoners of war: AWM A01551 (Sir John Monash centre)

Surviving the Great War illustrates that German treatment was not a uniform experience. While death and burial records of those who died in captivity reveal how some Australians experienced extreme violence at the hands of their captors, there was usually fair dealing by their captors. Living conditions in camps varied from adequate to atrocious, depending on social, economic, and military context. In highlighting the multiple facets of captivity and the disparity of personal experience, Pegram takes the middle ground. He argues that German treatment of Australian POWs was not brutal, nor was it benign. It was somewhere in between.

A key theme is masculinity. Pegram explores threats to it and personal agency in asserting it. He argues that capture was ‘a function of the dynamics of the battlefield and the ability of one military force to achieve tactical superiority over the other’. Here he shows deep knowledge of the course of Western Front action and strategy to explain that men of action did not surrender because of combat ineffectiveness, low morale, or lack of resilience during the hard slog of trench or aerial warfare. They were captured as a consequence of battle or its immediate aftermath.

Yet, by surrendering, many men believed they had forsaken their manhood. By challenging that conception, Pegram demonstrates that surrender was not an entirely passive act. As the alternative may have been death, surrender, then, was an act of manly agency – the choice to be pragmatic. After capture, the Australians did as much as they could to affirm their masculinity, as they endured and ultimately survived captivity. Not only had they upheld the masculine Anzac ideal in battle, they had honoured their martial imperative. Surrender may have signalled the end of one battle – trench warfare – but it also heralded the beginning of another: the battle to survive wartime incarceration. Many in captivity continued to confirm their martial agency through acts of resistance and sabotage.

Surviving the Great War also highlights the commodification of prisoners of war. The Geneva and Hague conventions stipulated humanitarian treatment. While these standards were not always adhered to, the reciprocity principle provided that each belligerent treated captives well, to ensure their own nationals were in turn treated well. (Although, it must be recognised that Germany did not always have the resources to do this.) Allied prisoners of war, then, were commodities which could ‘buy’ protection for German captives in Allied hands.

POWs were also intelligence assets for Germany. Captors deliberately, almost charmingly, cajoled information from unsuspecting POWs during soft interrogation sessions. The Germans recognised, too, that material objects were sources of military information. Despite the Australians being forbidden to carry such items into battle, the number of letters, diaries, and other documents confiscated by the Germans on capture suggests that Australians failed to appreciate the military value of their personal possessions.

Particularly noteworthy in the book is Pegram’s dissection of the Holzminden illusion – the Great War equivalent of the Colditz myth. Only 43 Australians succeeded in escaping from captivity, so Pegram argues that, contrary to popular tropes formulated during the interwar years and more recently because of high profile Second World War escapes, ‘heroic escape attempts’ were not the dominant characteristic of Western Front captivity. Although people at home may have assumed their loved ones wanted to flee German confinement (as evidenced by the number of hidden escape aids confiscated from care packages), escape was not a duty; it was optional for Great War servicemen. In most cases, it just was not possible. In many ways, staying put was the most pragmatic thing to do. In remaining, the vast majority of Australian prisoners of war exerted personal agency to make the most of life in captivity. In doing so, they were agents in their own survival.

A02239-1500x902Australian and British prisoners captured during the Battle of Fleurbaix, 19-20 July 1916, being escorted through the city streets: AWM A02239 (Sir John Monash Centre)

Pegram firmly positions the experiences of Australian Western Front prisoners of war within Australian and international military and captivity historiography. His sound scholarship is enhanced by deep archival work and statistical analysis. Surviving the Great War is balanced, nuanced, and well-written. While aimed at a scholarly readership, it is eminently accessible to the general reader.

In his conclusion, Pegram states that, ‘No single Australian narrative emerged from captivity on the Western Front’. Surviving the Great War now establishes a clear narrative of achievement: prisoners of war found ways to overcome the challenges of captivity and regarded their survival as a personal triumph. By highlighting individual stories, Pegram never forgets the Australians’ essential humanity. I have no hesitation in recommending this exceptional examination of POW life. Surviving the Great War is an important work which illuminates captivity and its legacy.

* Kristen Alexander is an Australian writer and PhD candidate at UNSW Canberra researching the emotions, lived experience, and post-war social and medical consequences of captivity of Australian airmen prisoners of Stalag Luft III and their families. Her book Taking Flight, about aviator Lores Bonney, was reviewed on Honest History by Sharon Mascall Dare. She reviewed Clare Makepeace’s Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War, and the Beyond Surrender collection on Australian POWs (which Aaron Pegram co-edited, and which includes his chapter, ‘Bold bids for freedom: Escape and Australian prisoners of Germany 1916–18’), and Mark Baker’s Phillip Schuler. Contact:

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