Surviving the Great War
Australian prisoners of war on the Western Front 1916-18
[Australian Army History Series]
Port Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press, 2020
Hardcover xvii, 261pp. RRP $59.95
Reviewer: Michael O’Brien, June 2020
In the three years of the Boer war some 200 Australians became prisoners. 232 Australians were captured in the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns. The number of Australians that became POW on the Western Front was far greater – the shock caused to the nation by the capture of 470 soldiers in one day at Fromelles and the 1100 taken at Bullecourt was extreme. It was amplified by the day-to-day POWs in all the battles on that front. Captivity, like any casualty of war, affected soldiers, families and the community at large.
There is little coverage of the 3800 Australians captured on the Western Front in C.E.W. Bean’s Official History. There were very few published personal accounts from the POWs themselves. This comprehensive volume redresses this deficiency. It is ably complemented by the recently published Captive Anzacs: Australian POWs of the Ottomans during the First World War (Kate Ariotti, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
The experience of captivity is an important dimension of the experience of war and should therefore be a topic of study by military professionals and historians. In the Australian case we are very far removed from the last conflict where Australians endured captivity, to the point where, I suspect, that it is of little interest to current soldiers. That makes books like this even more important.
The book examines capture itself and the treatment that captives received just after they were taken. It examines whether pre-war agreements like the Hague and Geneva Conventions were honoured. The question of what we now call ‘code of conduct’ – what prisoners should have and did tell their captors – is explored. The remarkable history of the voluntary group of women who assisted in the tasks of tracing POWs and arranging the delivery of aid parcels to them is a fascinating study. German treatment during imprisonment and the business of escapes are well treated. Pegram shows that the effects of imprisonment lasted mush longer than actual activity. There is an appendix listing those who died in captivity and their places of burial – many, of course, being in Germany. The number of suicides in this list is haunting.
This is a very readable book that covers all the bases. It is balanced throughout, though I am not as certain as the author is that captivity was contrary to the Anzac legend.
Once again, this volume meets the very high standards set in the Australian Army History series published by Cambridge University Press.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.