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Talks / Lecture
11 April 2017
On 11 April 1917, an Australian Division made an unsuccessful attack on the formidable German Hindenburg Line defences near Bullecourt in France. It resulted in over 3,000 casualties, 1,200 of whom were taken prisoner. Bullecourt represented the largest capture of Australian prisoners in a single action of the First World War, yet the experiences of these captured men remains little known. Historian Aaron Pegram explores their ordeal in German captivity.
In association with the Canberra Great War Study Group, the Estaminet.
Speakers: Peter (P), Aaron Pegram (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudibles caused by diction, distance from mic
P: Okay, let’s move on to the main business of the evening and that is a talk by Aaron Pegram from the Australian War Memorial. I’m one of Aaron’s co-supervisors in his PhD thesis which he’s conducting under – his main supervisor’s Bill Gammage at ANU. He’s been working away on it for quite a while but I saw the last couple of chapters that I hope he’s going to show me the other week and they are superb. Aaron’s found things out about POWs and in the case of the chapters I’ve just read the circumstances of their capture which I think will change the way we understand combat on the western front, it’s very perceptive history. So we’re very fortunate tonight to hear from one of the coming young men at the Australian War Memorial – they’ve got coming young women too but he’s one of the coming young men and I think we’re in for a treat. It’s a poignant treat of course because almost exactly a century ago the Australians attacked at Bullecourt on the 11th of April and I’ll leave to Aaron to talk more about that because he is the expert but I think you’re about to encounter a wonderful young historical talent telling a very poignant story and more to the point a story that we thought we knew but we don’t really know because Aaron will show us how new knowledge has been created by his research. So unless there’s anything else – I don’t think there’s ‘anything else, can I ask you to welcome to the podium Aaron Pegram? Aaron.
A: Thank you very much, Peter and certainly, that gushing sort of introduction sort of belied all the amount of red pen that was on those two chapters. What I would like to do before I actually get into my presentation, we are a part, a functionary of the Western Front Association in the United Kingdom which is a broad group that discusses all aspects of the fighting during the First World War, not necessarily to the western front and we are one of two chapters here in Australia and I think we’ve just learnt through Peter that this is perhaps one of our more densely populated sort of attendances so if you could smile for the camera very briefly, there we go, I’ve done my secretarial duties for the evening.
Before I begin I really wanted to – or Peter explained that today marks the almost 100th year of the anniversary of Australia’s costly and unsuccessful attack at Bullecourt in France on the 11th of April 1917 and I thought what I would do, some of you you know may be well versed or know much about the Australian campaign on the western front – sorry, the Australian involvement on the fighting on the western front but the context of Bullecourt specifically and Bullecourt really sort of forms part of the operations that follow once – after the end of the battle of the Somme throughout the resulting winter where the front line still was many kilometres from the objectives set on the first day. Both sides – both the British and the Germans hunkered down for the following winter.
The Australians spent that winter in the gur – in the Flers Gudicorps sector and endured what was the coldest winter in 40 years. And, in February 1917, Australian patrols all along the first and second ANZAC Corps front returned to discover the Germans had simply left, they weren’t there anymore. Those positions the Germans had stubbornly held throughout that winter had been abandoned. What the Germans were doing though, they were withdrawing to the Hindenburg which was a formidable German defensive system probably about 50km further to the east and the idea was that by taking up new positions further to the rear the Germans would shorten a significant bulge that the Allies had pushed into German lines thereby saving to about 15 infantry regiments holding that salient. And so March and April 1917 the British army, which includes the Australians, had followed up on the German withdrawal and they regained contact with the Germans in significant numbers on the 11th of April 1917.
So what I wanted to do to start off my presentation today is talk about – tell you the story of Sergeant William Groves who - of the 14th battalion, who was taken prisoner 100 years ago today during that costly and unsuccessful assault on the German Hindenburg line defences near Bullecourt. Groves left a really remarkable account of his experiences in captivity in the returned serviceman’s journal, Reveille, where he described hundreds of German soldiers’ heads encased in barrel-like helmets overrunning his portion of the Hindenburg line. He was stripped of his rifle and equipment at the point of an automatic pistol and recalled a young German soldier advancing menacingly towards me swinging a stick bomb by the handle shouting los, los, los by which I understand that I better watch my step and go quietly. Of the 3,000 Australian casualties lost that day at Bullecourt 1,170 of them were taken prisoner in what was the largest capture of Australian troops in a single engagement during the First World War.
Now captivity’s a lesser-known aspect of Australia’s First World War story because there were so few of them taken. Of the 213,000 battle casualties suffered by the Australian Imperial Force during the conflict 4,044 of them fell into enemy hands. Now the Ottoman Turks took about 200 of them on Gallipoli in the Middle East and the Germans took 3,848 in the fighting on the western front. Now this relatively small number of Australian prisoners across those theatres reflected the static nature of trench warfare, which actually limited the face-to-face contact with the enemy to a limited number of raids, patrols and major engagements. The experiences of prisoners was never widely known either during the war or after but their hardships were overshadowed by the nation’s 60,000 war dead who became the focus of private and public mourning in the interwar period.
Now despite those hardships just 397 of these were men who died in enemy hands so prisoners who died in captivity represented 0.6% of the Australian wartime deaths and so prisoners of war necessarily integrate exceptionally well into public narratives of the First World War or those emerging commemorative rituals. Captivity was also a story of surrender and defeat, which was largely at odds with the triumphant national memory of the western front fighting which gave prominence to the AIS victories over its defeats. And of course the experiences of prisoners in the First World War were eclipsed by the capture of over 30,000 Australian troops during the Second World War, the vast majority of whom went on to endure extreme deprivation and hardships in the hands of the Japanese.
Now the centenary of the first battle of Bullecourt is indeed a timely reminder that captivity was indeed part of the Australian First World War experience. Now most Australian prisoners captured on the western front fared considerably well and we see that in the relatively small mortality rate. They also – they benefitted from pre-war agreements that respected the humane treatment of prisoners of war and protected them from violence and abuse from their captors. But their vastly different experiences and conditions that shaped the lives of all officers and men, there was a sense of continuity that all prisoners of war endured hardships, anguish and deprivation in German captivity, particularly the men who were taken prisoner in the costly unsuccessful attack of Bullecourt. Unlike most other Australians captured on the western front the Bullecourt prisoners were deliberately mistreated by their captors who detained them in France and kept them as forced labourers for up to six months. Now these men were malnourished, abused and exposed to British shellfire and their mistreatment not only just violated the terms of the pre-war conventions but marked – represented the very worst of German captivity during the First World War. I’ll see if I can – there we go.
I’m just going to give sort of a very potted overview to the battle of Bullecourt because it is after all its centenary and I mentioned those Hindenburg line defences and just how formidable they were. So after months of fluid, mobile open warfare, you know, Australian troops were taking part in this advice to the Hindenburg line. They’d thought that perhaps, you know, the war was at its end, the Germans had thrown the towel in, and you know, the war, the trench warfare which had dominated for the years previously was finally back to one of open warfare and then they run into the Hindenburg line. These are thick belts of barbed wire, some up to 50 yards thick. Of course, you have the German trenches over here in mutually supportive machine gun positions, that is machine gun positions that have designated fire zones. Now there were gaps in the German wire here on which were concentrated those German machine guns.
Now this was just the first line of the Hindenburg line system. If any attacking force had to penetrate the Hindenburg line then it had to go on another four, five, 6km of these defensive networks. And, the Germans – or it’s referred to as elastic defence and so the operations that are carried out in this sector is largely trying to achieve a breakthrough, the infamous Hindenburg line.
But, the first battle of Bullecourt also takes place within the broader context of the battle of Eras and attempts by British forces to achieve a breakthrough while drawing German reserves away from the main French offensive which is being conducted on the Chemin des Dames. Now British first and third armies had made significant gains elsewhere throughout the battle of Eras and most notably the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge on the 9th of April. Now an attack by the British fifth army in the Bullecourt area had sought to achieve a breakthrough where the Germans had least expected. Operating under the command of General Sir Herbert Gough the plan was for the British 62nd division and the 4th Australian division to attack either side of Bullecourt village and eject the Germans from the Hindenburg line. Okay? So here we have Bullecourt village, and the Australians were attacking over here of what is in – actually in front of Riencourt and the Brits are attacking over on this side here.
Now Gough had hoped that his troops would make a deep penetration or a narrow front into what was – what the military refer to as a re-entrant and in an effort to retain surprise tanks would be used instead of the usual artillery bombardment to support the attacking infantry. Now tanks were still a new and innovative weapon since their first use on the western front in September 1916, they were to advance ahead of the infantry, crush the thick belts of the barbed wire in front of the Hindenburg line and neutralise nearby German strong points. But the tanks that were used at Bullecourt were poorly armoured and prone to mechanical problems. They failed to reach the rendezvous on time and delayed the attack set for the 10th of April by 24 hours. Now news of this delay failed to reach the British 62nd division whose troops carried out a futile attack completely unsupported at the cost of 200 casualties.
Now this so-called dummy stunt alerted to the Germans that British – alerted the Germans to British plans in the Bullecourt sector although Gough ignored Australian protests from Australian commanders and went ahead with the second attack the following morning. So the infantry – the Australian troops of the fourth and 12th brigades attacked the Hindenburg line as planned at dawn on the 11th of April 1917 but of those 12 tanks that were set to support them, just two had made it to the German wire before they were put out of action by German fire. The rest were knocked out of action, suffered mechanical failure or encountered obstacles from which they could not recover. The infantry were left completely unsupported but had managed to fight their way into the Hindenburg line defences where they engaged the Germans in bitter close quarters fighting.
Now the Australian infantry repelled counterattacks throughout the rest of that morning facing mounting casualties and ever-diminishing supplies of ammunition. Their request for artillery assistance went unanswered and they could no longer hold their own gains. The fourth division was eventually forced to withdraw from the Hindenburg line but did so, risking crossing over a kilometre of open ground that constituted no man’s land in full view of German machine gunners and artillery observers. Now the main effort of this attack had obviously been the Hindenburg line here but machine gunners across here in Balcony Trench were firing enfilade completely across the Bullecourt battlefield grazing fire, everything you know hitting the attacking infantry around between the groin and the knee.
Hundreds of Australian soldiers had simply been trapped in the Hindenburg line having been isolated by German troops who had cut off their ability to withdraw who then rolled up their flanks with grenades. With the Australian troops lacking the ammunition to defend their beleaguered positions the Germans ultimately rushed them and took thousands of them prisoner and I’ve just the – an account by one Australian soldier of the 13th battalion who was captured in such a way. He said I was suddenly surprised to hear a gruff voice demand come on, Australia. On looking up I beheld several Gerry bombers with bombs of the potato masher type, each pointing a revolver. I was compelled to submit to the most humiliating experience of a lifetime, surrender, as the alternative meant death and I was in a helpless situation, one must naturally excuse my choice.
So, I also have some other photographs depicting the aftermath of the battle of Bullecourt and they’re perhaps not quite – images we’re not quite used to seeing you know we’re used to seeing Australian troops with German prisoners, or you know, captured German weapons but of course the Germans had images much the same such as this one. This is a group of guys from the fourth brigade being led to the rear towards the German regimental headquarters at Ecoust-Saint-Mein, and of course you know the trophy shot of German troops posing with captured Australian weapons, Lewis guns, Lee Enfield rifles and Vickers machine guns. Okay.
So what I wanted to do is in actually looking at how the Germans treated prisoners I just want to sort of give a very broad overview as to other factors that influence in how the Bullecourt prisoners fared. Pre-war agreements were obviously - largely determined the – how prisoners were treated during the First World War. Principally, the 1907 Hague Convention, and the 1906 Geneva Convention, which meant that the signatories which included France, Britain and Germany would treat prisoners of war humanely, that they wouldn’t expose them to the violence of the front line, these men were to be given assistance from the – were granted assistance from the Red Cross, that they would be treated according to rank. The officers would not be made to work, NCOs would only be made to work if it was in a supervisory capacity and other ranks could only be – could only work legally if that work was not associated with the captor’s war effort. The Geneva Convention stipulated that all captured prisoners would receive medical treatment from their captors and that largely determined the treatment of Australian prisoners up until the capture of these guys at Bullecourt.
Economic factors was a big consideration. I mean the capture of a prisoner comes at economic cost to those who take them and by August 1916 the Germans had 1.4 million Allied prisoners in its charge. Now, the German wartime economy had largely been geared towards a very quick war of mobility. It wasn’t anticipating being bogged down on a war on multiple fronts, and in fact the Germans had been struggling economically to feed their own people as a result of financial mismanagement of their wartime resources since 1915, the infamous turnip winter of 1915 and things made – were made all the worse when the royal navy start blockading German ports preventing the import of essential food items and food fertilisers – or fertilisers used in the agricultural sector. That would obviously have an impact on the ability to feed its own people. But, ever more the Germans keep on taking prisoners, so much so that by November 1918 there’s 2.5 million Allied prisoners in Germany and that comes at a cost. Germany’s largely unable to feed and clothe vast quantities of prisoners, give them three square meals a day of good, decent food which it’s not actually being able to give to its own civilians.
The German are also able to – well the principle of reciprocity is also a factor which is largely determining the treatment of prisoners and this is a phrase which I’ve sort of coined. Peter hasn’t objected to it yet. And what it essentially means is that there were loopholes and omissions and oversights within the pre-war conventions and one of the largest oversights was the fact that the policing of those wartime agreements was practically impossible behind the front line. I mean neutral inspectors and teams of neutral inspectors from the United States, from Switzerland and from Spain would periodically go between camps in Germany and Britain to monitor and make sure that prisoners of war were being treated in accord with the international agreements. They were not allowed to go behind the lines. And so this whole principle of reciprocity becomes a sort of a way in which the belligerents themselves can manage the treatment of prisoners. If German prisoners fared similarly or fared okay in British and French hands then you know and then British prisoners would be treated well in response, there’s that reciprocal arrangement there. But if German prisoners were mistreated behind Allied lines the Germans would then of course deliberately mistreat the others in response and so this is a way in which the belligerents can reciprocally maintain the treatment of prisoners.
But I wanted to just get onto the burden of taking prisoners because this significantly affects the German units who are able to capture or who captured those 1,000 Australians because right from the outset the German units involved in the fighting at Bullecourt struggled to house and feed the substantial body of prisoners they had just taken. Able-bodied men were marched to the village of Saint-Mein, probably about 10km behind the front line at Bullecourt, and officers were separated from the other ranks of men in accord with German procedures for intelligence ‘cause they’re going to actually interrogate the officers, not necessarily the men and that’s I think - I think what’s going on in this photograph here. We have a group of Australian officers off on the right-hand side and the other men just before they’re shunted off to a very different captivity in German hands.
Eight hundred other ranks of men spent the first night in captivity locked inside a church near the German divisional headquarters at Ecoust where they were issued their first meal in German captivity. It consisted of a modest issue of bread that largely consisted of sawdust and Ersatz coffee made from roasted barley and acorns. Already the Germans you know this is the German rations but this is the sort of stuff that prisoners are ultimately forced to subsist on for the duration of their captivity.
Now the following morning the prisoners are marched to the railhead at a little place called Le Couloir, where they’re kept for several days in an abandoned farm house converted into a staging area and transit camp for the prisoners. It was overcrowded, dirty, infested with lice, although conditions were made all the more miserable when 300 Australians who had been captured at Elancourt, entered the camp and stretched the modest food rations even further. By this stage, hungry and anxious men started exhibiting signs of distress. This is a quote here, “in some cases, for the most miserable reward, men cringed to the Germans for a chance of being some service. Others who despite the fact their bodies could ill afford the sacrifice, traded their boots and other clothing in exchange for food and smokes, which gives them a measure of contentment”.
Now Australian troops captured at Fromelles, Pozieres and Mouquet Farm had relatively – had fared relatively well in German hands with some men passing through the German casualty evacuation system where they received treatment no different from German troops. That’s in accord with the Geneva Convention. Officers were separated from the men, both troops transported to Germany within days of their capture, entering a vast prison system that comprised 165 prison camps, and as I said 1.4 million Allied prisoners by August 1916.
Now officers captured at Bullecourt fared considerably differently, they were sent to Germany immediately after capture and some of the wounded were treated in accord with the pre-war agreements but Australian casualties at Bullecourt had placed an unexpected burden on the German medical system already struggling from bottlenecks and limited medical supplies. Now German medical staff usually gave priority to their own wounded over the needs of prisoners of war but there did come a point where German troops stopped taking in wounded Australian prisoners and the following is an excerpt from a fellow by the name of – that’s a – the Hindenburg line following the Australian attack, one of the tanks which of course is put out of action.
So this is by a fellow the name of Fred Peachy and – who’s – gooday, Murray, how are you going? Murray’s Fred Peachy’s descendent, Murray’s here with us and Peachy sort of describes what happened to those guys who were not taken prisoner and I’ll just leave that up there for you to read. Most importantly it says that fellows with Australian troops who’ve been caught in the wire suffering from leg wounds were simply put out of their misery with – by revolvers. There is a – this little bit of evidence in Fred Peachy’s statement which he makes following his return to Britain – is launching - is fostering a fervent search as to what happened to those missing Australians who Fred Peachy was busily engaged burying in shell holes. Okay.
The Bullecourt prisoners represented the largest loss of Australian prisoners in a single engagement and had the misfortune of being subjected to a reprisal order in response to the British and French armies’ alleged misuse of German prisoners as labourers in forward areas. It was hoped that by deliberately mistreating the Bullecourt prisoners the German government would force the British to remove all German prisoners beyond 30km from the forward area. There’s that principle of reciprocity. Owing to the limitations to the existing pre-war agreement the Germans were applying this principle of reciprocity in an effort to improve conditions for their own men in Allied hands. However the reprisals must also be seen within the context of Germany’s declining ability to continue fighting a long war on multiple fronts without the adequate resources to do so. German reactions to reports of the British misusing prisoners in forward areas was a very convenient way for the German army to meet its logistical needs while managing a manpower shortage caused by heavy losses at Verdun and on the Somme. Even after the reprisals had ended thousands of Russian, French and British prisoners remained behind German lines ‘til the armistice in November 1918.
Now the Australian prisoners who were at the staging camp at Le Couloir were eventually transported to Lille, the city in the north of France where they were paraded through the streets in front of thousands of French civilians living under German occupation. Now excessive force was used to keep the prisoners and their civilians separated. William Groves described how a little girl approached the column with a packet of cigarettes whereupon – and I quote – “one of the file of guards rushed forward to meet her. With one jab of his rifle butt, he sent her spinning to the pavement. Then bent down and confiscated the packet of cigarettes to the delight of his comradery”.
The prisoners were taken to a disused artillery barracks known as Fort MacDonald on Lille’s outer suburbs. There they were broken down into a weak physical and mental state before they were returned to the forward areas. On arrival the column was divided into groups of 120 and locked in the underground vault that proved far too small to hold the prisoners comfortably. There were no beds, blankets or straw on which the prisoners could sleep and three small windows provided the only light and ventilation. Their rations consisted of a daily issue of bread and Ersatz coffee but this did little to satisfy the men’s growing hunger. Some men coped by playing cards, singing hymns, reading pocket Bibles and keeping warm marching around their so-called dungeon.
Within time the men started arguing over the use of the issue of food. One man described how chaps began to show signs of jealousy when some of the more fortunate ones received a larger slice than the other. Hygiene was also a problem, lice were already endemic among the men but in each of the vaults was a small wooden barrel that served as a latrine. German sentries opened the doors once a day to feed the prisoners but refused to empty the latrines which eventually overflowed, polluting the stale air and the floor on which the prisoners ate and slept. Grim stuff. I managed to find Fort MacDonald at Lille which is now a sort of a community hall area and managed to identify these vaults and to my surprise I was – found that one of these vaults which had held Australian prisoners has been transferred into a ballet studio. You couldn’t get further apart from what it had origin – what had taken place there during the First World War.
Now after a week of this treatment during what the troops referred to as the black hole of Lille German commanders formally issued the following declaration explaining why the Australian prisoners had been treated so poorly. Now I'm not going to read it all to you, I’m going to leave that up there for you to have a look but in essence it was owing to a belief that the British and French armies had been using and employing German prisoners within the forward area in areas raked by shellfire. As it transpired the French had indeed used German prisoners behind the French front at Verdun and these was some German use of prisoners further to the rear, most notably in felling timber, water supply and also unloading stores and supplies from the German – from the ports at Rouen and La Havre but certainly not engaged immediately behind the front line where they were subjected to shellfire.
Now one thing that the Germans did do, they actually requested that the prisoners after receiving this declaration, that they write to friends of influence you know describing how deliberately you know how poorly they’re being treated in an effort to try and dissuade the British government from using German prisoners in forward areas but this attempt was largely unsuccessful because according to the Australians who endured the – subjected to the treatment at Fort MacDonald, they were mindful that their names, addresses and regimental details or any information they included in those letters would likely have assisted the Germans in the gathering of routine intelligence. Others were mindful that news of their deliberate mistreatment would also cause unnecessary distress among the loved ones at home.
So most of the Bullecourt prisoners therefore chose not to write home during the reprisals but the Australian High Commissioner in London received the following letter from an Australian, a solider of the 14th battalion who was later engaged at working at an engineering dump near Lons in May 1917. He wrote, and I quote, we were in a state of exhaustion covered in lice and other vermin and of course he goes on to describe this his deliberate mistreatment is a life of torture and hell. For God’s sake, he pleaded, do what you can for us.
Now after 10 days at Fort MacDonald the prisoners were expelled from their vaults and marched back to the forward area and assigned to labour camps in the Lille, Douai, Lons and Valencienne areas and there you are. For the next six months these men worked 15 hours a day digging machine gun pits, trenches and dugouts, clearing roads, unloading barges and supplies at engineering and ammunition dumps, all work that deliberately violate The Hague Convention. They were housed in derelict stables, farmhouses and ruined churches near where they worked. One party were housed in a shell-damaged church so close to the forward area that the concussion of falling British artillery had caused parts of the ceiling to collapse as they slept. Australians at a work detail at a village called Marquion slept in the lice-infested barn of an abandoned farmhouse next to two German heavy field howitzers that frequently drew fire from long range British guns.
As with all prisoners captured on the western front the names and details of the Bullecourt prisoners had indeed been forwarded to the Red Cross. This was confirmation that they were not missing, that they had been taken prisoner by the Germans and this news reached the Australian Red Cross who were operating in London around June 1917. Now that information that the Australian Red Cross had received, the German authorities had told them that they were at a camp called Limburg in Germany. So as a result volunteers of the Australian Red Cross Prisoner of War Department subsequently dispatched thousands of clothing and food parcels to these guys allegedly at Limburg so that they would be completely sufficient from – they didn’t have to rely on the German provisions. But of course in all reality the Bullecourt prisoners weren’t within cooee of Limburg and had to wait a further five months before they would receive a decent meal.
Now this would be very familiar to Murray, this is – I think this is interest – this is a really interesting little piece of evidence from you know from the German reprisals. It’s a letter that was originally addressed to Private Peachy sent to him by the Australian Red Cross representatives in London who believed that he was at Limburg under Lahn in Hessen. And of course he wasn’t there. So what the Germans have done, they’ve been caught out in a bit of a lie. Even though they’ve said he’s at Limburg they’ve sent – he’s not in this particular army group. In fact what Fred Peachy had done – had managed to effect his escape in November 1917. Fred Peachy was one of just five of the Bullecourt prisoners who managed to make a successful escape back to British lines and in fact some of those fellows who escaped, they brought back news to – reliable information on how these Australian prisoners were faring in German hands.
You know the Australian official war correspondent, Charles Bean, interviews two of these escaped men and writes a lengthy despatch and their interview is then published back at home in Australia. This news reaches the Australian troops fighting in France just as the third and fourth divisions are ready to go into action at the scene and in fact Monash who’s in charge of the Australian third division circulates these reports to the assaulting units of his third division in the hope that they would raise their indignation towards the Germans before they you know lock horns with them in combat. And Bean says that there’s no recorded effect within the third division but there certainly is amongst men of the fourth division. There’s one fellow in particular who describes not taking any prisoners in that following action at [Macene] 33:07 as a result of the news of what was happening to his mates who’d been captured at Bullecourt.
So whilst engaged behind German lines the prisoners were kept on a so-called starvation diet of vegetable soup, Ersatz coffee and whatever meat that could be procured locally. They were worked hard on modest rations as the declaration had threatened but it must be recognised that conditions were little better than the German sentries’ watching over them. One Australian private was responsible for cooking for 200 British and Australian prisoners engaged in digging machine gun pits behind the lines and had to make do with regular supplies of mangelwurzel, a few loaves of bread and a small amount of meat every few days. He said the meat ration was either 150 salted herrings or, and I quote, a good-sized lump of horse flesh, very often a whole leg with the shoe still on which had evidently been cut from an artillery dray killed behind the lines.
It was not nice food but we had to eat it to keep our body and soul together. Well that’s you know understating the obvious, really, isn’t it? The combination of heavy labour and a modest diet forced many prisoners to scavenge whatever they could to satisfy their chronic hunger. A group of men working at Marquion made scrounge bags from hessian sacks to collect stinging nettles, dandelions, frogs and birds who had been killed through the conclusion of exploding artillery. Boiled stinging nettles, according to one Bullecourt prisoner, tasted much like spinach. Prisoners working near canals were able to collect fresh water mussels, eels and small fish, all those working on engineering and ammunition dumps gathered shrubs and the carcasses of those birds that I mentioned before.
Starving prisoners ransacked vegetable crops cultivated by German troops behind the lines and consumed those spoils quickly while sentries were not watching. Eating raw potatoes and turnips would obviously cause stomach complaints and bouts of diarrhoea and in one case claimed the life of an Australian prisoner of war. Scrounging also had fatal consequences if German sentries discovered prisoners had strayed away from their work party or were caught outside their compound at night. And another Australian prisoner was shot dead while ransacking a turnip crop by a German sentry who thought he was trying to escape.
Now prisoners generally respected the mounted uhlans, the mounted German soldiers and infantrymen who had seen front line service who periodically overwatched them but they detested the older Landsturm reservists whose age and fitness prevented from front line service. It was these so-called Etappenschwein, these rear area pigs who were more likely to use their fists, rifle butts and insult the prisoners with verbal insults and beat them to drive productivity and maintain discipline. Beatings were constant, particularly as the prisoners’ physical condition deteriorated over the following weeks. On one occasion an Australian prisoner who had collapsed through sheer exhaustion was struck over the head with a shovel. Another Australian prisoner was found with a crudely fashioned shiv and was given several hours’ field punishment that the Germans referred to as anbinden. With hands bound behind his back and feet barely touching the ground he was hanged from his neck and choked for several hours.
The cumulative effects of a poor diet and unsanitary living conditions led to outbreaks of disease which included dysentery, enteritis, pneumonia and malaria. These affected the prisoners more so than the actual physical abuse. Men deficient in nutrients suffered terribly from beriberi which is a condition more commonly associated with Australian prisoners of the Japanese. Prisoners had the right to attend sick parades at roll call every morning but sentries were just as likely to force them to work regardless of their condition and then beat them when they collapsed. One man already suffering from dysentery deteriorated into such a physical state that he had to be carried to the latrines. He was unable to work so the sentries – the German sentry who was overwatching them beat him repeatedly in the heat with rifle butts and then he was obviously refused medical treatment. He was eventually allowed to see a doctor but he had died five minutes before an ambulance arrived to take him to go see a doctor.
Sick men in other work parties were allowed medical attention but in many cases they were – spent several days in hospital at Mons or Valencienne and returned to the forward area until their health broke down completely. Disease was endemic in most work parties. Within a two-month period half of the 200 Australians at the Marquion ammunition dump had been hospitalised suffering from disease.
Now artillery posed less of a threat to the prisoners of war who were working behind German lines mainly because the likelihood of British shells falling on work parties varied between their proximity to the fighting and the operational activity within that particular sector. Most labour companies were situated up to 10km behind the front line which put them out of range of the ordinary field artillery batteries but heavy siege guns would strike deep into German-occupied territory carrying out counterbattery work, harassing and interdiction and bombarding ammunition and supply dumps, stores, roads and railway depots which were precisely the places where British and French prisoners were working during the reprisals. The area most vulnerable to British artillery during this period was the German-occupied villages along the Scarpe River which was just quite opposite to where the British and Canadians had made significant gains from the battle of Eras.
Now this included the village of Corbehem where a party of 150 Australians were digging saps and burying German bodies and carrying out general fatigue work. On the 1st of May 1917 the royal garrison artillery fired on a German ammunition dump where Australian prisoners were busily engaged in unloading shells from a German supply train. A 15 inch shell caused the dump to explode killing seven Australian prisoners and wounding five. The British shellfire also destroyed a nearby supply depot and factory where machine guns and a store of small arms fire were stored. Many of the prisoners reported that they were made to keep working while the shells fell all around them while the German sentries of course were taking shelter nearby, rifles trained on the prisoners. Okay.
This is that rail siding at Corbehem and it doesn’t really look like much but of course you know this is perhaps one of the most violent sort of incidences that occurs behind the German lines. Seven Australians are killed just as a random shell lands as they’re unloading shells. I actually think it’s just off to the right-hand side where the railway line is and of course there’s those blokes today. Because this is some kilometres away from you know Bullecourt battlefield itself British Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries are you know are very few and far between in this neck of the woods so these graves are actually held in the Corbehem Communal Cemetery, yeah where I’m very – be surprised if they actually receive many visitors throughout the year.
Now the incident at Corbehem highlighted the vulnerability of Allied prisoners working in forward areas but the artillery threat was significantly less than the health problems associated with a poor diet and months of general debility. The War Office sent reassurances to the German government in May 1917 that prisoner labour companies had indeed been removed 30km beyond the British border area. And in June, most British and French prisoners operating behind German lines were moved to work parties further to the German rear. These new labour camps were no longer within range of British siege gun,s but the paltry conditions, physical abuse and squalid living conditions remained much the same for months to come.
Nevertheless this move brought an end, formal end to the German reprisals against the Bullecourt prisoners, many of whom had gone months without a decent meal. Their overall debility eventually necessitated their move to Germany in October 1917 by which time 87 of them had died of disease and seven killed by British shellfire. One Australian prisoner in Germany was appalled by the emaciated state of some of the Bullecourt prisoners who arrived in camp in November 1917. He shared his Red Cross food parcel with the men of the fourth brigade on the brink of exhaustion. He said he made a rush at the tin of bully beef and grabbed it. After he finished he simply sat down and cried like a kid.
So, I wanted to show a photograph of a British solider who had spent six months working behind German lines throughout 1918. Now this is an image that we readily associate with the Second World War, we’re all common – we all know those images of Australians who had worked along the Burma Thai Railway but conditions in some respects were much the same. Okay? But even though - well at the start of my presentation I mentioned that very few Australian prisoners had died in German captivity it does in some way bely the fact that these guys were treated terribly. Okay?
So what happened to the prisoners, the Bullecourt prisoners once they arrived in Germany? Well they fared a lot better once they were in contact with the Red Cross and I think those – the contrast between those two images is quite stark. Once the men had entered a camp and started receiving Red Cross food parcels they were nursed back to a fit state. Now the other rank’s men because they could legally be employed as labourers on the German home front, they were – they spent very minimal amount of time in the camps themselves. Yeah, I’m coming to an end now. And many of them actually went out to what they referred to as Arbeits commandos, or work parties out in the German countryside. They were – they still received their Red Cross parcels, they were in contact with home, they had prisoner of war uniforms and in some respects many of these guys were sent to work parties engaged in work that they had pretty much done in civilian life.
The Germans around them fared quite poorly to the point where some prisoners were able to exchange their contents of their food parcels for things like escape equipment, clothing, firewood and in some cases they procured sex. I mean this challenges the whole notion of what we think of captivity in the First World War to be like, so much so that British prisoners of war in contact with the Red Cross were among the best fed people in the country.
So when the war ends these guys return home. The Australians had suffered terribly during the First World War, they had 60,000 war-dead and in many respects by which stage by the time the Bullecourt prisoners return home to Australia they had new AIF uniforms, they looked physically fit, they simply were demobilised, went back to Australia, discharged from the AIF and got on with the rest of their lives. So their story had indeed been neglected and had been neglected for the next 100 years so I hope that this presentation has sort of given you an insight into the experiences of some of those guys who were captured at Bullecourt and indeed Australian prisoners captured on the western front.
P: Thanks Aaron, thanks for telling us a novel but a grim story. We’ve got time for a few minutes’ worth of questions, anyone who’s got a question? Roger Lee, look at that, he’s quick on the draw and the gentleman in the front here.
Au: <inaudible> 44:41.
A: Absolutely, this – when news of the German mistreatment of prisoners, when those escaped prisoners came back and told Bean all about their harrowing ordeal this fed right into the British propaganda machine. I mean the British public had sort of been told that you know Germans had violated Belgian neutrality, they’d crucified Canadian prisoners, the barn doors at Ypres you know they’d sunk you know they’d engaged you know unrestricted submarine warfare sinking Allied troop – civilian passenger liners, chemical gas you know you name it. Look at the barbaric Hun, look what he’s doing now and certainly in some of the recruiting pamphlets from 1917, 1918 this sort of material as to what happened to the prisoners is featuring in those pamphlets.
P: Thanks. And the gentleman at the front, you’ll have to speak up very loudly.
Au: <inaudible> 45:40.
A: Well not – well there is a list and it’s unpublished because it’s on my laptop. So one thing I’ve been able to do is catalogue all 3,848 Australians captured on the western front and who were in contact with the Red Cross and verified that they were and indeed done extensive research on their unit, date, place of capture and then we sorted it chronologically, we have a chronological list of who was captured where, on what date and I have a list of all those guys who were captured at Bullecourt so perhaps if you have someone in mind perhaps we should talk later.
Au: <inaudible> 46:21.
A: Yeah, there’s – the reprisals affected a much broader population of British prisoners who were captured at Eras, but the Bullecourt guys represent the largest number of them. Australians who were captured at Norelle, which I think there’s probably about 90 of them and there’s about 300 Australians captured at Elancourt 46:44 but of course the Bullecourt blokes you know they sort of constituted the majority of them, yeah.
P: Just while you’re thinking of another question can I ask people who have a connection to Bullecourt through a member of their family like Murray over here to put your hands up. I haven’t so I’ll keep mine down. Oh that’s about what, 10% of the audience? Yeah.
A: Yeah, absolutely.
P: We’ve got easily seven minutes for questions so anything at the back there? Yes, Katherine.
Au: <inaudible> 47:23.
A: That’s a really good question and even the –
P: The people at the back here? Yes.
A: That’s a really good question, I mean it does happen, I mean the Germans – some Germans are you know pilfering those Red Cross food parcels, condensed milk, chocolate, cigarettes, all this sort of stuff to line their own pockets but there is even – from the Danish ports all the way down through to the prison camps, each of these sort of consignments of Red Cross parcels are being watched over by armed guards, I guess ‘cause what’s that doing, that you know if the Germans were intercepting those parcels on a much broader scale you know that’s going to affect the treatment of German prisoners in British hands. What’s interesting is that not all prisoners in Germany actually receive parcels, I think it’s the Italians and Russians – the Russian governments flat out refuse to send their own men parcels because you know it may materially assist Germany but it also may serve as an incentive for their own men to throw down their rifles and stick up their hands and go toddling off to the enemy.
P: There’s one behind the pillar, yes.
Au: <inaudible> 48:33.
A: Yeah, absolutely. The – well if you have a look at the Australian Red Cross, I mean their supplies and resources are limited but they do – Elizabeth Tomley, who’s the President or who’s the Secretary of the Australian Prisoner of War Department, handwrites letters to each and every one of those 3,848 Australians captured on the western front. And in some of those photographs that I’ve used in my presentation are photographs that were sent to her which were then donated to the Australian War Memorial. But the international agreements actually do recognise the psychological casualties of men who had you know suffered long-term effects of confinement during the First World War. In fact the British and the Germans have come to a bilateral understanding that men who had spent more than 18 months behind barbed wire could be interned in neutral Holland while the wounded and men who were unlikely to return to active service would be interned in Switzerland but it came on a first come, first serve basis and in fact – and so the Australians you know they were first captured in 1916 you know fared fairly low on the priority list. But certainly there was about 200 Australians who were interned in the – in neutral Holland to mitigate a condition which during the First World War was known as barbed wire disease, yeah so those psychological factors were taken into consideration.
Au: <inaudible> 50:17.
A: After they returned to Australia? No. I mean there was a – after their repatriation to Britain in the Second World War prisoners coming back from Germany were psychologically screened and built up to a you know a fit physical and mental health. There was no such consideration to these guys who came back from Germany, the main priority was the you know the guys who were already in hospital in England and of course the AIF deployed overseas. These blokes who had spent the rest of their war behind German barbed wire had in effect survived captivity in the war and yeah, as far as the AIF was concerned there was no further need to treat them as such.
Au: <inaudible> 51:01.
A: No well yeah, once Australian prisoners got back to Germany – got back to Australia, they were no different from any other Australian soldier returning home and so some of them did take up soldier settlement schemes, some of them requested financial assistance from the Repatriation Department, others had saved up their massive amounts of deferred pay whilst they were in captivity and spent it on re-education after the war. There is actually some suggestion that work in Germany such as on farms may have actually prepared some Australian prisoners for life after the war.
P: Andrew, your’s is the last.
Au: <inaudible> 51:41.
A: Not to the extent that there was during the Second World War however there were war crimes trials, the Leipzig War Crimes Trials done throughout the 1920s and of the 20 or so charges that were brought against Germany I think there was a number of individuals, less than 10, who had individually mistreated prisoners of war. It certainly wasn’t to the extent to which the Second World War is what you’re thinking of in regards to the Second World War but I think the idea of the principle of reciprocity you know the British weren’t – the French weren’t clean skins at all, they had mistreated German prisoners you know German prisoners had indeed not – had fared not particularly well in forward areas in the British front line areas as well, yeah but an interesting – yeah, an interesting question to pose.
P: And thank you for posing it. Ladies and gentlemen, can I ask you to put your hands together to thank Aaron for his excellent presentation?
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