Behind the Wire

Behind the Wire

Peter Stanley takes a closer look at photographs reflecting life during the First World War

Men gaze out from behind barbed wire in the ‘German Concentration Camp’ at Holsworthy, New South Wales, 1917. These men, most civilian subjects of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, some of them long-term residents of Australia, were among the 7,000 interned in camps in all states between 1914 and 1919.

The Holsworthy camp’s regime was rigorous. More than 4,000 inmates—all men—lived in congested and noisy wooden and canvas huts, many of which were open-sided, shielded against wind and rain only by curtains. Separated by narrow lanes, they were hot and dusty in summer and cold and muddy in winter. Rations were monotonous and internees received no underclothing or headgear. Toilets were best described as inadequate, showers were cold (warm showers cost 3d each) and there was no laundry. Guards, mainly Militiamen, were often harsh, encouraged by absurd anti-‘Hun’ propaganda. The internees were guilty only of their German or Austro-Hungarian nationality.

Internees lived like this for four years or more, with the Holsworthy camp becoming more crowded as camps elsewhere closed. Boredom and over-crowding led to fights. A gang, the ‘Black Hand’, intimidated and robbed internees, eventually overwhelmed only when the internees themselves banded together to eject them. Extraordinarily, inmates also fostered a vigorous cultural life, in concerts, plays, craft and writing.

Internee Workers Securing Barbed Wire to a Fence Post, Holsworthy Internment Camp, New South Wales, c.1917, nla.cat-vn4984075 

Some also took photographs, like this one taken by Karl Lehman, a German migrant from Western Australia. Internees received a few pence a day to perform manual labour around the camp, such as cutting firewood or quarrying stone. These men are fixing barbed wire to the camp’s perimeter fence, ironically and cruelly forced to build their own cage.

It was a very long war. Some men became insane, unwashed, with matted hair and beards, pacing and drooling. Others, denied contact with their families, lost touch with wives and children. The camps remained open into 1919; some men spent nearly five years behind barbed wire. At the war’s end, the troopships that had brought Australian soldiers home returned internees—some of them Australian citizens, with Australian-born wives and children—to Germany, a country many had not seen since childhood. Their treatment remains a blemish on Australia’s record of humanity in wartime.

Professor Peter Stanley is a research professor at UNSW Canberra and a historian who has written more than 30 books on Australian military and social history.