Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war
Prisoners of the Germans
“One slice of bread in the morning”
I am a Kriegsgefangener
I wish that I were dead
It’s all through drinking sauerkraut
And eating mouldy bread.
Written by a Kriegsgefangener – a prisoner of war
Nearly 4,000 Australians were captured by the Germans on the Western Front, in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918.
The conditions they endured varied greatly. In 1917 many were held in appalling conditions in Fort MacDonald near Lille, in Belgium, despite the Hague Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Others, often starved and treated brutally, worked for months under shellfire close behind German lines.
In camps in Germany conditions were better, but prisoners suffered increasingly from shortages caused by the British blockade. Many survived only because of regular Red Cross parcels.
Of the 3,853 Australians captured by the Germans, 310 – about one in 12 – died in captivity.
Forced labour behind the lines
The Germans … put us in a fort at Lille. They never gave us anything. We may have had a slice of bread a day, nothing else. We were building dugouts, huts, carrying and loading shells. We had one slice of bread in the morning and at lunchtime a pot of soup, which was more or less like water.
Private Horace Ganson, 16th Battalion, AIF, captured at Bullecourt
“Dear Miss Chomley”
Elizabeth Chomley, an Australian living in London, ran the Red Cross prisoner-of-war office in London that supported Australian prisoners in Europe. For thousands of Australians in German camps, Miss Chomley’s parcels reminded them that they had not been forgotten. Her album and the Red Cross records in the Memorial contain hundreds of letters and cards thanking her for her work.
Douglas Grant “ An unmistakable figure”
Douglas Grant had been adopted by a white family at the age of two in 1881. He enlisted in 1916 but was discharged because Aboriginal people were not allowed to serve. He later succeeded in enlisting, joined the 13th Battalion, AIF, and was captured at Bullecourt in April 1917.
He enjoyed unusual freedom. In Berlin, German anthropologists were more interested in studying him than in imprisoning him. A talented artist, he impressed his captors with his intellect. A German scientist described Grant as “an unmistakable figure”, recalling how prisoners appointed him to take charge of relief parcels because of “his honesty, his quick mind, and because he was so aggressively Australian”.
After returning to Australia, though, Douglas Grant could not find work to match his skills. He died in 1951, depressed and frustrated, unable to fit easily into either white or black society.