Highlight on official records of the First World War: AWM30 Prisoner of War Statements, 1914-18 War
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Function and provenance
The series comprises statements made on repatriation by Australian Imperial Force (AIF) personnel who were prisoners of war of Germany and Turkey during the 1914-1918 War.
Until July 1916 the only Australian prisoners were those taken by the Turks at Gallipoli, their needs being essentially left to friends and some diplomatic (mainly American) assistance. In mid-1916 it was recognised that prisoners of war taken by Germany on the Western Front should be provided for (there were 840 in 25 different camps by November that year, and a total of 3,848 for the period 1916-1918).
A Prisoners of War Department (Secretary, Miss M E Chomley) within the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society was formed and, working under the British War Office, was charged with the responsibility for supply of extra food and clothing. Bread was supplied through the British Section of the Bureau de Secours aux Prisonniers de Guerre in Berne, Switzerland. Arrangements for private parcels varied and were less successful.
Some prisoners of war were interned in a neutral country (Holland or Switzerland), others escaped to England. The latter were not required to serve abroad again unless they wished to. Eligibility for early repatriation (exchange) was essentially limited to those prisoners suffering loss of limb or sight, brain damage, paralysis, tuberculosis, etc. After Armistice, the men often had to find their own way back. Repatriation also raised other problems, such as congestion at reception/embarkation points and prisoners unaccounted for, etc.
Over 100 AIF personnel died in captivity, and a number of others were still missing as late as February 1919 despite search parties visiting mines, prisons, camps and hospitals. Prisoners of war had been held in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and the Middle East. An AIF Standing Committee of Inquiry for Released Prisoners of War was proposed in early 1919 to investigate the circumstances of the capture of AIF personnel. However, in many cases they had already been discharged or had left for Australia.
On repatriation (ie. arrival in England or Egypt) each officer, non-commissioned officer or other rank was required to supply a signed statement (some made more than one statement) setting out his experiences as a prisoner for both administrative and historical
purposes. To help with the writing of the official history statements were to be factual, and if they contained information obtained from hearsay this was to be noted.
Most statements were made individually, but a number are joint statements. Content may consist of some of all of the following details:
- Unit to which attached when made prisoner
- Date and place of capture
- Circumstances of capture - details of particular engagement or raid in all theatres (Western Front, Middle East, Gallipoli)
- Treatment after capture - interrogation, medical treatment, hospitalisation, travel movements, conditions at place of internment (accommodation, sanitation, recreational facilities, receipt of letters and parcels), diplomatic visits, employment (Western Front prisoners of war worked in quarries, mines, factories, farms, etc.; those in Turkey mostly worked for the Baghdad Railway Company), mistreatment, escapes, release (exchange), route of return to England
- Comments on the enemy (Turks and Germans) and civilians (Arabs, French, Belgians etc.), their circumstances (e.g. scarcity of food) and attitude towards prisoners (including Russian, French and British prisoners)
- Information about missing men or those who died during military operations or in captivity (including the location and marking of graves)
Most statements in AWM30 were made in the period November 1918 to January 1919 to AIF Administrative Headquarters in England. They are mainly typescript, but some are handwritten or photocopies. Those dating 1916-1917 (especially escape stories) were printed for the British War Office, and include a comment on the reliability of the witness and his occupation before the war. The length of the statements varies from a paragraph to several pages. Many carry the Australian War Records Section classification number C 781/-.
The extent of the series measures approximately 2.2 metres.
System of arrangement and control
The series came under Memorial control in early 1959, although it had actually been housed in the building since 1938 (controlled by CA [Commonwealth Agency – National Archives of Australia] 2001, AIF Base Records Office).
The AWM Library file covers for each item (with few exceptions) would date from this time, but the two number system with B (bundle) prefix apparently dates later. The first (bundle) numbers are as follows:
B2. Palestine (Light Horse and Imperial Camel Corps)
B3. Australian Flying Corps (Mesopotamia, Palestine and France)
B4. Artillery and Tunneling
B5. 1st Australian Division
B6. 2nd Australian Division
B7. To B9. 3rd Australian Division
B10. To B13. 4th Australian Division
B14. To B16. 5th Australian Division
B17. Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force
B18. General (includes spare statements and other miscellaneous documents).
The second part of an item number reflects the item's place in the original bundle.
Using the series
Apart from an index (AWM139) to individual statements, created by the Memorial in 1985-1986, there is no archival series related to AWM30. However, additional related sources can be found in AWM10 (Class 4332/- files) and AWM25 (Class 779/- files) in the Official
Records Collection, and in 1DRL 428, Australian Branch, British Red Cross Society, Prisoners of War Department files in the Private Records Collection.
AWM30 is not presently digitised for access on the Australian War Memorial’s website. Search by using the National Archives of Australia online database, RecordSearch. Records may be retrieved and viewed in the Memorial’s Reading Room.
The Research Centre telephone service is available from 9am until 5pm Monday to Friday excluding ACT public holidays. Call the Research Centre on (02) 6243 4315.