II Crossing Boundaries: Race, Culture and Gender

International Encounters in Captivity: The Cross-Cultural Experiences of Australian POWs in the Ottoman Empire

Kate Ariotti

Nearly two hundred Australians became prisoners of the Ottomans during the First World War. Captured during the Gallipoli campaign, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Sinai Desert and Palestine, these soldiers, submariners, light horsemen, cameleers, and airmen were held in prison camps throughout the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. Their experiences varied according to rank, the time and place of their capture, and the camp to which they were assigned. Some were able to live out captivity in relative comfort while others suffered from lack of food, clothing and medical care, poor administration, and demanding physical labour. Fifty-four died as prisoners—from wounds received prior to capture, accidents in work camps, and disease.1

The awkwardness ofsurrender in the emergent narrative ofthe Australian soldiering experience, the developing idea of the Turks as ‘the honourable enemy,’ and the small size of the prisoner ofwar (POW) cohort in the face of such an unprecedented number ofAustralian killed and wounded, meant the stories of the prisoners were effectively lost in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. They continued to be sidelined after the Second World War

K. Ariotti (*)

University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_4

as the prisoners of the Japanese, in particular, dominated Australian understandings of wartime captivity. It is only relatively recently that POWs in the Ottoman Empire have received much scholarly or public attention, the latter due in part to Russell Crowe’s 2014 film The Water Diviner?

Such increased interest in Australians taken prisoner during the First World War—the experiences of Australians captured by the Germans on the Western Front have also been the focus of new scholarly inquiry—is in keeping with a growth in the international historiography regarding First World War POWs over the last decade or so.3 Since the pioneering work of historians such as Annette Becker and Richard Speed in the 1990s, a number of scholars around the world have explored different experiences of captivity from the perspective of British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman POWs, and have also examined varied aspects of the POW experience such as escape attempts, forced labour, the use of prisoners as propaganda, and the psychological impact of imprisonment.4 Captivity as a crosscultural experience is another emergent theme in this literature.5 POWs spent extended periods of time in enemy territory, in close contact with soldiers and civilians of the captor nation. They were often exposed to peoples of different ethnicities and cultures, and of varied linguistic and religious backgrounds, from the moment ofcapture throughout their imprisonment. Moreover, prison camps were often multinational affairs, and POWs encountered cultural ‘others’ in the form of fellow prisoners and through contact with representatives of aid agencies and neutral protecting powers.6

This element of First World War captivity is yet to be fully explored in the Australian context. Australians of the First World War era were highly attuned to matters of race, and their encounters with racial and cultural ‘others’ during the war are a rich vein of Australian historical writing. However, such scholarship has focused mainly on the experiences of combatants. In his seminal history of the Australian war experience, The Broken Years (1974), Bill Gammage wrote of Australian troops interacting with civilians in Egypt, Britain, and Europe, and with fellow allied soldiers in the Middle East and on the Western Front.7 Suzanne Brugger provided a comprehensive analysis of the Australians’ engagement with Egyptian people—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in her 1980 book Australians and Egypt, and Richard White, in his work conceptualising Australian soldiers as tourists, explored how Australian troops’ contacts with different peoples while on leave in Europe and the Middle East shaped their writings home and their broader understandings of the war.8 More recently Peter Stanley has written of Australian troops’ encounters with local people in Colombo and along the coast of West Africa on their journeys to the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, with Indian soldiers on Gallipoli and Chinese labourers on the Western Front, and with Indigenous soldiers in their own units.9

This chapter brings together these two bodies of literature to explore the cross-cultural dimension of captivity for Australian POWs in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. These prisoners endured extended wartime imprisonment in a distinctly unfamiliar environment; they encountered and engaged with peoples of diverse backgrounds on their journeys away from the various Middle Eastern battlefields towards imprisonment, as well as in and around their various prison camps. In focusing on their interactions with their captors, fellow prisoners, and the local civilians with whom they came into contact, the chapter explores how the Australian POWs’ experiences of cross-cultural encounter in captivity were shaped by beliefs in cultural and racial hierarchies, and attitudes towards different ethnic and national groups, that had informed the white Australian way of life for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >