Up Close with the Enemy: Travelling Towards Imprisonment

The first substantial experiences of cross-cultural encounter for the Australian prisoners occurred at the point of capture. Being escorted off the battlefield and behind enemy lines brought the Australians into extended close contact with their Ottoman and, because of the German-Ottoman military alliance, in some instances their German enemy. Australians captured by the Germans, mainly pilots of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) taken prisoner in Palestine, were full of praise for the supposedly chivalric behaviour of their Teutonic counterparts. Lieutenant Claude Vautin was grateful to the German pilot who initially took him prisoner, Oberleutnant Gerhard Felmy, for organising a full military burial of a fellow AFC pilot killed in the crash that led to Vautin’s capture and for dropping a letter explaining Vautin’s POW status over the Australian aerodrome, while Lieutenant Laurence Smith believed that the Germans who took him prisoner in May 1918 went out of their way to entertain him before handing him over to the Turks. “The courtesy extended to me by these enemy Flying Officers,” Smith wrote in a post-war narrative of his time as a POW, “was more than I ever imagined.”10 Marilyn Lake has written of the strong racial and cultural ties between Britain (and thus Australia) and Germany prior to the First World War; despite their portrayal in wartime propaganda as the barbaric Hun, the POWs’ encounters with Germans in the Middle East suggests a lingering affinity between the enemies.11

The prisoners were less effusive about their Ottoman captors, who they uniformly referred to as ‘the Turks.’12 Australians had limited understanding of Ottoman Turkish people prior to 1914, and conceptions of the Turks were based largely on nineteenth-century British Orientalist ideas that emphasised their supposed barbarism and lustful- ness.13 Prisoners captured earlier in the war were surprised that they had survived the act of surrender as rumours about the treatment of POWs in the Balkan Wars, the atrocities committed by Turkish soldiers against Armenians and Bulgarians, and the warlike nature of the early Turkic tribes fed into the popular idea, on Gallipoli at least, that the enemy would not take any prisoners. The POWs did not really know what to expect of their captors, but encountering up-close the Ottoman troops, along with their unfamiliar clothing, food, and treatment of their own soldiers (several POWs reported seeing columns of men destined for the battlefields marching chained together, ostensibly to prevent desertion) presented significant indications of the cultural gulf with which they would have to contend.

The Ottomans were also unsure of their prisoners, particularly those with whom they had little pre-war contact. Many Australian POWs stated their captors had limited conceptions of Australia; several commented that they had been repeatedly questioned as to why they were involved in the war at all, and why they had come so far to fight. Captain Ron McDonald was asked if all Australians were “coloured.”14 There was little differentiation made between the British and Dominion troops in Ottoman captivity, and the Australians and New Zealanders were typically seen as, and referred to, as English. Private Reginald Lushington was one of a group of prisoners effectively put on display for the locals in a holding cell in Constantinople. On one occasion, a party of curious soldiers visited his group:

Various Turkish NCOs came into the room, stood in front of us with their hands behind their back, and after a good satisfying stare raised their eyebrows and said “Engliss,” and then proceeded to the Frenchmen and repeated the performance and said “Francais.”15

In Constantinople the POWs were the exotic ‘others’ to be observed and examined. Clearly, cross-cultural encounters in captivity worked both ways.

As they moved deeper into enemy territory, the Australians were exposed to the ethnic and cultural pluralism of the Ottoman Empire. Most prison camps were situated in Anatolia, and the length of a prisoner’s journey to a camp depended on his place of capture. Prisoners captured in the Dardanelles were first sent to Constantinople, either by boat across the Sea of Marmara or overland through several small villages and towns on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Lack of transport infrastructure in Palestine and Mesopotamia meant that prisoners captured in these more isolated areas of the empire often travelled in stages into Anatolia through the bigger cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Damascus, Baghdad and Aleppo. Prisoners were often marched through the streets of these cities in parades designed to boost the morale of local forces and civilians. On arrival in Constantinople, submariners from the AE2 were given Ottoman military uniforms and were marched through the city, as were those soldiers captured on the Peninsula during the August offensive.16 Similar public parades occurred in the Middle East. A few POWs reported they had been spat at and claimed that local people in the crowds made threatening gestures, but others stated that the civilians they encountered appeared war-weary and disillusioned. Submariner John Wheat claimed “very little notice was taken of us” on his march through Constantinople, while one light horseman wrote that the local people he came into contact with in Jerusalem repeatedly asked the prisoners when the British would be coming to relieve the city.17 Historian Heather Jones attributes physical and verbal abuse of POWs by civilians to the strength of war culture within the captor nation Such testimony from the Australian prisoners suggests that an aggressive war culture had not permeated all areas of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.18

The prisoners’ cross-cultural experiences continued in these staging cities. Those deemed fit were temporarily detained in military barracks or civilian gaols and were often confined alongside other POWs, members of the Ottoman military forces, and civilian prisoners. Sergeant John Halpin found himself in what he called a “melting-pot of national cosmopolitanism” at the military barracks in Damascus while travelling from his point of capture at Es Salt to a prison camp in the Taurus Mountains. “Foes of Turkey—Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt, Arabia, Soudan [sic]— and the votaries of the blackest criminal excesses within her confines,” he wrote in his post-war memoir, “[w]e are one in Damascus.”19

Prisoners captured wounded and in need of medical attention also encountered cultural ‘others’ in hospitals and medical institutions while journeying to a POW camp. The medical arm of the Ottoman Army consisted of Turkish medical officers, as well as Arab, Greek and Armenian doctors and orderlies conscripted into the military to serve the sick and wounded. German medical officers, sanitation inspectors, and nurses also assisted the Ottoman Army as part of the German Military Mission and under the auspices of the German Red Cross. There was a drastic shortage of hospitals throughout the Ottoman Empire during the war, and those that were in operation were often overcrowded and under-resourced.20 Australian POWs en route to imprisonment could therefore find themselves in a medical facility recuperating alongside British, New Zealand, French or Russian prisoners as well as wounded Ottoman soldiers and sick civilians, while being tended to by an Armenian doctor, German nurse, and Arab orderly. With some notable exceptions, the POWs denigrated Ottoman medical personnel for their perceived lack of care, equipment, and skill; that their own army’s battlefield medical facilities were often equally as rudimentary was seemingly forgotten by most. In contrast, and in keeping with the idea of Teutonic civility displayed by airmen taken prisoner by the Germans in the Middle East, German doctors and nurses were often praised for their medical prowess and the ways in which they looked after prisoners. Private Patrick O’Connor, whose wounded leg was amputated after his capture on Gallipoli, paid tribute in his official Repatriation Statement to the Germans he had met while in hospital in Constantinople, particularly a German nurse who, he wrote, “was a really splendid woman” who “did not appear to be able to do too much for us.”21

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