International Intermingling: Life in the Prison Camps

The administration of the POW camp system in the Ottoman Empire facilitated continued exposure to people of diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. The Ottoman War Ministry’s policy regarding the accommodation of POWs stated that officer prisoners could be placed in hotels or private houses while prisoners from the ranks were to be housed in military barracks or other “available institutions,” which ranged from school buildings and churches to wooden huts and tents.22 The bigger camps, such as Afyonkarahisar, where most Australians spent some time, were not traditional prison camps but rather sections of towns that were cordoned off for the prisoners. similar situations prevailed across Anatolia; a POW camp was established when prisoners were housed in a particular building or a collection of huts or tents raised on the outskirts of a town or village.

Contact with civilians, and the observance of local customs and culture, was therefore a fairly regular occurrence. Religion played a significant role in the daily life of Ottoman civilians and soldiers, as the prisoners came to appreciate. Exposure to Islamic religious practice in particular was, for the Australians, a significant moment of cultural encounter. Reginald Lushington recalled watching with interest the guards and locals at Afyon observe their daily prayer rituals:

Every morning a Turk would call the Faithful to prayer.. .At sunrise we would be awakened with the call of “Allah Ekmek” followed by long prayers we could not follow. The cry of Allah could be heard miles away and a boy was often used to make the cry, as his voice would carry further than a man’s. There were many mosques in Afion [sic] so it often sounded as if they were calling to each other. The All-a-h had a plaintive ring which reached us from afar. Our sentries used to bring out their mats of an evening, and with their faces towards the setting sun go through their devotions.23

But the prisoners’ encounters with Islam could, at times, also lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Trooper George Handsley explained in his post-war memoir that fasting rituals had caused some issues for the Western prisoners. According to Handsley, on one occasion a group of POWs was punished by their camp commandant for complaining that they had not received any rations during “a Turk religious festival when they were, by their religion, forbidden to eat bread.”24 Lack of knowledge or appreciation of Muslim beliefs and customs on the part of the POWs was in keeping with Australians’ broader ignorance of Islam; only 3,908 people in Australia identified as ‘Mohammedan’ in the 1911 census—the last taken before the outbreak of war. With the exception of the so-called Afghan cameleers, the first Muslims to settle permanently in Australia, most white Australians would have had limited contact with Islamic people before the war.25

The multinational nature of the prison camps also exposed the Australians to cultural ‘others.’ In keeping with many of the belligerents’ responses to the housing of POWs, prisoners in the Ottoman Empire were not separated according to nationality. Fighting on multiple fronts, including the Dardanelles, Sinai-Palestine, Mesopotamia and in the east meant that the Ottoman Army took thousands of prisoners representing nearly all the allied nations. Australian POWs therefore lived alongside British, New Zealand, French, Russian, Indian and French colonial prisoners. International intermingling was particularly common within the POW officer population. Though national groups among the officers tended to stick together for accommodation—one house in Afyonkarahisar was nicknamed ‘Australia House’ as the majority of the captive Australian officers lived there—this was not always the case. For example, after his capture on Gallipoli, Lieutenant Stanley Jordan lived in a house in Afyon alongside twelve Russian, two French, and nine British POWs.26 Officer prisoners were able to visit each other’s accommodation, socialise in shared courtyards and in the streets between houses, and organise group recreational activities. AFC pilot, Captain Thomas White, was made aware of just how diverse the POW officer population at Afyonkarahisar was quite early in his captivity. After the attempted escape of several prisoners in early 1916, the officer POWs were rounded up and confined in an Armenian church as a group punishment. Writing in his 1920s memoir, White recalled:

A more heterogeneous collection could not have been gathered together... There were Russians of the Navy and Mercantile Marine resplendent in peaked caps and gilt buttons ... Frenchmen in grey jackets and red pantaloons and others in navy blue; slouched-hatted Australians and Britishers in oddly assorted clothing.27

Fellow officer Lieutenant Leslie Luscombe recalled the same incident in his memoir. He stated there had been almost twenty different languages represented in the group, writing “in this respect our church probably resembled the fabled Tower of Babel.”28

Australian prisoners from the ranks also lived in groups of mixed nationality. At bigger camps like Afyon and in work camps spread throughout Anatolia, these POWs lived alongside men from the rank and file of the Russian, French, and British armies and navies, including colonial troops. The Australians mingled easily with the British and, in many instances, the French POWs, often forming messes with these prisoners to combine rations and share items from Red Cross comfort parcels (see Oppenheimer’s chapter). Though this sometimes caused tension—Sergeant Maurice Delpratt claimed that ideas of food “sometimes run pretty wide of each other” in the British-French mess at his camp in the Taurus Mountains, joking that the French POWs “love a pot full of snails”—there were enough cultural similarities between the groups to sustain a sense of relative harmony.29

Russian POWs, particularly those from the ranks, were often viewed more negatively. Despite friendly relations between Australia and Russia in the early nineteenth century—a result of contacts between Australians and Russian sailors when their ships visited various colonial ports—this sense of friendship diminished as tensions between the British and Russians increased after Tsar Nicholas I’s brutal suppression of the Polish national movement in the 1830s and, most notably, after the declaration of war in the Crimea in 1854.30 Such growing ‘Russophobia’ was mirrored in Australia where newspapers printed stories of Russian despotism, and fears of a Russian attack on Australian shores gained more momentum as all-out war between Britain and Russia seemed possible.31 By the time of the First World War the Russians were seen as a firm ally of the British but suspicions—and ideas of their lack of civility—lingered.32 In captivity, these ideas were reinforced by the poor physical and emotional condition of many Russian POWs. They received little in the way of external assistance—some 2.8 million Russian soldiers were taken prisoner during the war, and political turmoil and revolution in their homeland meant they received limited financial aid and comforts—and the long-held animosity between the Russians and the Ottoman Turks negatively influenced their treatment.33

While the Australian prisoners generally recognised that the Russians were suffering as a result of circumstances beyond their control, this did not stop several from commenting on what they believed to be the uncivilised nature of their counterparts. George Handsley, for example, made his feelings about the Russians at his work camp in Angora (Ankara) clear. Handsley had been part of a group of POWs transferred from Afyon to work at Angora and, upon his arrival at the new camp, was “unfortunate” to select a sleeping “possy” near a group of Russians who “smelt worse than pigs,” “were in a filthy condition” and “appeared to be of low moral type.”34 Moreover, Russian POWs were often blamed for carrying and spreading typhus in the prison camps—an accusation that was also levelled at Russian prisoners in Germany.35

Colonial POWs were also a source of some tension. Submariner Henry Kinder wrote about the “two French colonials captured on the [Gallipoli] Peninsula, both as black as sloes with African features” he lived alongside at Afyon before he was sent to a work camp in the Taurus Mountains.36 According to Kinder, one of these POWs, a Senegalese man called Mousa, was “a religious fanatic” who “caused lots of trouble when the religious fits took possession of him.”37 Kinder explained that Mousa believed a football the POWs had been given by the American Ambassador contained the spirit of the devil, and when the ball struck him one day he attacked it. Mousa was clearly distressed by the incident as Kinder reported he was “foaming at the mouth.”38 Kinder’s mocking tone reflects his belief in the racial and cultural inferiority of the Senegalese prisoner. Australians who had dealings with Indian prisoners mirrored this attitude. Sergeant Maurice Delpratt was in charge of a group of Indian POWs at Hadjikiri camp in the Taurus Mountains, a role which included administering their rations, mail, and other supplies. He was struck by the mixture of ethnicities within the broader Indian group—“very unwisely, a mixed lot of Hindoos, Mahommedans and Ghurkas [sic]”—and complained in a letter home that it was a frustrating job as they continually fought amongst each other.39 Though Delpratt admitted he did not know too much about “handling Indians,” he approached his job with an implicit sense of superiority over his colonial counterparts, assuring his sister that “I have more authority and get more respect now that they know they must come to me for all clothing.” (Fig. 4.1).40

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >