Opportunities for Cultural Exchange: Work and Leisure

Australian POWs were also brought into close contact with cultural ‘others’ through both their work and leisure activities. Most pOW labour during the First World War related to the agricultural or industrial sectors of the captor nation—areas that typically suffered from a depleted workforce as mass mobilisation and enlistment accounted for large numbers of local workers. With no access to colonial resources, the Central power states quickly mobilised large numbers of their POWs as a wartime workforce.41 The 1907 Hague Conventions governing the treatment of POWs stated that captured officers could not be made to work, and so this burden fell to prisoners from the ranks. Australian POWs in the Ottoman Empire were used for labour on farms, the construction ofwharves, and public works projects such as road making. Most were deployed to the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, an ambitious scheme that reflected German imperial designs on the Middle East. The railway project was inaugurated in 1899 and construction started in 1903, but cholera epidemics, the disruption of supplies during the Balkan Wars, and the mobilisation of the Ottoman Army in 1914 meant that by the outbreak of the First World War, the line had only reached the Taurus Mountains (the approximate halfway point).42 German engineers estimated the need for three-dozen tunnels through the mountainous section, and POWs were brought into the region to supplement the local workforce.

A multinational group of POWs in a Taurus Mountains work camp are posed for a photograph. (AWM H19412.)

Fig. 4.1 A multinational group of POWs in a Taurus Mountains work camp are posed for a photograph. (AWM H19412.)

Australian prisoners worked on the railway in various capacities. Some, like Corporal George Kerr, took on administrative roles. Kerr had been wounded in the leg on Gallipoli which, coupled with his pre-war experience as a clerk, meant he was sent to the railway company’s stores at the Belemedik work camp in the Taurus Mountains. His position in the “ragtime office” saw him working alongside German administrators, a Constantinople-born Jewish man, and a young Turkish messenger boy.43 Other Australians worked to operate machinery and equipment necessary for the railway project, or as a manual labour force. German engineers and Turkish military guards supervised these prisoners, and they worked alongside other POWs and civilian labourers, including local Turks and Arabs, Greeks and Armenians. Maurice Delpratt was particularly struck by the multitude of languages present in the workforce. He wrote to his sister that “anyone who is anyone here speaks at least three languages” and “going on the 6am to 2 pm shift one may have 7 or 8 different ‘good mornings’ from quite a small party.”44

Interest in their linguistic diversity did not necessarily equate to interest in the civilian labourers themselves, though. Reginald Lushington explained that he and his fellow British POWs at the railway work camp at Tasch Durmas resented having to live and work in such close quarters with the local workers. “On the other side of us, living in adjoining rooms, were Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians etc.,” he wrote in his post-war memoir. “Needless to say war was soon declared and no Turk or Arab dared to approach our door.”45 He described a particularly violent confrontation between the POWs and labourers:

All our cooking was done on an iron wheelbarrow which stood just outside our door. One evening as we were cooking our bread, a filthy Turk slipped up unnoticed and placed his bread amongst ours, he was spotted by a sailor of our party who immediately punched him in the jaw and flung his bread over the cliff:'46

For the Australians, solidarity in discomfort clearly did not extend to everyone.

The prisoners also had cross-cultural experiences during their leisure time. One of the biggest challenges of wartime captivity was the monotony of camp life, and the POWs devised multiple methods to overcome their boredom, such as sports competitions and theatrical and musical productions. In doing so, they tapped into the different talents, skills, and cultural persuasions of the camp population. Sporting festivals and competitions often involved teams of mixed nationality, or national groups pitted against each other. In some instances, POW teams comprising members from different backgrounds played against the Germans or Ottomans.47 Plays, recitals and other productions drew on the musical and dramatic traditions of the varied nations represented in the camps. The talents of the Russian prisoners particularly resonated with the Australians, several of who commented on the Russians’ ability to sing and to make and play different instruments.48

The POWs also alleviated boredom by learning other languages. Language classes (formal and informal) were commonly held in both officers’ and other ranks’ camps and provided regular opportunities for cross-cultural encounter, with several Australians teaching English to French and Russian prisoners—and German soldiers—in exchange for reciprocal lessons. Many Australians also attempted to learn Turkish. Leslie Luscombe, for example, engaged in language lessons in each camp he was imprisoned in after his capture on Gallipoli. While in Angora, Luscombe taught the Turkish commandant English and expanded on his schoolboy French by conversing with French officer POWs, and later at Afyon, he worked with Russian prisoners to learn rudimentary Russian.49 In studying alongside other POWs and learning from their guards and local civilians, the Australians also became knowledgeable about the history of the various nations represented in and around the prison camps. In some instances this also extended to learning about other national groups’ perceptions of each other. Many prisoners commented on the often hostile relations exhibited between the Germans and their Ottoman allies, while George Kerr realised much about English attitudes towards the French:

The English here have great aversion for the French. It is not exactly heredity, it is merely contempt, an ancient nationality contempt of the English for anyone not English. All the English I have met... have something uncomplimentary to say about the French, even going to the lengths of attributing their mistakes to the foolishness and incapacity of the French.50

Kerr’s knowledge of the tumultuous history between the English and the French, and of the cultural differences between the two groups, grew as he spent more time with French POWs at Belemedik.

Alleviating boredom and monotony was also achieved by throwing mess parties, and the multinational nature of the prison camps meant that Australians often became involved in celebrating particular cultural events. On 14 July 1916 the French held a party at Belemedik to celebrate their national day, Bastille Day, and invited several of the Australians. One participant later wrote that it had been quite a raucous affair full of eating, drinking, and singing French songs (Fig. 4.2).51 Indeed, the French earned a reputation among the Australian POWs for their propensity to celebrate special occasions, as Maurice Delpratt’s account of a New Year’s Eve party at Hadjikiri in 1917 demonstrates. Delpratt explained to his sister that:

We saw the old year out and the new one in with the Frenchmen, in the good old tin-can noisy way... After the Frenchmen had kissed each other (some of us were kissed too—I got one on each cheek from the French Sergeant) they made a decent brew of coffee and koniak [sic] and we soon forgot we were “but poor prisoners.”52

Kissing as a sign of affection between men was clearly something of an alien concept for Delpratt, but his inclusion of it in his letter home

Australian prisoner George Kerr

Fig. 4.2 Australian prisoner George Kerr (seated far left) celebrates Bastille Day with French POWs at Belemedik. On the wall behind the prisoners someone has written the date “14 Juillet 1918.” (AWM H19406.)

suggests that this had been a significant cross-cultural encounter for the young man from Queensland.

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