The Australian Archives hide an uncomfortable secret – 10 concentration camps operated by the Australian Army held almost 7000 enemy aliens or persons deemed unpatriotic or dangerous during the Great War.
There was at least one concentration camp in every state.
Despite Wikipedia authors and Australian state education departments portraying internees living in sociable comfort, the archives reveal a far different reality.
Who was imprisoned?
Some were enemy aliens or unpatriotic German-Australians but the inhabitants included neutral Swiss, Croatians, neutral Americans with German-sounding surnames and foreign sailors.
Second and third generation Australians with German-sounding surnames were caught up in these concentration camps, along with neutral Swedes and neutral Dutch.
Lutheran ministers, farmers and intellectuals were also interned.
There seemed to be little logic underlying internment. Anti-German hysteria drove the internment and the treatment of those detained.
Like later Germany, the Australian Army named its camps from British examples in the Boer War.
The British interned Boer women and children in concentration camps in South Africa to prevent continued Boer resistance.
The outcome there had been tragic — disease and starvation killed thousands.
The Australian camps were initially run by the army as the toughest of military prisons guarded by armed and eager soldiers.
Tented accommodation meant high levels of sickness. The internees were required to grow their own food, so nutrition was poor.
Disobedience or tardy obedience could see an internee bayoneted or shot. Visitors were harassed by guards or denied access altogether.
The archives contain correspondence between the Australian Government and the neutral Swiss on behalf of themselves, Germans and the Austro-Hungarians.
The Swiss complained about food, accommodations, shootings and bayonetings.
The American ambassador complained about the same issues.
The Australian Government was defensive. It refused to accept any criticism, saying ‘Everything is satisfactory and the internees must accept military discipline.’
By 1915, Captain Hawkes, the officer commanding the Torrens Island concentration camp in South Australia, was encouraging brutalisation of internees.
Internees, including a neutral Swede and American, were stripped naked and publicly flogged.
Hawkes fired his pistol into a tent of internees, wounding one. Rumours of shootings abounded.
The American wrote to the US Consul about the treatment. An inquiry, established in 1916, resulted in Hawkes’ dismissal.
The camp was closed down, and the internees were moved to Holworthy.
About this time, the Australian Government received a message from the German government conveyed to it by the Swiss Consul.
It informed the Australian Government that unless conditions improved immediately for internees and their visitors in other concentration camps, the German Government would apply identical treatment to all Australian prisoners of war held by it.
Food, accommodation and general treatment immediately improved for the internees and their visitors.
It is an indelible stain on the Hughes Government that it took this threat to improve the conditions for internees.
At war’s end, most internees were repatriated to Germany, irrespective of their origins.
Thus, third generation Australians found themselves arriving in Hamburg.
Hughes had the last laugh.
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