23 April 2012

A University of Queensland project is piecing together a little-known aspect of Australia’s war history that may bring comfort and understanding to families.

PhD student Kate Walton has spent the past two years studying what happened to 203 Australians taken by the Turks in World War I, and the effects on their families at home in Australia.

Although three quarters of the cohort returned home, some never shared their experiences with others due to a sense of shame about being taken prisoner.

“This study highlights a different experience of the war and presents a challenge to the homogenous Anzac myth,“ she said.

Ms Walton said the troops were taken during the Gallipoli campaign, across the Sinai-Palestine front, and in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).

“Sadly, about a quarter of the cohort did not survive, some losing their lives due to wounds that occurred in battle and others to disease,” she said.

“The group comprised different branches of the services – infantry, Light Horse, Camel Corps, and the Flying Corps including pilots, observers, and mechanics.

“The entire crew of an Australian submarine was also captured after being scuttled during enemy action in the Dardanelles.”

Ms Walton’s study traces the men’s experiences from capture to their time as prisoners-of-war (POWs) to release and after.

She is examining where they were imprisoned, the work they did, and how they coped with captivity.

She said experiences of captivity varied widely, depending on whether people were wounded at the time of capture, and on where they were captured and its proximity to Turkey — whether they had to travel long distances to their sites of internment.

The experience of captivity was also different between Australian officers and other ranks, some of whom were set to work constructing a railway through the Taurus Mountains.

On the other hand, some captive Australian officers were placed in houses previously belonging to Armenian people and were permitted to move relatively freely.

She said the hierarchical nature of captivity was “polarizing.”

Ms Walton’s study also looks at the experiences of the families at home in Australia, awaiting the return of their loved ones who had disappeared into the middle of Turkey, and the anxiety they felt due to the communications breakdowns that occurred.

She said the Red Cross played an important role in providing food and comfort parcels, medicines, clothes, and books, and facilitating contacts between the prisoners and their families.

Of the 151 captives who returned to Australia, many suffered chronic digestive problems, hernias, gastric ulcers and neuroses, which they believed were the results of their time in captivity.

Ms Walton said the Imperial War Graves Commission had re-buried the remains of those deceased captives in Turkey, and they now rested in a memorial cemetery in Baghdad. Some could not be recovered due to traditional Muslim burial traditions.

“This was the first time Australians were held captive in wartime by an enemy with a radically different cultural background,” she said.

Ms Walton has sourced information from a variety of service records, national archives, unpublished collections in libraries and in particular, communications and files handled by the Red Cross between the families and their captive loved ones.

She has also been able to access some of the soldiers’ memoirs.

She said it was a challenging process to sieve through thousands of documents to assess those relevant to the study.

One soldier with whom she felt a particular affinity was an Australian Light Horseman who was captured after being cut off from his colleagues.

He faced machine gun fire from his own troops when trying to rejoin them.

The Light Horseman’s family had been generous in sharing his story and materials as part of her thesis.

“I feel an emotional connection to all the men and their families whom I’ve studied for the past two years,” she said,

“I want to make sure the information that I have been privileged to access is available for the use of the families and future generations.”

Ms Walton was inspired to pursue her PhD after completing an honours study on a POW group in Japan in World War II.

After finding a reference to the World War I Turkish captives, she realised that little had been written on this topic.

“I interviewed the daughter of one ex-POW who struggled to get people to believe that her father was held captive in Turkey,” she said.

“The Australian experience of captivity in Turkey hasn’t entered the lexicon of wars in the same way as the Australian’s who endured captivity under the Japanese.”

Ms Walton’s research has been conducted in UQ’s School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, supervised by Associate Professor Martin Crotty and Dr Geoff Ginn.

She is grateful for travel funding received from the School to enable her to conduct research and present at conferences in Australia and internationally.

About Anzac Day
Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. It will be observed next Wednesday, April 25.

While it originally honoured members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli in World War I, the day now widely commemorates the contribution of all Australians and New Zealanders who have served in various wars and conflicts over the years.

Preparations are currently being held to mark the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day in 2015.

Media: Jan King 0413 601 248