Book Review: Surviving the Great War: Australian Prisoners of War on the Western Front, 1916–18

By Aaron Pegram

Cambridge University Press, 2019, ISBN 9781108486194, 284pp

Reviewed by Luke Holloway

In November 1918 the guns in Western Europe fell silent signifying the end of four years of fighting. From 1916 to 1918 the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had developed into an effective and efficient fighting force on the Franco-Belgian Front. The exploits of the AIF, particularly the version expounded by the official correspondent and later historian C.E.W. Bean have become central to the mythology surrounding not only the Army but of the nation itself. 

During the conduct of operations on the Franco-Belgian Front, 3848 members of the AIF were captured by the German Army. Their experiences received scant regard in Bean’s official history and have largely been ignored in the wider scholarship on the Australian experience in the Great War. In this ground-breaking study on the experiences of these men, Dr Aaron Pegram has produced an excellent addition to the scholarship surrounding the AIF and its experiences. As Pegram clearly articulates the experience of the men captured does not fit neatly into the ANZAC legend of the First World War since the notion of surrender sat opposed to the nation’s 60 000 war dead, the victorious AIF and the mythology that grew to surround the Digger. 

Surviving the Great War: Australian Prisoners of War on the Western Front, 1916–18 is based on the author’s PhD. The reader is struck with both the quality and quantity of research undertaken by Pegram as well as his willingness to challenge key components of the ANZAC legend. The book is well structured and contains seven chapters in addition to a short introduction and conclusion.  This has resulted in a balanced, nuanced and factual examination of their experiences from capture, to processing, survival in captivity, through to repatriation of the survivors. The thematic structure enables an ordered, logical and easy progression for the reader. The book contains two appendices, both of which provide context to key themes and point to the high quality of research underpinning the author’s assertions. The first provides a list of those who died in German captivity including the date and cause of death. The second lists the awards received by members of the AIF for actions in escaping captivity, as well as a list escape attempts. 

The strength of the book is that it is a well-researched and articulated counterpoint to the popular understanding of the experiences of AIF personnel in German captivity. He achieves this by utilising statistical analysis of archival materiel, combined with a thorough examination of wartime letters and diaries rather than relying on interviews and recollections of veterans in later life. His thematic exploration of concepts of masculinity of those captured, including the role of key figures within the Red Cross as well as the post war experiences of repatriated prisoners, is noteworthy and is intertwined with the other major themes including German mistreatment, reciprocity and escape.   

The notion of German brutality was emphasised in wartime propaganda as well as the post-war memoirs of those captured by the Germans. However, as Pegram clearly demonstrates, the vast majority of the Australian prisoners who died in captivity were already wounded when captured, and their mortality rate of 8.04 percent does not support the notion of widespread or systematic callousness. While ration shortages and sickness claimed the lives of prisoners, Pegram demonstrates that this was not due to institutionalised barbarity, but rather seeks to contextualise this as part of the wider food shortages and problems within wartime Germany. Importantly he notes that while acts of violence certainly occurred, these were not systematic and not condoned by the German military hierarchy who predominately sort to abide by the Hague conventions for primarily pragmatic reasons. 

Another key theme which runs through the book is the notion of reciprocity. Namely, that the ill treatment of prisoners for those captured on the Franco-Belgian front would be reciprocated by the adversary. This pragmatic approach at a national level provided greater surety of treatment than pre-war conventions, ensured adequate medical treatment and ultimately underpinned the relatively low mortality rate of prisoners taken on the Franco-Belgian front, compared with those captured on the Russo-German front. The author highlights the example of the 1400 Australian captured in April 1917 who were used as forced labour within 30km of the frontlines, in response to similar French actions following Verdun in 1916. His exploration of reciprocity gives a detailed insight into the German system of prisoner management as well as demonstrating its effectiveness in moderating the behaviour of the belligerents. 

Lastly, the idea that those in captivity were constantly planning and seeking to escape, as popularised by post-war memoirs, while appealing to the ANZAC legend is refuted by Pegram in what he terms the ‘Holzminden illusion’. The fact that only 1.1 percent of AIF personnel who were captured actually succeeded in escaping from German captivity provides a well-argued alternate viewpoint. Pegram explores the reasons behind the low escape rate including the practical difficulties of escaping from Germany, the daily struggle for food, the utilisation of NCO’s and soldiers as a labour force and the comparative safety of the prison camp. The author demonstrates that most men took a pragmatic approach to their captivity and that rather than seeking to escape and re-join the fight, most were prepared to endure captivity while seeking to retain their own notions of masculinity and martial virtues. 

Overall, this is a long overdue scholarly contribution to a largely overlooked chapter of the Australian Army’s history. Surviving the Great War: Australian Prisoners of War on the Western Front, 1916–18 is a must read for the serious historian and the military professional

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