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Dr John Weste – Germans in SA: interning enemy aliens.

Thursday 27 August, 2015

Weste - largeGermanic influences, culture and heritage, and their perceived potential to threaten wartime unity and sense of purpose, was an ongoing cause of concern in South Australia. In 1916, the Education Act was amended to ensure all teaching in primary schools would be conducted in English to foster British ideals, habits and thoughts: public schools were not the places to teach an enemy language.

In 1917, the Nomenclature Act removed German place names, which, in the eyes of Premier Peake, were obnoxious due to their enemy origin and presented a divisive perpetuation of racial memories and feelings.

The physical presence of enemy aliens was viewed as one further tangible and worrying domestic connexion to the geographically distant enemy Central Powers.

The internment of enemy aliens was a federal matter and internment camps were established in each State. In the case of South Australia, Torrens Island, the quarantine site for new maritime arrivals, was selected and officially opened in early October 1914. Home to approximately 400 internees, Torrens Island Internment Camp gained the reputation of being the worst camp in the Commonwealth and was the subject of two courts of enquiry despite its short operational life of only ten months.

In Enemy Aliens, Gerhard Fischer describes internees’ conditions at Torrens Island as primitive in terms of facilities and provisions but one where relations with guards were initially generally satisfactory. Indeed, internees held a sports carnival, established a gymnastics club, opened watch repair and tobacco shops, and even produced three issues of a Camp newspaper, Der Kamerad. Over mid-1915, however, relations changed dramatically with the newly appointed Camp commandant, Major G E Hawkes. Camp guards turned more readily to punishment to enforce discipline on increasingly disgruntled and unruly internees. Hawkes gained a reputation for direct and personal involvement in some of the more blatant cases of cruelty: one internee was shot in the knee, use of the disciplinary compound grew and two internees were stripped naked, handcuffed to a tree and flogged as punishment for escaping.

Colonel Sandford, commandant of the Fourth Military District, inspected the Camp in August 1915 to be told of the flogging by inmates. Hawkes was immediately suspended and a court of enquiry established which reported five days later. Hawkes was stripped of his commission and the Camp was struck on the same day, 16th August, as internees were transferred to Holsworthy in New South Wales. The Commonwealth, seeking no repeat of the public debate occasioned by a similar incident of flogging by Australian military personnel in Rabaul, censored domestic Australian media. Domestic success was not matched internationally with news of the Camp (reportedly by means of photographs smuggled out in the sole of a boot) reaching Berlin. A second court of enquiry into Torrens Island was held in 1916. It condemned the harsh and unjustifiable conduct at the Camp, and further rejected Hawkes’ assertion he went to Torrens Island with unlimited powers as to the use of the bayonet and the rifle.

Australian newspapers reported on the Torrens Island Interment Camp in 1919. In a 17th May 1919 article, The Mail emphasised to the South Australian public that the very principle which led it to condemn German wartime inhuman and heartless cruelties required the same of Australian inhumanities. Equally, The Mail held that while bound to condemn all cruelty, Australian included, the good name of Australia was restored as witnessed by the prompt action to dismiss Hawkes, strike the Camp and hold courts of enquiry to establish the facts and to allocate blame and punishment.

John Weste lectured in Modern Japanese History at the universities of Durham and Leeds in the United Kingdom from 1995-2006. Upon returning to Australia, he entered the SA Parliament Research Library as a research officer and was subsequently appointed Director of the Library in 2014.


First World War Centenary: A Time Line by Dr John Weste. 

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