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Think Piece: Roland Carter in the Great War

Thursday 11 May, 2017

Monteath.photoOf the perhaps 1500 Indigenous Australians who served in the Great War, Roland Carter had one of the most unusual tales to tell. The Ngarrindjeri man from Raukkan spent time as a prisoner in one of the most extraordinary German POW camps.

The rate of enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) among young men from Raukkan and the Lower Murray was very high, around 20%. Roland Wenzel Carter, the eldest son of Jeffrey Carter and Rose Rankine, had worked for several years as a labourer before joining the AIF. As a member of a reinforcement group for the 10th Battalion he was sent to Egypt in September 1915, expecting to be deployed to join the battle against the Turks. Instead, he was transferred to the 50th Battalion, raised in Egypt in February 1916, and sent to France.

Carter’s record shows that in 1916 he was involved in the Battle Mouquet Farm near Pozières, where he was wounded. His most fateful action, however, was on 2 April 1917, when he participated in an assault on Noreuil, one of the French villages the Germans had fortified on the approach to their Hindenburg Line. The Australians could not take the village, and Carter was one of 80 men captured by the Germans. To make matters worse, he had received a gunshot wound to his shoulder.

Carter was taken east into Germany to POW camps at Limburg and then Zerbst before eventually  arriving at a camp at Wünsdorf, just south of Berlin, by the end of 1917. There he found himself, together with one other Indigenous Australian by the name of Douglas Grant, among prisoners from many parts of the world. This was the so-called Halbmondlager, or ‘crescent moon camp’, and it had been set up originally to accommodate Muslim prisoners from the armies of the British, French and Russian Empires. The Germans naively hoped that by bringing these Muslims together and treating them well, they might be able to persuade them to swap sides and fight a ‘jihadist’ war against their former masters.

Those efforts proved a dismal failure, and by the time Carter arrived at Wünsdorf, the camp – which had its own mosque – had gathered men from many countries, regardless of their religion.

This polyglot community offered German anthropologists the opportunity to study men from many different backgrounds and creeds. The Germans photographed the men, painted portraits of them, made detailed observations, and recorded their voices. Fortunately for us, a photo of the POW Roland Carter, made in Wünsdorf by the German photographer Otto Stiehl, survives to this day.

Judging by his own words, Carter was generally treated well in the camp. In May 1918 he wrote a letter home to his mother, in which he reported, ‘I am in very good health. I am having a good time here and if all goes well shall be going to the moving pictures tomorrow. We go to church every other Sunday and I like it very much.’

After the war Carter was repatriated to Australia via England. Back at Raukkan he married Vera Rigney, and together they raised eight children. One of them, Lorraine Wilson, to this day remembers a father who had a wonderful singing voice, one which he used regularly in church services at Raukkan, just as he had on his regular visits to church as a POW on the other side of the world. In reflecting on his experiences in the Halbmondlager, Carter would recall that sometimes the Germans would tease him by asking, ‘Why were you fighting here? Why didn’t you stay at home?’

Carter died in 1960 and was buried at Raukkan.

Lest We Forget

Peter Monteath was born in Brisbane and educated in Queensland and Germany. He has taught at the University of Queensland, Griffith University, Deakin University, the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide. He has also been Adjunct Professor at the University of St. Louis, Missouri and the Technical University of Berlin, where he was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow. At Flinders Peter teaches Modern European History. His research interests span modern European and Australian history.

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