In October 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, Torrens Island off Port Adelaide was turned into an internment camp. It is a lesser known impact of war in Australia, but it is an ugly chapter in our history. Thanks to the diary kept by Frank Bungardy and the photos of Paul Dubotzky, historians Peter Monteath, Mandy Paul and Rebecca Martin have been able to recreate the conditions of the camp in Interned: Torrens Island 1914–1915. Here we learn about the beginnings of the camp.
Torrens Island is a low-lying island in the Port River estuary, isolated by its geography but within easy reach of Port Adelaide. Long and narrow, the island runs north–south, bordered with narrow beaches and mangroves. It had been the location of a quarantine station since the mid-1850s, and in October 1914 it became the site of Torrens Island internment camp. Initially located adjacent to the quarantine station on the north of the island, the camp was moved in early 1915 to the southern part of the island.
Life inside the camp was documented by two internees, photographer Paul Dubotzki and diarist Frank Bungardy, a boxer who was working in the mines at Broken Hill when he was arrested and interned. It also generated official records – notably, the evidence given in a series of enquiries into events on the island. While these accounts do not always agree, there is enough common ground to be able to draw a general outline of camp life.
Prisoners travelled by train to Port Adelaide, were taken under guard from the station to the wharves, and then by boat to the island. As Bungardy put it: ‘Ones the gate closed behind us, we wher inside of the barbwire fence, our future home’.
Prisoners and guards alike referred to the main compound as ‘the German lines’. This area housed most of those interned. Officers, including August Strycker, former captain of SS Scharzfels, were held in a separate part of the camp. Guards also lived on site, occupying available buildings or living under canvas.
‘The German lines’
In the main compound, seven or eight prisoners were allocated to each tent. Each prisoner was issued a waterproof sheet, two blankets and the makings of a mattress. Bungardy, who recorded that he was not issued with any straw to stuff his ‘sack’ and form a mattress, described how the men in his crowded tent ‘layd hudled together like Pigs in a stye during the nights’.
Days were punctuated by roll call and the distribution of rations at three o’clock each afternoon. Rations were distributed by tent, and consisted of meat, potatoes, coffee, sugar, bread, jam, salt, pepper, and some vegetables. Those who had the funds could order extra stores through the quartermaster, as well as tobacco and clothes. Prisoners were also issued a cooking pot, tin plate, tin mug, fork, spoon and knife. They used kerosene tins purchased from the quartermaster to fashion other items – Bungardy mentions a coffee kettle, frying pan, water bucket ‘and various other cooking utensils’.
The men in Bungardy’s tent took the role of cook by turns, for a week at a time. They rigged up both a ‘kitchen’ and ‘dining room’:
Owing our tent being small, and very inconvenient to use it as Bedroom, Kitchen and Dinning Room combined, we wher forced to procure bags at 4p a piece, old Potatoe Bags. Went out into the Bushe under guard, procured some sticks, and we soon had a rough and ready Bush Kitchen and dining room. Our Kitchen contained a fireplace, made out of a few stones and mudd, to which a few Iron Bars wher addet, for the Pots to stand on, a rough bench for the Pots to stand on when not in use. The Dining Room contained two rough Benches, around a ditto table, with a Butter-box in one corner as a safe. Our cooler, owing the hot season, being another box wich we procured through the officer in charge for wich we paid, sunk into the ground.
The sandy conditions made cooking difficult. Bungardy complained that ‘the Cook only had to lift the lid of the cooking pot, when a hand full of sand wher laying on top of the stew, instead of the necessary pepper’.
Sanitary provisions at the camp were rudimentary. The prisoners dug pits in the sand into which they emptied waste water. Urinals and latrines were also pits, screened on one side with corrugated iron sheet. Prisoners covered old pits and dug new ones each day. Soap for washing, including clothes, was issued every three weeks. Bungardy noted wryly that those who could not afford extra soap were prey to vermin, ‘in fact the quantity wher almost equall of Germanys fighting force’.
Those men who were not occupied doing tasks around the camp such as collecting wood, digging latrines and cooking, had empty days to fill in bleak surroundings.
Prisoners were not allowed books or newspapers. Correspondence was permitted, and prisoners could send two letters each week. Letters in and out of the camp were censored, an exception to the general rule that the Commonwealth censor was not concerned with mail within Australia. Bungardy wrote that ‘anything written, stating of our ill treatment, or us asking for money, never wher passed, but went into the wastepaper basket’. Prisoners were required to pay for postage, which rankled, as they were aware that this contravened the Hague Convention. Prisoners were also permitted short visits from their families. The visits took place on the jetty, under guard, and lasted only as long as it took to unload from the motor launch whatever it was delivering to the camp.
Those interned on Torrens Island found ways to relieve the monotony. Bungardy wrote of gambling, cards and two-up being played from ‘morning until late at nights’, until a notice was issued banning gambling of any sort. After this, two-up ceased, but card-playing continued – including poker. Bungardy noted that although raids and arrests of tentfuls of men for gambling were frequent, the prisoners were permitted to purchase as many packs of cards as they could afford.
In June 1915 the prisoners produced three issues of a handwritten and illustrated newspaper. Der Kamerad included advertisements for businesses within the camp, including Electra tattoos and the Kaiser Café. Paul Dubotzki’s photographic studio offered portraits as well as photographs of the camp in cabinet or postcard format.
Music provided amusement and consolation. Prisoners organised a choir and more than one band. Bungardy wrote of a sailors’ band, with two accordions, several mouth organs, and improvised triangle, kettle drum and big drum. He also observed:
… later on we had also a Brass Band. Many a long weary hour during the hot evenings we amused ourself, laying in a circle in the soft sand enjoying German Ballats, dittis, Soldiers and National songs. If it hadnt been for this their would have been a few more driven mad.
Celebrating the Kaiser’s birthday
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s birthday, 27 January 1915, provided a distraction and outlet for ingenuity for weeks. Prisoners who were German reservists drilled for the parade march. Bungardy wrote of the uniforms:
The rifles used wher made out of sticks and broom handles. Every Soldiers wher dressed alike. Blue trousers, white shirt, white cap. The caps were made out of white handkerchiefs.
That only left the problem of how to outfit the prisoners who would play the emperor, the high officials, and the ladies.
We made the spiked Helmets out of kerosine tins, soldered together. Swallow tail coats and evening frocks cut off at the bottom part, with yellow painted buttones, suitable brocade and tin medals galore, substituted, the smart Officers jacket. White trousers made into Riding breeches, seaboots and spurs, borrowed from some civil interned boundary Riders, completed the Uniform.
Six prisoners were transformed into ‘nice and handsome’ ladies with dresses cut by an internee who was an ‘expert cutter’ from material purchased through the stores and hats made from fencing wire, cloth and paper flowers. The final touch was long hair, made out of dyed rope.
On the evening of 26 January, the German band led a procession ‘according to German custom’, through the camp, carrying torches fashioned out of broken bottles and candles. After breakfast the following morning was the parade. Then followed sporting competitions, with cash prizes, and, that night, singing and dancing.
We fancied ourself holding a curtlady in our arms and walzing around the emperors palace untill the haevy sandy ground remindet us, that we wher on Australian soil, the handsome lady, a fellow sufferer like ourself.
To read more about the Torrens Island internment camp, click here