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Fremantle Port: Gateway to Abeyance

Alexandra Ludewig

Ludewig, Alexandra 2014, 'Fremantle Port: gateway to abeyance', Fremantle Studies, 8: 78-95.

Within hours of the outbreak of World War One in August 1914, Fremantle’s harbour became part of the theatre of war in the Indian-Pacific region. A German merchant ship was shot at, its German crew detained, the vessel taken as prize and internment prepared. Fremantle became a gateway to months of uncertainty and years of incarceration, putting the lives of many on hold. My paper will look at some of the dramas that unfolded in Fremantle during those first few euphoric weeks and months of a long and bloody war.

The war certainly transformed the bustling port of Fremantle at a time when this popular destination in Western Australia was experiencing a major boom. Just over one hundred years ago, the number of ships visiting Fremantle port had finally overtaken those arriving in Albany and the Fremantle Harbour Trust reported a sharp increase in cargo tonnage and number of vessels using the port, resulting in ‘a record in the history of the Port'. 1 In the financial year ending 30 June 1914, 857 ships had called into Fremantle. Among the biggest and most important merchant shipping companies in Fremantle were several from Germany, whose vessels were frequent visitors to Australian harbours, transporting both goods and passengers. They were the North German-Lloyd (Norddeutscher Lloyd, NGL), the German-Australian Line (GA) and the German Steamship Company (Deutsch-Australische Dampfschiffs-Gesellschaft, HANSA). The latter had a telling name on all accounts, as the era was also witness to the demise of sailing ships and the advent of steamers. Both the Norddeutscher Lloyd and the Deutsch-Australische Dampfschiffs-Gesellschaft had their new and impressive steamboats call into Fremantle. Sixty-five German ships visited the port in the 12 months prior to the war, accounting for 115 separate entries into the harbour, as Fremantle Port had become the first and last port en route between the fifth continent and the world to the west and north-west for most of Australia’s shipping traffic. 2

Trade relations between Australia and Germany were well established by 1914. Germany was second to the United States with respect to the value of imports from Australia, and the third largest purchaser of Australian wool. Wool auctions were conducted in Fremantle. German buyers regularly placed large orders for wool as well as apples from Harvey and grain from the West Australian wheat-belt. In return, the German steamers brought increasing numbers of tourists to the region from Europe. 3 However, this spike in trade was to drop in 1914, at first as a result of severe drought in Western Australia and then, more dramatically, when war broke out in August that year.

The Stolberg, a brand new ship from Hamburg, was still in Fremantle just hours before war was declared between Germany and England. Launched in December 1912 for the Deutsch-Australische Dampfschiffs-Gesellschaft, it was used to service the route between India and Australia. The Stolberg had arrived in Fremantle on 1 August 1914, and left Australian waters hastily in the night between the 4th and 5th of August 1914. As the declaration of war between Germany and England was imminent, Fremantle’s Strelitz Brothers, a firm jointly owned by Richard and Paul Strelitz and ‘acting under instructions from the German Australian Lloyd Sydney’, assisted in getting the Stolberg out of Fremantle. 4 Instead of proceeding to Adelaide, the Stolberg ‘ran to Java for shelter’, 5 heading north/northwest, and therefore did not cross paths with another German vessel approaching Fremantle, the Greifswald.

Aboard the SS Greifswald was Karl Lehmann. Born in Tokyo in 1886 to German-Japanese parents, he was one of seven sons of a well-to-do family. His father, Rudolph Lehmann, originally from northern Germany, and Rudolph’s brother Carl (Karl’s uncle), were pioneer ship builders in Japan in the 1870s. In Tokyo, Rudolph Lehmann set up house with a fifteen- year-old Japanese girl who bore him eight children. 6 All of the boys were educated in Germany. Karl Lehmann also did his military service there, married a German girl, and thereafter embarked on a professional life as a ship’s officer. His stellar career was interrupted, however, by the death of an older brother in 1911, the divorce from his first wife in 1913 and then by the death of his father in Tokyo in January 1914.

Karl Lehmann had been in Australia once before, going ashore in Sydney as 4th Officer in 1910 before his career was put on hold by these personal tragedies. On the eve of World War One Lehmann held the position of 3rd Officer on the Greifswald and was headed once again for Australia documenting the milestones of the journey with his new camera: the harbour in Antwerp, the moment the Greifswald passed the royal vessel of the Belgian monarch, the harbour in Genoa and the approach to Australia. 7

The Greifswald arrived in Fremantle from Hamburg in the early hours of Thursday 6 August 1914 bound for Adelaide. As the court proceedings (which were held months later) document the captain of the Greifswald

was spoken to off Rottnest by an examining steamer, who informed the captain to proceed to the usual anchorage. The master of the Greifswald, quite unsuspecting, obeyed the instructions. Shortly after daybreak he hove the anchor up and entered the harbour, the officers and men meantime being busy taking the hatches off in order to begin discharging cargo. The vessel was making fast to the wharf when she was boarded by the local agent [Mr Ratazzi] who was the first to inform the unsuspecting captain that war has been declared. The master was completely dumbfounded and burst into tears on learning the news. 8

The captured captain had a wife and elderly parents in New York and ‘he broke down completely when told that he would have to be taken prisoner, as he considered himself a world citizen rather than a German. 9 The local authorities saw this differently. A naval guard was placed on board the Greifswald and everyone on board forbidden to leave.

Equally as unprepared as the merchant ship crew and captain for their loss of freedom were the local authorities who took possession of the ship. The soldiers who had frantically been ordered to arrest the crew were part- time conscripts in the Universal Service Scheme, as Australia did not yet have a standing army. A few of the new recruits, put into uniforms and equipped with guns, were placed at the bottom of the gangway, keeping watch so that no unauthorised person could enter or leave the vessel, as the 46 men on board the German steamer Greifswald were initially to be held captive aboard their ship. With nothing much to do Lehmann continued to experiment with his camera, and took over 300 photographs in Western Australia over this and the coming months. 10

In addition, Lehmann, Captain Meyer and the other officers from the Greifswald spent hours with their local agent, Carl Ludwig Ratazzi, who also happened to be the local German Consul, trying to decide on the best way forward; in the interests of the men, as well as the shipping company.

The legal situation did not become clear until some weeks later, when

the Commonwealth Attorney General issued a statement about the functions and standing of Prize Courts that needed to be established to adjudicate on such matters as the ownership of cargo being carried in the ships. 11

Although the officers and captain were all reservists and had trained in the German army they were eventually allowed to move about relatively freely in contrast to the remainder of the crew. Treated in a gentlemanly fashion, the tone between the Australian authorities and these part-civilian, part-military detainees was cordial. Their welfare and morale were taken into consideration when orders were given to allow them to roam about Fremantle at liberty. Thus Lehmann managed to see many of the sights of the port city including the German Consulate Ratazzi’s private residence, the West End and the East End. The officers also lunched regularly with their Australian counterparts in Fremantle Park. Lehmann knew that as an enemy alien his presence could incite a hostile reaction at any time and must have known that an enemy with a camera taking images of military tents and the harbour would not be tolerated. He seems, therefore, to have shot an image of the set-up in Fremantle Park from the hip. At no other time would Lehmann, who had an acute awareness of mise-en-scene, shot composition, lighting and framing, allow his own shadow to be seen or the desired image not to be centred appropriately as happened in this shot.

On 10 August 1914 a government proclamation was issued requiring German subjects in Australia to report to their nearest police station. Three days later a further proclamation made by the Governor General, Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson, called upon those subjects of the Emperor of Austria (Who was also the King of Hungary) residing in the Commonwealth to report to the nearest police office and to supply ‘their names, places of residence, and occupations or businesses’ to the officer on duty there, as well as to notify authorities of changes to their particulars. 12 Police stations and the Fremantle Artillery Barracks were kept busy with intelligence personnel conducting interviews, assessing every enemy alien’s status and their perceived level of threat. Access to the wharves was restricted along with the possession of cameras and weapons.

Lehmann must also have been aware that increasing numbers of German and Austrian men were being arrested following their registration as enemy aliens irrespective of whether they were new arrivals to the state or long-term residents. Internees were at various sites throughout Fremantle including the Esplanade Hotel and Park, Fremantle Park and in the Artillery Barracks. All along the authorities were keen to remove the prisoners from areas of military importance and sensitivity. Although press censorship meant that reporting about the internment of enemy aliens was explicitly forbidden, 13 snippets of news did make it into the papers. From this we are aware that at the latest by 14 August 1914, it was known around town that several Germans were ‘having a spell at the popular tourist resort of Rottnest’. 14 Indeed, the island had been put under military control within days of the outbreak of war and arrangements were being made for the large-scale internment of enemy aliens there. Guards were mobilised and supplies prepared for transport over to Rottnest Island.

The harbour was otherwise quiet and the entire port was relatively deserted barring the naval guards and the few German officers who were allowed to leave their ship. The local Labor Party weekly, The Westralian Worker, reported: ‘Matters have been very quiet on the wharves during the past week,  There are no overseas steamers loading and the absence of German steamers is keenly felt." 15 All was quiet on the Western seaboard until, most unexpectedly, another German vessel approached, the Neumünster (Agent Strelitz Bros). Aboard this vessel was Erich Czech then 31 years old. This able-bodied seaman had first come to Australia on the Osnabrück reaching Sydney on 18 January 1914. Now, six months later and amidst some excitement, he arrived at Fremantle on the Neumünster on 16 August 1914. Unlike Lehmann with his camera Czech was equipped with a canvas and paintbrushes and captured the following encounter in watercolours.

Early in the morning of August 16, H.M.A.S. Pioneer, while cruising about nine miles out from Rottnest, picked up the lights of an approaching ship. The warship, with lights out, approached the incoming vessel, and when within three-quarters of a mile of her turned her lights on. From the starboard side the warship rounded to the port side of the boat she was intercepting. A message was sent to the steamer asking her name, and was followed by a shot across her bows and a demand to stop. No notice was taken of the order, and a second shot was fired. This had the effect of stopping the steamer. 16

As the Neumünster was not fitted with wireless radio Karl Hermann, the ship’s master, had heard nothing about the declaration of war and second- guessed the reason for the warning shots was to do with his approach through dangerous reefs and rocks. He had a ship full of general cargo from Antwerp, about 600 tons of which was consigned locally, and wanted to complete his maiden journey without incident. 17 The Neumünster was registered in Hamburg and thus ‘owned by subjects of HIM the Emperor of Germany’. It had left the port of Hamburg on 30 June 1914 and only ‘called at Antwerp which latter port she left on July 4, bound for Fremantle’, 18 with her crew ignorant of the fact hostilities  had broken out between Britain and Germany.

Even now with the vessel just off Rottnest making contact with the ship in the dark was difficult and with no other means available to them a megaphone was used to advise the captain of the Neumunster ‘that a boat would be sent across to her." 19 When this proved impossible due to rough seas, the Pioneer signalled, ‘Stop your engines; we will escort you.’ 20 At that moment, on a dark and stormy winter morning, the Neumünster’s captain and crew could not even make out that the Pioneer was a war ship. Captain Hermann still assumed that his ship must have been headed for dangerous reefs and was being warned of imminent danger. The command given to him, namely that the Neumünster should follow the other ship, seemed to confirm this assumption and also explains why he hoisted her flags around daybreak. Yet no sooner had the captain given orders to raise the German national colours than a message was sent to the Neumünster ‘to haul them down again’ and although this was complied with, the steamer reportedly asked ‘Why?’. 21 When the Neumünster veered off course minutes later in an attempt to enter the harbour through the normal shipping channel Hermann was again told to stop and even to anchor. He complied and received an armed guard from the Pioneer who boarded the ship. After more military guards had gone aboard Alexander Williamson, a pilot at Fremantle, boarded the ship to take her into port and berth her. There the Neumünster was taken in custody into the harbour of Fremantle, where she was detained.' 22 A boarding party then officially took possession of the ship and mounted guard with fixed bayonets over all on-board. By this time news of the war had been broken to the crew. Local pilot Williamson recalled months later that, after the exchange of the usual greetings, he had been engaged in conversation by the master of the Neumünster who was anxious to know if any other German ships had been captured. He was informed about the fate of the Greifswald and its crew, officers and captain (46 men in total). Apparently the captain then expressed satisfaction that his was not the only German vessel to be caught at Fremantle.

He said he was very sorry that he had been captured, as it was his first voyage as master, and confessed that he had received something of a shock when the Pioneer had fired across his bows. Conjecturing as to what it could mean, he had come to the conclusion at first that something had gone wrong with the pilot service, and that a steamer had been sent out to guide him into port. 23

Further explaining the events surrounding his ultimate capture the captain of the Neumünster explained that he was unfamiliar with both the boat and the waters and reported:

He had mistaken the Pioneer for a pilot boat. When she megaphoned to him to follow her he shouted back ‘I will.’ He had hoisted his national flag because it was the practice to do so at daybreak. The reason he had shaped a course apart from the Pioneer was that he had picked up the channel and was capable of entering alone. Still thinking it was a pilot boat he was following, he had hoisted the signal ‘Thank you,’ and then changed his plans when he received the further order, ‘Keep in my wake'. 24

The final order once the vessel was moored on Victoria Quay was: ‘keep aboard’. The crew of the Neumünster (42 men including the captain) were detained there until 21 August 1914 when they were taken to another boat for their transfer to Rottnest. 25

Not your standard able-bodied seaman, Erich Czech, was a keen painter and musician. For both of his hobbies he was to have ample time over the coming years. He and Karl Lehmann were transferred to Rottnest Island at the end of August 1914 where they became prisoners No. 190 and No. 33, respectively.

Prior to their transfer to Rottnest Island, the officers and captains of the Greifswald and Neumünster were allowed to roam in the area close to the Esplanade Hotel. One journalist showed remarkable sympathy towards the ‘German sea captains’ in limbo reporting

One could not help but feel sorry for these large, comfortable, respectable citizens, who, with long curved pipes drooping from their hairy mouths, mooched aimlessly up and down watching in silence with unexpressive faces the various squads at work. They did look so deadly bored! They had plenty of liberty, but - there was always the lad with the fixed bayonet and ten rounds of ball cartridges. Better to be at the front and to risk being shot, than to be ‘interned’ for day after day, week after week, month after month - and nothing, absolutely nothing to do! 26

Officers from the ships popularly frequented the area around Fremantle’s Esplanade Hotel. It became one of the places where they could meet the local Germans and Austrians who had been called upon to register with the authorities and of whom hundreds were arrested during the first few weeks of war.

The use of Fremantle’s Esplanade Park and the adjoining Hotel as a processing and holding facility for enemy aliens is a little known fact. The location was ideal, as they were adjacent to the loading quay of the inner Harbour where the two merchant ships were cleared of their cargo. It was also where any Germans and Austrians among the crew of other ships arriving in Fremantle were taken into custody.

The park in front of the Esplanade Hotel had been newly created on reclaimed land in South Bay just a few years previously following complaints about the build-up of seaweed. There was a bandstand where Sunday concerts were held and where German bands had played regularly in previous years. The park had become a busy meeting point for the people of Fremantle. Now it became the place to stare at men of German and Austrian descent arriving from overseas and all over Western Australia who were en mute to a more permanent site of internment.

By 13 August 1914, barely a week after war had been declared, the military authorities had chosen Rottnest Island as their preferred site for an internment camp, as ‘there is ample accommodation.” The officers from the ships were housed in the State Hostel,” formerly a Boys’ Reformatory and the compound of the former Aboriginal Prison, the Quod, which had recently been converted to tourist lodgings.

The ships’ crews and enemy alien civilians were accommodated in square canvas huts with frames,” flooring and walkways made of wood, which were a permanent fixture from the previous tourist seasons”.

All of these semi-permanent holiday tents were ‘occupied by the Germans since they were the first to be confined’. 31 Indeed the first 300 internees consisted mainly of seamen from three German vessels, for as late as 28 August 1914, another apparently unsuspecting captain had steered his vessel, the Thüringen, into Fremantle Harbour, adding another 46 crew and two German stowaways to the list of internees on Rottnest. From late August onwards seamen from the Greifswald, the Neumünster and now the Thüringen, as well as Germans and Austrians from other ships calling into Western Australian ports, had been arrested and sent a few at a time over to the prison-cum-holiday-cum prison island.

Internees arriving on Rottnest after Christmas 1914, who by that time were mainly local West Australians of German and Austrian descent, did not find accommodation waiting for them. One of the guards, Rupert Secombe, recalled that most of the prisoners were simply ‘given material and they put this up themselves.” One of the latecomers remembers that by mid-1915 a large influx of Austrians arrived and soon outnumbered the Germans. Among them were many Dalmatians who ‘were housed in Australian army tents or in private tents ordered from Perth.“ However, the internees made the best of their situation, as Secombe reminisces:

They even built themselves a little entertainment hall, where they had dances of a night, because they had a jolly good band. They were given musical instruments and they had concerts and so on. 34

Some of the guards, including the medical officers, Randall and Secombe, were invited to come along and gained access to the fenced oft compound by pretending they were Australian Medical Corps (AMC) on duty.

There seems to also have been a lot of contact between warders, guards and prisoners. One of the guards, Jack O’Donoghue, remembered that two or three of the warders ‘had a five gallon keg’ and ‘used to make their own brew’, using barley which ‘they used to grow’ themselves on the island and that they ‘ma[d]e their own yeast’ from potatoes and barley.” Likewise, the internees saw to it that they had their own clandestine brewery in the camp.

Otto Ferdinand Dreissig’s map of the Rottnest Island camp from 1914 (State Library, Western Australia, map collection, Map B/12/33)

The camp site, as depicted from a bird’s-eye view on the map by a German sailor, Otto Ferdinand Dreissig, clearly shows that a community of sorts had established itself, with internees creating a certain village atmosphere and starting essential services themselves. One tent on the map is identified as the brewery, others are labelled bakery, butcher shop, hospital, laundry, store and barber shop. The water closets are marked in red, as are the prison, the pavilion on the beach and the entertainment hall, referred to here as ‘Monte Carlo’.

The 24 year old Dreissig (also recorded under the name Dressig), Rottnest Prisoner No. 63, was a reservist (L/ Cpl. Naval),36 and had arrived on the steamer VI/Eastern Australia. He had been arrested in Wyndham on 14 August 1914 and was sent with a second-class ticket to Fremantle” where, like Lehmann, he was among the first internees to arrive on the island. Unlike the privileged Lehmann, however, who was accommodated in the Hostel (barely visible on the top left corner of the map), Dreissig, as a common seaman, was evidently more familiar with the ever-growing tent village spread over approximately 5ha in North Thomson Bay. His map shows over 80 canvas tents lined up neatly between Thomson Bay Settlement to the south, the hills with adjoining sports ground to the north, the sandy beach of 'Thomson Bay to the east and a fence to the west. Considering that 40 ships’ officers were housed in the Hostel and that every tent was occupied by 6 to 8 men, the camp population at the time he sketched this picture must have been around 600 which dates this map to May 1915. Otto Dreissig presented this map as a ‘Memento to Capt J Garr’, one of the guards.

Although internees were permitted outside the camp to swim, fish and purchase goods from the General Store in the settlement this freedom was deemed necessary mostly because the prisoners had to fend for themselves. Limited supplies were initially dropped off daily in front of each 6 to 8 men tent, including meat (mainly mutton) and vegetables and the internees had to cook for themselves. Some months into the internment food supplies were issued on the Proviant-Platz [provisions square] located close to the main entrance gate, with one person per tent on duty to collect them. In addition to the raw supplies, bread was baked by ‘one white prisoner there [who] was a baker’. 38

One of the Slavs interned in 1915 recalled:

The only newspaper available to us was The West Australian which arrived daily from Perth, but my brother at the Palace Hotel frequently sent me copies of the Kalgoorlie Miner and the I/Western Argus. 39

Bilingual internees frequently performed translation and interpreting duties both for illiterate internees and for those not fluent in English studying the available newspapers for news about the war and their respective homes.

The internees were also allowed to write two letters per week containing not more than 150 words each. All correspondence was, of course, subject to censorship; and the censors were given very explicit instructions to search for possible secret or coded messages. The writers were not allowed to discuss the war, and frequently letters were stopped if they contained, in the censor’s opinion, ‘misleading or untruthful statements’. 40

In order to enforce this guideline censorship was the norm. This affected not just the internees on Rottnest, but also the general public and, in particular, journalists:

The censor also controlled the information about the camps that could be published in the Australian newspapers.  It is no surprise then that Australians learned very little indeed about the camps. Only few details concerning conditions and numbers of internees were permitted to be published, usually after such information had been disclosed in the Federal Parliament. 41

Oblivious to the situation on the island life went on as usual for most West Australians. Even on Rottnest itself a certain routine and normality settled in surprisingly quickly. Within Weeks of its existence on the island a certain camp culture had developed which replicated outside values, to some extent, with regard to class and ethnicity. A clear pecking order developed, roles were distributed according to skill sets illustrated in Lehmann’s photograph, which features his fellow seamen posing with tools or other chosen objects. Those who could afford it made their lot as pleasant as possible. Thus the camp's population was divided according to class as well as ethnicity with Germans and German-Austrians pitted against the largest group in the camp, those from Croatia and other Slavic regions.

From the very beginning distinct groups could be identified among the internees; the biggest difference was certainly that of stranger versus local. On the one hand there were the ships’ crews from overseas who had few or no contacts within Australia, as opposed to the enemy aliens removed from Western Australian society. Many of the latter had the support of friends, some even of family, especially those who had spent their entire lives in the country. In addition to this difference in support networks other factors played a role in the segregation of the camp population into groups. Most notably, and a bone of contention for some, the ships’ crews remained very conscious of their rank and command even in internment dividing themselves along class lines and perceived levels of authority and skill.

Similarly, the local enemy aliens isolated from the local population split into factions, mainly along ethnic lines. There were ethnic Germans and German-Austrians, as opposed to the Dalmatians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks and/ or Slavs who were deemed ‘Austrian’ because their homelands formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which for many was against their convictions and beliefs. There were ultimately close to 600 Slav internees held on Rottnest Island and, though technically Austrian, most were in fact unsympathetic to the Austrian cause. Depending on where in the Austro-Hungarian Empire the men originated they tended to socialise and cohabit with others from their island, village, region or ethnic group. For example, the Dalmatians, according to one of the group, had ‘worked at the same, or some similar occupations [miners and woodcutters]’. 42 Most of the interned Slavs had come from the goldfields where the war had come as a welcome pretext to rid the workforce of migrant labourers who were disinclined to join the unions.

Believing victory to be imminent, and that they would all be home by Christmas 1914, spirits were initially high and a certain belief in the superiority of the German/Austrian side was confidently expressed.

When some of the German internees commemorated the Battle of Sedan on 1 September - the decisive battle of the Franco-German War in 1870, when the Prussians captured Emperor Napoleon III and large numbers of his troops - the German seamen loudly sang ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ and ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’. When the guard asked what was going on, they answered ‘You’ll have to ask the French!' 43

The camp commandant, Major E. Summerhayes, recalled some 15 years later that the majority of the Germans in the camp

were fit for service, and if they had returned to Germany would have been recruited. They were on such a “good wicket”, that he was told by more than one that they thanked God that they could not get back to their country. 44

Indeed, many of the captured Germans held military ranks and, if in Germany at the time, would definitely have been drafted and sent to the front. Their captors had some tense moments, as ‘some of the German officers were very arrogant and thought they owned the earth. 45 The news of the German light cruiser Emden having run aground on North Keeling Island and the sight of their own ships leaving without them must have dashed the hopes of some. In early September 1914, the steamers Greifswald, Neumünster and Thüringen were finally removed from berths at South Quay to the opposite side of the harbour. 46 Soon thereafter, the confiscated ships were renamed and utilised by the Commonwealth Government for wartime service. 47 The Greifswald sailed past Rottnest on 16 October 1914, the Thüringen on 21 October 1914 and the Neumünster on 30 October, all of them bound for the Eastern states. 48 By way of compensation, the seamen’s desire to steam away found expression in model ship building.

In contrast to other camps, where an intellectual culture was evidenced by the publication of magazines and concert programmes, Rottnest Island’s internees left no such legacy. The internees undertook other pursuits and their camp culture expressed itself mainly in the appreciation of nature and outdoor activities. Quite a Robinson Crusoe effect was the order of their daily existence, hunting and fishing being plentiful.' 49 The only records by internees to survive from Rottnest are Lehmann’s photographs, Czech’s paintings of Rottnest Island, and Dreissig’s map of the camp facilities. Not even the model ships, which the German mariners built and sailed on the island's salt lakes, have survived.

When Rottnest Island’s Internment Camp was closed barely 15 months into the war and all internees relocated to other camps over east, luggage allowances were not very generous and many things had to be left behind. The main reasons for the closure were overcrowding and supply issues. The camp’s numbers had increased steadily. ‘In March 1915, the population of the camp was 412’, 50 by May the numbers had increased to 628 internees, 51 by the end of July to 887, 52 ‘and by August over 1100’ internees were being held in the Rottnest camp. 53

Garden in the camp of Rottnest Island. Sketch by Erich Czech, 1914 (State Library of Western Australia: no. 004543D)

Photograph of the Rottnest Island camp by Karl Lehmann (National Library of Australia, Bib ID 4703393)

The facilities on Rottnest were not designed to cope with such a population influx, and since every piece of equipment had to be shipped by launch, improvements were very difficult to achieve. 54

Therefore, alternative sites for internment were considered, among them Garden Island just to the south of Rottnest. However, the water supply there proved to be a problem, as it was on Rottnest. Ultimately it was decided to transfer the approximately 1000 men to NSW.

One of the Dalmatian prisoners recalled:

Late in 1915 rumours rocked the compound. We heard that the authorities had decided to disband the camp and transfer us to a large concentration camp near Sydney in New South Wales. The prospect of being forced to move from Rottnest chilled us. Although classified as prisoners of war, we suffered no irksome restrictions on the island, beyond confinement in a wired area. There was no ill treatment, and there were passes for any of us who wished to roam the lovely isle at leisure. By this time we had made ourselves at home there and, without a single exception, had fallen in love with the place. Every morning we thrilled to the prospect of exploring the island, walking barefoot on its silvery beaches and inhaling the pure, fresh air. 55

The plan to remove the Germans and Austrians interned on Rottnest Island to the Liverpool camp was announced only a few days before the move was to take place and the Western Australian public was informed that Rottnest would once again be available to Christmas campers. 56 The news was as much a surprise to the internees as to their relatives and to the public at large. Indeed, fearing protests or unrest authorities kept the plan quiet and the evacuation of the internees and their transfer onto a steamer were executed ‘without any unnecessary fuss’. 57 Lists were drawn up of four squads of Germans and eight squads of Austrians with all prisoners required to take their bedding, cutlery and stretchers. To label their luggage 5000 linen tags and four balls of binder twine were ordered in. A small steamer, a ferry named the Lady Forrest, came to take everyone across to the Aberdeen Line ship the Demosthenes, which was to transport them from Western Australia to New South Wales. 58

On the day of their departure, 22 November 1915, the weather was beautiful and sunny with a light breeze making for a pleasant send-off. 59 The SS Demosthenes finally departed for NSW at 9pm. Most of the internees were transported to Sydney 60 with Czech and Dreissig ending up in the Holdsworthy Camp, while the privileged few, among them Lehmann, were taken to Trial Bay. After their transfer in late 1915 the earliest that Lehmann, Czech and Dreissig were to board a ship again was in 1919, when they were sent back to Germany on one of ‘nine special ships which sailed at various dates between May 1919, and June 1920. 61 A photograph was taken of each man as he left Australia.

Lehmann was repatriated on the Kursk, on 29 May 1919, while Erich Czech and Otto Dreissig were deported six weeks later, on 9 July 1919, aboard the Tras-os-Montes. Neither vessel called into Fremantle on their way to Europe via South Africa, docking at Albany instead, thus preventing the rekindling of a relationship with Fremantle and Rottnest.

After years of internment all three found it hard to re-enter civilian life. None of them was able to continue work as a merchant seaman as the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to forgo any merchant ship fleet. Likewise, Australia was to remain out of reach for them in the years to come. Nevertheless each man left a legacy of his time in Western Australia. It is thanks to their photographs, paintings and sketches that we can begin to understand some of the historical realities in and around Fremantle during the time of the Great War.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2012


1 The Fremantle Harbour Trust Commissioner, Annual report for the period ending 30 June 1914, Perth: Fred. Wm. Simpson, 1915, p3.

2 Ibid., p17.

3 German vessels which called into Fremantle in the months leading up to the war included Konigin Luise 2/12/1913; Seydlitz 30/12/1913; Zieten 27/1/1914; Friedrich der Grosse 23/ 2/ 1914; Gneisenau 20/4/1914; Scharnhorst 18/5/1914; Gneisenau 20/5/1914; Essen 21/4/1914; Frieherg 3/6/1914; Sofie 11/6/1914; Zieten 16/6/1914; Ulm 18/6/1914; Seydlitz 14/7/1914; and, after war had been declared, the Greifswald on 4/8/1914; the Neumünster on 16/8/1914; and lastly, on 28/8/1914, the Thüringen.

4 Minute Paper by the Attorney General’s Department, dated 15/02/ 1916. PP14/2, 30233301, NAA (Perth).

5 Ibid.

6 Due to Japanese law, they were unable to marry officially in 1871. The ceremony was only conducted much later in their lives, in 1907.

7 Unfortunately, Karl Lehmann’s grandson, Henning Lehmann, could not provide details about the type of camera used. I would like to thank him, however, for filling in many of the biographical details about his grandfather.

8 Anonymous, ‘The censors at work. Cable messages delayed’, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), 7 August 1914, p15.

9 Summerhayes quoted in ‘Prisoners of war. Rottnest reminiscences’, The West Australian, Thursday, 27 February 1930, p7.

10 Lehmann eventually developed and compiled his photographs in a photo album which now is held in the National Library of Australia. Karl Lehmann, German Concentration Camp Australia, album of internment camps on Rottnest Island, Western Australia and at Trial Bay and Holdsworthy, New South Wales, 1 914-1 918,

11 John Simons, Prisoners in Arcady: German mariners at Berrima 1915-1919, Berrima: Berrima District Historical Society, 1999, p51.

12 Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, n56, Thursday, 13 August 1914.

13 'No reference was permitted to be made in the press to the internment of Germans or other persons, and all matter relating to concentration camps had to be submitted for censorship before publication.’ Ernest Scott, Australia during the war. The official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918, VXI, Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1941 p66.

14 ‘Timber Topics’, Westralian Worker, 14 August 1914, p4. The article refers to several workers from the timber mill in particular.

15 ‘Notes from the sea’, Westralian Worker, 14 August 1914, p10.

16 Unmack quoted in ‘Prize court. Was the Neumunster captured? Hague Convention and its translation’, West Australian (Perth), Saturday, 5 December 1914, p7.

17 ‘Captured off Fremantle’, I/Western Mail (Perth), Friday, 21 August 1914, p14.

18 ‘Prize court’, West Australian (Perth),Wednesday, 23 December 1914, p7.

19 Unmack quoted in ‘Prize court. Was the Neumunster captured? Hague Convention and its translation’, The West Australian (Perth), Saturday, 5 December 1914, p7.

20 Related some decades later in ‘Rottnest Island’, Western Mail (Perth), Thursday, 18 November 1937, p2.

21 Unmack quoted in ‘Prize court. Was the Neumunster captured? Hague Convention and its translation, West Australian (Perth), Saturday, 5 December 1914,p7.

22 ‘Prize court’, West Australian (Perth),Wednesday, 23 December 1914, p7.

23 Pilot Alexander Williamson quoted in ‘Prize court. Was the Neumunster captured? Hague Convention and its translation’, West Australian (Perth), Saturday, 5 December 1914, p7.

24 Carl Hermann quoted in ‘Prize court. Was the Neumunster captured? Hague Convention and its translation’, West Australian (Perth), Saturday, 5 December 1914, p7.

25 ‘German prisoners of war being marched to the Fremantle wharf. The German prisoners embarking at Fremantle en route to Rottnest Island, where they are being lodged.’ ‘The German cargo steamer Neumunster’, Western Mail (Perth), Friday, 21 August 1914, p27.

26 Gossip, ‘On active service. Goldfielders in the camp’, Westralian Worker, 13 November 1914, p3.

27 ‘Western Australia’, Advertiser (Adelaide),Thursday, 13 August 1914, p14.

28 ‘Rottnest Island’, Western Mail (Perth), Thursday 18 November 1937, p2.

29 Mary Mennicken-Coley, The Germans in Western Australia. Innovators, Immigrants, Internees, Mount Lawley: Cross Print, ECU 1993, p55.

30 All up, six of Erich Czech’s Rottnest paintings are known to exist, all of which show images of the camp accommodation and surrounding open space.

31 Anthony Splivalo, The Home Fires, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1982, p67.

32 John Rupert Secombe, oral history recording, 1977, OH253, held at the State Library (WA) 1977, p28.

33 Anthony Splivalo, The Home Fires, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1982, p67.

34 Secombe, p28.

35 Jack O’Donoghue, ‘Oral history interview, 6 August 1987’, transcribed by Geraldine Varang, Murdoch University History Club, OH1987.1, Tape 2, p9.

36 NAA: PP14/2; 753016.

37 NAA: PP14/2, PF/110; 752065.

38 Jack O’Donoghue, ‘Oral history interview, 6 August 1987’, transcribed by Geraldine Varang, Murdoch University History Club, OH1987.1, Tape 2, p9.

39 Splivalo, pp74-75.

40 Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens. Internment and the homefront experience in Australia 1914-1920, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press 1989, p181. Cf. AA (Vic), MP 367, item 567 / 10/202.

41 Ibid., p182. Cf. AA (Vic), MP 367, item 567 / 10 / 177.

42 Splivalo, p76.

43 In the original: ‘Am Sedan-Tage haben die deutschen Seeleute 'die Wacht am Rhein’ und 'Deutschland, Deutschland fiber alles’ laut gesungen. Die Wache habt gefragt, was denn los sei. ‘Da müsse man die Franzosen fragen’, war die Antwort.’ Dr. Albrecht Penck, Von England festgehalten. Meine Erlebnisse während des Krieges im britischen Reich, Stuttgart: Verlag von l. Engelshorn 1915, p85.

44 ‘Prisoners of war. Rottnest reminiscences’, West Australian, Thursday, 27 February 1930, p7.

45 Ibid.

46 Cf. ‘Port paragraphs’, Sunday Times (Perth), Sunday, 6 September 1914, p15.

47 The fate of the Greifswald', Thüringen and Neumunster is documented at The Thüringen was used as a troopship and sunk by a torpedo from a submarine in the Mediterranean in 1915; cf

48 Rottnest Island, Signal station log book, 1913-1915, State Record Office, 3493, Series 118, RIL11.

49 ‘Rottnest Island’, Western Mail (Perth), Thursday 18 November 1937, p2.

50 Fischer, p189.

51 Senator Pearce’s statement in Parliament, quoted in Argus, 28 May 1915.

52 NAA (Canberra), CRS 172, 1917/4052, 47835.

53 Fischer, p189.

54 Ibid.

55 Splivalo, p80.

56 ‘Pleasure seekers and prisoners’, Register (Adelaide), Saturday, 27 November 1915, p10.

57 ‘Restoration of Rottnest. Alien enemy removed’, Sunday Times (Perth), Sunday, 28 November 1915, p1.

58 Splivalo, pp81-82.

59 Splivalo, p82.

60 Cf. Mary Mennicken-Coley, The Germans in Western Australia. Innovators, immigrants, internees, Mount Lawley: Cross Print, ECU 1993, p64.

61 Ernest Scott, Australia during the war. The official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918, vXl, Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1941, p137.

Garry Gillard | New: 1 June, 2018 | Now: 16 December, 2018