Interned, Torrens Island 1914-1915


Torrens Island 1914-1915

Torrens Island 1914-1915

Peter Monteath
Mandy Paul
Rebecca Martin


When war broke out across Europe in August 1914, Australia was ready and more than willing to play its part. Australians volunteered by the thousands to fight the enemy overseas. Many saw it as a short adventure, which could be over by Christmas. For others it was a way out from a boring job or unemployment, relief from family responsibility and/or trouble or any other reason.

Whatever the reason, as a whole they did Australia proud. They created a legend which a hundred years later is still gathering strength. Numerous memorials, books and films have been produced about Australia’s involvement in what became known as the Great War. The majority of them are about Gallipoli and lately the Western Front. Very little is known about the contribution made by Australian men in women in other places.

Even less is known what really went on in Australia itself during these years of war. One reason for this could have been embarrassment or shame about government actions or our general attitude and behaviour during that time. With the publication of Interned, Torrens Island 1914-1915 the authors hope that their book will provide a lasting record of one easily neglected aspect of South Australia’s experience of the Great War.’

On 5 August 1914, only hours after Australia was at was with Germany, the German ship SS Scharzfels steaming up the Port River was boarded and its Captain, officers and engineers detained and eventually interned at the Torrens Island ‘Concentration Camp’ on 7 April 1915. By that time the camp already housed some 200 internees, almost all of them South Australians of German descent.

To set the stage as it were, the book highlights the contributions made by German migrants and their descendants. South Australia at that that time was the most German of all states. About ten per cent of its population was born in Germany or were direct descendants. The first German migrants had arrived some 75 years previously, fleeing from religious persecution. Others arrived later for economic reasons.

These German migrants opened up the colony by establishing settlements in the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Murray Lands, the Mid-North and both Peninsulas. Their skills as farmers, miners, smelters, tradesmen, and politicians were much respected as was their Lutheran religion. Long before the term Multiculturalism was coined, South Australia had provided something of a model of how it might work in practice.

However relations between these migrants of German background and the remainder of the population became strained mainly as a result of what happened outside Australia. The Boer War (1899-1902) was one such occasion followed by the Great War. No matter the contributions of past or present German settlers to South Australia and Australia, within five days of the declaration of war a proclamation was issued compelling all Germans, including those naturalised, to report to the nearest police station. Not all Germans were interned, but those still 'free' were often not much better off as is clearly shown in the case of Dr Bruehl.

Here they were required to supply all their personal details and swear allegiance to the British Empire. Australia was now looking for ‘the enemy within’. The British government instructed Australia to arrest all enemy reservists, including those on incoming ships. Those considered suspicious or their conduct unsatisfactory were to be interned and treated as Prisoners of War and taken to the Torrens Island Concentration Camp which had been opened on 9 October 1914.

Among its internees were about thirty sailors and ship’s officers. Censorship at that time meant that no information could be published by newspapers. From October 1914 even naturalised British subjects could be interned. Prisoners were allowed to write the occasional letter to their families in South Australia who were suffering as much as their husbands or sons. Letters too were subject to heavy censoring and those written in German could take months to arrive, if at all.

By March 1915 attitudes to the state’s German population had changed to such an extent that it resulted in a change of government. At the election candidates with German names were defeated. Attorney-General Hermann Homburg, born and bred in South Australia was forced to resign. Premier Archibald Peake, who had shown some sympathies towards the state’s Germans, was also defeated.

The new government was even less sympathetic to South Australia’s Germans than the one it replaced. According to Premier Crawford Vaughan ‘the German cancer in Australia must be thoroughly rooted out and never allowed to grow again’. Anti-German sentiment was definitely on the rise, both inside and outside parliament.

The German language newspaper had to close as it was forbidden to publish anything in the German language. This applied also to the Lutheran Church. The Nomenclature Act gave the government power to change the names of towns, districts and any other geographical feature which had a connection with an enemy state.

The All British League was in favour of removing all German JPs and MPs and the closing of all German schools. It wanted all Germans unfit for military duty to be deported at their own expense and the remaining disenfranchised and taxed. When the war would be finished it wanted all able-bodied Germans repatriated at their own expense, their property confiscated and sold.

Ironically, it was John Monash, the son of German-Jewish migrants, who was the highly successful General on the Western front in charge of the Australian Corps.

As a direct result of exclusion of enemy subjects from some occupations and the rise of general anti-German feeling, many Germans were left with a much reduced income or none at all. Under such conditions it is understandable that about ten per cent of the internees had volunteered for internment. Censorship also meant that people outside the camp knew next to nothing about what went on inside it. It was only much later that the camp commandant’s and some of the guards’ brutal behaviour were revealed.

Internment in South Australia finished in August 1915 by which time some 400 men were interned. When the camp closed most of the prisoners were transferred to Holsworthy, near Liverpool, New South Wales. Fort Large was also used to house internees, mainly those earmarked for further transport to New South Wales.

When Bulgaria entered the war in October 1915, South Australian Bulgarians automatically became enemy aliens and within a month 44 of them were interned at Holsworthy. They were released six months later when a deal had been made between the British and Bulgarian governments. Although free they did not receive a warm welcome on their return to Port Pirie, where most of them had lived and worked.

Only the observations of two internees have survived; the diaries of professional boxer Frank Bungardy and the photographs of Paul Dubotzki. They clearly show the cruelty of some of the guards and the primitive and miserable conditions under which the prisoners lived. Additional research by the authors have made it possible for this story of ‘the enemy within’ to become more widely known. A story as timely now as it ever was. For those readers interested, the Migration Museum currently features the exhibition Interned, Torres Island 1914-1915 until 16 August 2015.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Interned, Torrens Island 1914-1915
PB 115 pages with extensive notes, bibliography and photographs, is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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