BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Gallipoli, the Somme, then German captivity
, December 24, 2011
BOTH SIDES OF THE WIRE:
The Memoir of an Australian Officer Captured During the Great War
by William Cull
edited by Aaron Pegram
(Sydney: Allen and Unwin)
Paperback: 256 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Most readers are familiar with stories of Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs) who were captured by the Germans and Japanese during World War II, However, there is comparatively little material in print written about the experience of Australian POWs during the previous world war.
Captain William Cull’s memoir of his capture, internment in Germany and repatriation to Switzerland was published in 1919 as At All Costs, but has been out of print for decades until its recent re-release. His monograph was one of only four published by the 3,867 Australian servicemen held prisoner by the Germans.
The book opens with his enlistment in 1915 in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). It goes on to describe his brief period of service at Gallipoli until he was evacuated wounded.
He rejoined his unit in the middle of 1916 as it was being deployed on the Western Front. He took part in fierce combat at Pozières in the Somme.
Cull soon developed a reputation for conducting successful nocturnal reconnaissance and raiding missions against the German trenches. These perilous missions are particularly vividly described.
However, his luck ultimately ran out. On February 26, 1917, he was severely wounded and sought refuge in a shell-hole in no-man’s land, where German troops found and captured him.
Despite his injuries, the Germans brought Cull back to their trenches. As he was an officer, they hoped to elicit vital intelligence from him.
They transferred him to a hospital at Cambrai, then close to the front line. Predicting that he would not have long to live, they placed him in a ward reserved for hopeless cases. However, despite many months of agony from his serious abdominal injuries and his hip having been shattered, Cull survived. The German authorities next transferred him to Bochum, then later to POW camps at Karlsruhe and Freiburg.
Throughout his account, Cull makes interesting observations about his captors, many of which confirm widespread contemporary Allied perceptions of the German people, namely, that they were bloodthirsty and ruthless.
However, at various points, Cull acknowledges that among his captors were decent Germans who treated him well.
Similarly, he notes how southern Germans differed markedly from other Germans in their political opinions and were sometimes quite critical of the Kaiser and the war.
It seems that Cull and his fellow POWs were reasonably treated by the Germans. One problem the Germans faced was feeding the prisoners, as they were desperately short of food themselves.
Cull recalls the POWs’ gratitude for Red Cross food parcels which were delivered to British and Dominion prisoners, often meaning they were better fed than their captors!
At the end of 1917 Cull was repatriated to Switzerland under provisions of the Hague Convention (1907), which allowed for wounded POWs, deemed incapable of active service, to be sent to a neutral country.
In the last section of his work, he reflects fondly on the kind treatment given by the Swiss to wounded men such as himself.
He was eventually repatriated to England, before returning to Australia.
Both Sides of the Wire is a fascinating account of a largely forgotten facet of Australia’s involvement in World War I. The republication of a first-hand account of an Australian World War I POW — in this instance edited by Australian War Memorial historian Aaron Pegram — is a welcome addition to autobiographical accounts of war service.