"More generous treatment" - the enemy at home

The Enemy at Home

From the very beginning of the war, the issue of the presence of nationals of enemy countries living in WA was of great concern to the government and to the community at large. In the 19th century Germans were the greatest number of immigrants to Australia other than those from Great Britain and Ireland. The 1911 Australian census reveals that Germans were the largest foreign born group other than those born in Great Britain and Ireland[i]. By 1914 many people with German heritage were holding important and influential positions in the community. In WA, there was a smaller proportion of the population who were German born or of German heritage, but unique to WA, a considerably higher proportion of people were born in ‘Austria-Hungary’ – almost half of them in Australia living in WA, especially in WA’s gold mining regions. These people were mainly from Croatia-Slavonia and Dalmatia, crown provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The 'War' file has correspondence about German nationals in WA very shortly after war is declared. On 7 August a coded message from the Prime Minister marked "Rouette" - Secret, said that German men who are employed as public servants as Lighthouse Keepers should be removed from their positions. On investigation it was revealed that WA had no German born Lighthouse Keepers, only a Swede at Broome and a Norwegian at Bunbury. On 8 August a coded telegram from the Prime Minister to the WA Premier stated that all German officers and reservists should be arrested as Prisoners of War. But this directive was modified on 10 August to ensure that "care should be taken not to arrest persons whose known character precludes suspicion".

On 11 August Mr Bath, the Minister for Lands and Agriculture, advised that 11 German settlers had been arrested in Manjimup. He recommended they be left on their land subject to surveillance as they were clients of the Agricultural Bank. On 12 August the Commonwealth Military Forces reported to the Premier that all German prisoners would be detained on Rottnest Island under guard, being transported from Fremantle on 15 August. On the same day Mr Ratazzi, the German Consul in Fremantle wrote to the Premier to advise that he had ceased to act as Consul “by the fact that war had broken out between Great Britain and Germany”. A couple of weeks later on 28 August, P.E. Stolz, the Lutheran “Pastor for Germans and Scandinavians” in WA, wrote to the Premier pleading for “more generous treatment” of those “individuals, whose only crime it is, that they are of German blood, but otherwise citizens & loyal subjects of the State”. The Premier wrote a short note on Stolz's letter, dated 9 September. It reads, “I am not aware of such happening. If writer can produce concrete cases I shall certainly express my displeasure”.

On 13 August came the official telegram from the Governor General that “war had broken out between Great Britain and Austria-Hungary”. On 14 August, in reply to a telegram from Mr Rosenwax of Day Dawn, WA Premier Scaddan stated that “Proclamation just issued by Commonwealth calling upon Austrian subjects to immediately report to nearest Police Station.”

But from the start members of the Croatian community in WA vigorously protested their loyalty. Letters to the editor in Goldfields newspapers, with headlines such as “Croatians not Austrians”, emphatically stated that their countrymen had “no sympathy whatever with Austria or Germany, because they have been so ground down that they are not even allowed schools for the teaching of their own language”, and this was “the reason why so many of them leave their own country to seek a livelihood in other parts of the world”[ii]. Furthermore, on 3 October, the Premier wrote to the Commander of Commonwealth Military Forces saying that when visiting the Goldfields, Mr George Stella, the President of the Croatian Slavonic Society “waited upon me and laid his case” for Croatians who had been imprisoned on Rottnest, stating that “most of them are members of the Croatian String Band” and “that they are loyal citizens of the British Empire”. They had “contributed to the Goldfields Patriotic Fund, and take prominent part in Patriotic Concerts.” Unfortunately, on 29 October, Major Hunt replied regretting that they “cannot be liberated” because “they are liable for military service with Austria”, adding that it would be “unjust” and “unwise to accede to the request”.

On 6 November 1914 the Governor of WA received the official coded message “TIPSIFIED AND TURKEY, GLYPTICA” (meaning that war had broken out between Great Britain and Turkey) on 6 November 1914, from the Governor General. A proclamation was issued the following day “calling upon subjects of the Sultan of Turkey to report to Police.” The path was now set for the landing at Gallipoli in Turkey on that fate filled day on 25 April 1915.

[ii] 1914 'CROATIANS NOT AUSTRIANS.', Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 - 1916), 18 August, p. 4, viewed 18 July 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33582095