Australian POWs: The untold stories of WWI (updated edition of ‘Crossing the Wire’)



The untold stories of WWI

by David Coombes

Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $29.99 in paperback | ISBN 9781922387776

This new book is an updated edition of David Coombes earlier title ‘Crossing the Wire’ published in 2011. Just how much of the content has been updated is difficult to discern.

This book and its earlier iteration owes much to the extensive research undertaken by the late David Chalk, who left a valuable collection of interviews, personal papers, photographs and unpublished manuscripts – all now deposited with the School of History and Classics at the Hobart campus of the University of Tasmania. He became interested in the topic of Australian POWs of World War I through is his ex-POW grandfather, Ernie Chalk.

Coombes believes that the story of Australia’s WWI prisoners of war has been overshadowed by the horrid stories of Australians imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two.

Yet, as David Coombes makes known, the stories are interesting and significant – not only providing an account of what those young Australian soldiers experienced, and the spirit they showed in responding to captivity – but also for the insight it provides into Germany in the last eighteen months of the war.

In comes as no surprise to learn that Germany had given little consideration to the issue of prisoners of war and the logistical problems. Equally, the Australians who found themselves on the Western Front had never contemplated the likelihood of becoming a POW nor did they understand their rights. Ernie Chalk’s letters provided insights into how the Germans used ‘unwounded prisoners’, forcing them to work until ‘… it was a physical impossibility for them do do another stroke ….’.

What emerges in the pages of this very detailed account is the typical Australian sense of humour and the sheer will to live that marked these men. Above all, it was their determination to be free and to return once more to their families that ensured their survival; often against overwhelming odds.

David Coombes highlights the ordeals these men went through, their stoicism in enduring their mistreatment, and the fearlessness of a few in launching ingenious attempts to escape. Of particular interest, among the appendices to the book, are reports by David Chalk of several interviews he conducted in the 1990s, in some cases debunking the claims the men made in telling their stories.

VERDICT: Australian POWs is a fitting tribute to the World War One soldiers and POWs, their stories now only living on in family legends and otherwise lost to history without the excellent work of authors such as David Coombes.

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