Holsworthy Concentration Camp

Between 1914 and 1919, a German Concentration Camp existed in what is today the Holsworthy Military Area. Under the provisions of the War Precautions Act, essentially any person in Australia with a German or Austrian link was liable under the Act to be termed "the enemy" and subject to internment. 6,890 people were interned there, of whom 700 were naturalised British subjects (Australian Citizens), 70 of which were Australian born. The internees included Serbs, Croats, Dalmatians, Swiss, Bulgarians, Americans, Belgians, Russians, Dutch and a Scot. They were later joined by captured ship crews, including the crew of the German Raider SMS Emden sunk by HMAS Sydney in a naval action off the Cocos Islands on 9th November, 1914, and residents from other British territories in South East Asia and the Pacific Region.

In 1914 the term "Concentration Camp" had a different connotation to that of today, our view having been coloured by the atrocities which took place in Nazi concentration camps of World War II. When the Holsworthy Camp was established, it was simply to concentrate people in one place, an approach which had been used by the British against the Boers in South Africa some years earlier.

From February 1917 to 21st January, 1918 the internees constructed all but the first 2.2 km of a railway line from Liverpool to Holsworthy Military Area, of which the bridge over Harris Creek is the only complete remaining relic. Some built the camp gaol, recreation centre and sergeants mess. Others grew vegetables in a twenty five acre area fronting the Georges River or worked in the sawmill or sandstone quarry from which stone was cut for the construction of the buildings. By mid 1915 the camp had three theatres, a picture show, tennis courts, football ground, band pavilion, and an orchestra.

The Deutsches Theatre Liverpool produced its own theatre programme brochures and opened on 26th June 1915 with performances by theatrical, singing and orchestra clubs to audiences of up to 300 people. The orchestra gradually swelled to 20 members as new professional musicians came to the camp. An open air cinema commenced in July 1916 developed into a large canvas-covered building seating several hundred people and called the Austro-Hungarian Theatre.

By late 1918 the camp compound boasted butchers' and fruit shops, nine cafes and restaurants, a post office and a bakery. To the outsider camp life seemed rather idyllic, but the crowded conditions, poor drainage, dust, boredom and ethnic differences between the internees all took their toll. The many camp amusements had been developed largely to counter the deprivations. There were riots at the camp and extortion gangs preyed on the other internees. One of the internees was the noted book illustrator Kurt Wiese who drew various cartoons depicting camp life. In his later years he became an illustrator for the Walt Disney animation feature Bambi. A number of prisoners escaped from the camp through a 120 metre tunnel and one stowed away on a ship to Java and was never apprehended. The internees began leaving the camp from mid 1919 and the last person left on 5th May 1920. Many were deported.

Although more than 210 buildings were erected to form the German Concentration Camp on the south side of Artillery Road, thorough clearing of the site after the camp's closure has resulted in almost no on site physical evidence remaining. Buildings on the northern side of Artillery Road where the guards were housed (the Sergeants' Mess, jail and recreation hall), relics of the railway , particularly the bridge over Harris Creek which is marked and dated as being built by internees (left), the quarry from which stone was extracted for construction of the guard's buildings and the site of the camp timber mill all survive as evidence of the Camp.

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  • Foundations of bridge over Harris Creek, Holsworthy, built by German POWs in 1917.

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