German internees on Somes Island. Hart, Roger :Photographs of Somes Island and other subjects. Ref: 1/2-112287-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

A historical novel examines POWs in Wellington harbour

Somes Island / Matiu in Wellington harbour is isolated, barren, exposed to the winds and the ocean. It’s also where men of Austrian and German heritage (as well as Italian, Japanese, and other nationalities) had been imprisoned in camps in New Zealand during the first and second world wars. I researched this strange history for my latest novel By the Green of the Spring and what I discovered at the  Alexander Turnbull Library, which holds images and records of the men imprisoned on the island, made for a profoundly emotional experience.

My novel is set on Somes in WWI. Prisoners during those years wrote their own accounts in The Unrivalled Exercise Book. I sat slowly turning those pages, written  over a century ago, telling of the injustices, of their suffering. I discovered a plain wooden box at a local antique shop. This has been passed down, my grandfather who died in 1972 age 88 bought this home from WW1. The story is it was made by the prisoners of war on Somes Island off Wellington. It was carved with a pocket-knife.

Around 200 men were imprisoned and housed in rotting quarters built in the past century to house quarantine patients. They were guarded by a motley collection of ex-convicts. In charge was Assistant  Commander Stan Rogers, who been raised to his lofty position with a staff of 30 beneath him from his position as a carpenter in the Petone Railway workshops. Above him and  overseeing it all was Major Dugald Matheson, a past master at Wellington College.

 Some of the men on Somes were Germans who had been visiting New Zealand when the war broke out. There was a Bavarian Band of 12 players which had been touring at the time, Rinaldo, an entertainer equipped with his clown suit, German sailors, removed from ships in various New Zealand ports. Those taken from within New Zealand were ordinary civilians; workers, business owners, men who had previously been serving as German Consulates. Up until then we’d lauded German immigrants as good, solid workers but now anti-German feeling was rife; German Shepherds became Alsations, the town of Sarau near Nelson, was re-named Upper Moutere and if you owned a dachshund you were best to keep your dog off public streets. German businesses and shops were ransacked. German pianos were wrecked. A Palmerston North man of German heritage was attacked and chased. He was found next morning in a department store hung from strips cut from a Union Jack.

And so it was off to Somes with these dangerous enemies. Local newspapers featured photographs of prisoners basking in sunshine, the implication being that here were these dastardly Germans sitting out the war in a pleasant holiday camp while, on the other side of the world, their brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles were slaughtering our own brave boys.

The reality was very different. There had been deaths and suicides. Seven men had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The buildings the men were housed in on Somes were far from meeting the ruling on shelter which was to be “hygienic, free from damp and adequately lighted and heated” but, even more in contravention, was the water supply.  The amount of water needed was not able to be supplied directly to the buildings. Every prisoner was required to hoist a yoke across their shoulders and carry hefty tins filled with water up the steep hill from the harbour. Some of these men were without the physical strength to carry out this work. This resulted in the first fatality; Bill Landgrave, who died of a heart attack within minutes of carrying water.

He called in the guards, told them to shoot anyone who moved and waved his pistol at the men

The ruling that the men would carry their own water was the cause of the first major altercation between Matheson and the prisoners. Under the rules of the Hague Convention water was supposed to be adequate for both drinking and hygiene. Besides that, though, the rules also stated that prisoners should be paid for work. This was work. The men refused to continue to carry. They were given nothing but bread and tea for their rations; a further contravention of the Hague rulings. Matheson ordered the men into a room. He ordered that  the alarm to be rung, called in the guards, told them to shoot anyone who moved and waved his pistol at the men. He had them locked up for a few hours and then offered them a decent meal if they would carry the water. The men said they wanted the meal first  – it had been some days before they’d eaten meat – and they resumed carrying water.

Matheson is an intriguing character. It seemed to me that he was inept, out of his depth. At the beginning of his time on Somes, he’d tried to ingratiate himself with the men and he’d lost their respect which he attempted to regenerate through bullying which became increasingly brutish. But was he simply an inept bully or was there something more to his cruelty? It seems to me that much of his own behaviour – and the brutish treatment of the men by the guards that he condoned – bordered on sadism.

Men were punished for the most paltry of offences. They were sentenced to extensive periods of hard labour on a diet of bread and water, and imprisoned in a cowshed with a concrete floor. Matheson liked to oversee drills, physical exercise where he would have his cane ready to whack the legs of any man he considered sluggish. He enjoyed playing a game which involved holding his cane out  and ordering the men to bend backwards and lower themselves underneath it. He’d drop the cane further and further down until the men fell, at which time he would beat them around the legs.  

For these men’s families, the situations were also dire. Women visiting the prisoners were manhandled on the way down the ladder onto the launch. Rogers had got it into his head that ladies were hiding “forbidden materials” to take to their men in their bloomers. Families were subject to prejudice and abuse and, with the breadwinner of the family gone, the women had to rely on what work they could manage to get and, frequently, charity in order to house and feed their families. One example was Elizabeth Nickel, pregnant with the couple’s third child. She’d been left with medical and funeral bills still to pay following the death of the couple’s child, Clarence. She appealed to the Hospital and Charitable Board for help with her rent, heating and lighting bills but was turned down, leaving her and her small daughter destitute.

There were three major escapes. The first was a rather naive attempt to let authorities know just how dire the situation was for the prisoners on Somes, after appeals to visiting ambassadors failed. Two men swam over to Petone. They turned themselves in at the nearest police station, were listened to and assured they would not be punished. The military came, put them in chains and led them, dripping and humiliated through Wellington streets to be placed in isolation at Alexandra barracks. The next was a little more successful, at least in terms of pleasure for the men who enjoyed their freedom for a short while until they were captured and returned. The third was tragic. Four of the men put together a raft with the ambitious idea of taking a boat in Wellington and sailing to South Africa. They made it to Ngauranga, weak and chilled. One of them died from exposure on the beach.

The war ended. The men were kept on Somes and then transferred to Featherston military camp, the idea being that they were not to be released until all British civilians imprisoned within Germany were liberated. When it finally happened, rather than being released back to their New Zealand homes, 260 men were deported to Germany, despite many of them no longer having any connections to the country. The official reason given was that they were “of an unstable and criminal element”.  

During my time in Wellington, where I was awarded a Randell Cottage writers’ residency, I often went over to Somes. It’s a wildlife sanctuary now. Best left like that, calm and beautiful with the bush, the birds, the ocean, the sad, silent ghosts.

The historical novel set on Somes Island in World War I, By The Green of The Spring by Paddy Richardson (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $37.99), described by Fiona Kidman as “a masterpiece of storytelling”, is available in bookstores nationwide.

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