100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

Langwarrin Internment Camp in Victoria

By Jan Storey

Today, visitors enjoying a walk along the peaceful sandy tracks at the Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve will notice little evidence to indicate the site was once a bustling military reserve. After nearly a century of military occupation beginning in 1886, the site is now a public reserve in the control of Parks Victoria.

Throughout the course of World War 1, a total of 6890 German and Austro-Hungarians were interned in military custody in Australia. They included naval and merchant sailors in Australia at the time war was declared and 4500 Australian residents who had previously enjoyed full citizen rights. The internees were held without charge and without trial, in camps across the country for the duration of the war.

Internees were imprisoned under the provisions of the War Precautions Act 1914-15 and accompanying Regulations. The rules, which during times of peace would be regarded as draconian, authorized the Defence Minister to order internment if he believed that a person was ‘disaffected or disloyal.’ By 1915, the Defence Minister’s powers were enlarged to enable the internment of persons born in Australia but of enemy descent as well as naturalized citizens.

As it was not practicable to intern all members of the German-Australian community, a policy of selective internment was adopted by the Government. Community and business leaders were actively sought out for imprisonment. One such businessman was Sydney brewer Edmund Resch who had lived in Australia for fifty years before being interned at Holsworthy, NSW.

Living conditions in the internment camps varied greatly across the nation. In Victoria, the conditions at the Langwarrin camp on the Mornington Peninsula were crowded and the water supply for washing and bathing was inadequate. The camp was hastily established in October 1914, and for the first few months, prisoners were housed in thin, leaky, canvas tents measuring 12 to 14 feet, with up to six men per tent sleeping on straw mattresses. In response to complaints, the Department of Defence agreed to supply hardwood frames and corrugated iron to enable the internees to build huts under the supervision of the Camp Commandant. Others built huts at their own expense.

Emu Track, Langwarrin Flora & Fauna ReserveEmu Track, Langwarrin Flora & Fauna ReservePhoto by Graeme StoreyFor the prisoners interned at Langwarrin, the daily monotony of incarceration and threat of force would have been hard to bear. The camp site was fenced with barbed wire and guarded by sentries armed with loaded rifles. In 1915, internee Karl Rauscher died after being shot by one of the duty sentries. The sentry fired the shot to subdue another prisoner but it passed through the hut where Rauscher was sitting, fatally wounding him. A Coroner’s inquest was held and it found that Rauscher’s death was due to misadventure.

Over 500 prisoners were interned at Langwarrin. One of them, Franz Wallach, was born in Germany in 1871 but was naturalised as a British subject in 1898. At the time of his arrest in July, 1915, Wallach was the Managing Director of the Australian Metal Company, a subsidiary of a German company. As well as being a business leader, Wallach was most likely caught up in the Government’s moves to prevent trade with German companies, an offence under The Trading with the Enemy Act, 1914.

Wallach challenged the right of the Defence Minister to detain him without trial at Langwarrin by seeking a writ of habeas corpus in the Victorian Supreme Court. The purpose of the writ is to require the government to justify the person’s imprisonment. The Full Court found his detention to be unlawful on the ground that the Minister had not established any basis of fact for his belief that Wallach was disaffected or disloyal. Consequently, Wallach was released in August, 1915.

However, he was quickly re-arrested and the Government appealed to the High Court. In a majority decision, the High Court found that the Defence Minister was the sole judge as to whether a person was disaffected or disloyal and that there was no right to challenge the Minister as to the reasonableness of his belief. One of the High Court judges, Justice Higgins, noted in his judgement that in times of national war it is often found necessary to modify practices by giving ‘extraordinary powers to persons in authority’.

As a result of the High Court’s decision, prisoners had no legal remedy against internment and prolonged detention. So, Wallach continued to be held in military custody until he was released in April, 1919.

In August 1915, conditions at the Langwarrin camp were judged to be so poor it was decided that most prisoners would be moved to the Holsworthy internment camp in NSW. This was the biggest camp in Australia, housing over six thousand internees. By the end of 1917, only 326 internees remained at Langwarrin. Some worked at the military hospital also located at the Langwarrin site where Australian soldiers suffering from venereal disease were treated.

Wallach was one of those prisoners who remained and during his extended period of detention he was to suffer yet another indignity. A report in The Argus revealed that Wallach, in the company of a guard, left the camp for one day to visit his wife’s flat during Easter, 1918. Whilst there he found evidence that she had formed a relationship with another man so Wallach had her watched by private inquiry agents. Four months after his release from detention, on 16th August, 1919, The Argus reported that Wallach was granted a divorce on the grounds of his wife’s misconduct.

Postscript

Information boards scattered along the walking tracks at the Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve include photo images of the internees imprisoned at the camp. It is unknown how many of them were among the 6150 persons who were deported at the end of the war. Most of the deportees ‘volunteered’ to leave probably because they could not see any hope of a future if they remained in Australia. Some appealed to the Defence Department’s Aliens Tribunal only to have their application refused.

Sources

Legislation

War Precautions Act, 1914: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C1914A00010 War Precautions Act, 1915: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C1915A00002

Court cases

R v Lloyd, Ex Parte Wallach [1915] VLR 476: http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/vic/VicLawRp/1915/73.html
Lloyd v Wallach [1915] HCA 60; (1915): https://austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/cth/HCA/1915/60.html
Divorce suit undefended. Decree Nisi Granted, The Argus (Melbourne) 16 August, 1919, p20: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4704511

Internment during World War 1

Behind barbed wire, Darren Watson, State Library Victoria: https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/media-tags-interests/prisoner-war-camps
Internment During the Great War, Peter M McDermott, University of New South Wales Law Journal, 27 [2005]: http://www5.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/UNSWLawJl/2005/27.html
Wartime internment camps in Australia: http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/snapshots/internment-camps/introduction.aspx

Langwarrin Internment Camp

Fascinating Historical Facts – Mornington Peninsula, The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve – Langwarrin:
http://www.discovermorningtonpeninsula.com.au/fascinatingfacts/langwarrin-flora-fauna.php

© Jan Storey, 2019

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