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Members' research

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Mahon Murphy

German prisoners of war and civilian internees from the German colonies in captivity in the British Empire, 1914-1920

My study relates to prisoners of war and civilian internees taken from the German colonies by the British Empire during the First World War. Recent studies on prisoners of war and civilian internees in Europe during the First World War have focused on violence, mismanagement of camps and the use of forced labour. With regard to the European theatre of war Richard Speed’s thesis of a liberal tradition of captivity being upheld amidst modern mechanised combat has been comprehensibly challenged by such authors as Heather Jones. However, does Speed’s thesis still hold true for the theatres of war outside Europe? Popular history of the war in the colonies, at least from the European perspective, is coloured by such comic novels as Mimi and Toutou go Forth. These represent the war in the colonies as an eccentric side-show to the conflict in Europe, where colonialists who were neighbours were forced to fight one another in response to their patriotic duty but with no real animosity on either side. This can best be highlighted through the final scene of the 1976 Cote d’Ivoire film Noirs et blancs en couleur, where after defeating the German garrison the victorious French and British white troops invite the German officers for drinks and dancing, much to the bemusement of the Africans who had suffered during the fighting. However academic attention is turning more and more towards the colonial conflict and it is now a subject of serious study rather than fodder for “ripping yarns”. My project hopes to contribute to the integration of the colonial contribution to the war as a whole and through British prisoner policy challenge us to think of the extra-European theatre as more than a mere side-show to the main event on the Western Front.

The main hypotheses of my thesis will assert that the internment of prisoners of war and civilian internees outside Europe, although quite different in comparison to the treatment of prisoners in Europe, was integrally linked to the conflict on the Western Front. The thesis will also assess whether this treatment was unique over the twentieth century as a whole or if there are continuities. Does the treatment of prisoners of war in the extra-European theatre conform to the theory of totalisation? What longer narrative do Europeans in captivity in the colonies belong to? Does this narrative belong within a European context that has repercussions for interment in later conflicts or is it purely to remain in the colonial sphere? This thesis will also assert that in reaction to the Dominion countries’ treatment (or mistreatment) of prisoners, the British government had to centralise control over prisoner management and enact a more cohesive, empire wide strategy. Through the camp network this thesis will present the First World War as a truly modern and global conflict. As with any work on colonial history the overarching theme of race will be present throughout each chapter and will form the key thematic structure to this work.

Although the actual fighting was mostly sporadic outside the European continent, the incarceration of prisoners and their treatment confirms the Great War as a truly global and modern conflict that touched almost every corner of the earth creating norms that were readily implemented in future conflicts. Of course the British were not the only ones to intern German colonialists outside Europe, and I will offer a comparative analysis of prisoners in Japanese and French West African internment. With the publication of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker’s landmark 2002 book on violence and crusade in the First World War the study of prisoners of war in the First World War has increased. However, the treatment of German prisoners outside Europe remains a forgotten element of the conflict. My research will address the historiography of not only prisoner of war treatment in the twentieth century, but it will also deal with the study of empires in transition, race, violence, the influence of neutral governments and organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and transnational movements of people. The treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees in the First World War is already a well-established field but the lack of analysis of prisoners in the extra-European theatre is an important gap in the historiography.