A Captive Audience? The Reading Lives of Australian Prisoners of War, 1914–1918

King, Edmund G. C. (2015). A Captive Audience? The Reading Lives of Australian Prisoners of War, 1914–1918. In: Towheed, Shafquat and King, Edmund G. C. eds. Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives. New Directions in Book History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 153–167.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137302717_9


The lived experience of prisoners of war remains one of the least explored realms of First World War history. Despite the unprecedented numbers of captives that the conflict produced, captivity never became part of the cultural memory of the war. It remains, as Heather Jones has recently put it, a ‘missing paradigm’ in First World War studies.1 The absence of the prisoner of war experience from mainstream narratives about the war has, arguably, been especially acute in writings about Australian and New Zealand forces. In many ways, this is not surprising. The number of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops captured in the First World War was small in both absolute and proportional terms. Unlike, say, the Austro-Hungarian army, for which the number of captives taken amounted to more than one in three of the total number of troops mobilised during the war, Australian forces lost only 4044 servicemen captured between 1914 and 1918.2 The experience of captivity in an ANZAC context was, therefore, very much a minority one. Yet there are also ideological and cultural reasons for the marginal status of ANZAC prisoners of war in post-war writing. Life behind the wire, with its boredom, lack of activity, and its insinuation of shame and defeat, bears little relation to the ‘digger’ legend that has become entrenched in the decades since the conflict.

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