Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Guards and Prisoners
Guards and Prisoners
THE RELATIONSHIP between a prisoner of war and his guards is bound to be an uneasy one for both parties. The guard cannot fraternise with his prisoner without danger to himself. In Italy there were heavy penalties imposed on guards for any dereliction of duty, especially heavy for failure to prevent escapes. So that guards should never become too closely associated with any group of prisoners, they were changed about every two months. When it was possible to gain some privileges or extras through a friendly guard, the more scrupulous used this for the benefit of their fellow-prisoners as personal exploitation of a successful ‘racket’ excited resentment.
The Italian guards were efficient, if vigilance in the prevention of escapes or the breaking of camp rules by prisoners is efficiency. At night the Italian sentry was always alert, for ‘he is so damned scared he keeps himself wide awake’. Many of the guards were good fellows. One result of the severity of the punishment hanging over the head of any guard who allowed a prisoner to escape or break the rules was that guards would wink at minor infractions of the rules and even at serious ones. A New Zealander who tried to escape from a hospital in a orderly’s white coat was able to convince the guard who caught him that it was in their mutual interest to say no more about the incident.*
The morale of prisoners of war is seen most clearly in their attitude to their captors. One officer said that he never settled down to the humiliation and boredom of prison life and ‘having to obey orders handed out by an inferior race’. Perhaps the sense of the inferiority of their captors was a necessary element in men’s self-esteem, but prisoners had every opportunity of evaluating Italian efficiency: Italians could never refrain from fuss and petty restrictions. Generally the attitude of those in positions of responsibility, camp leaders or Senior British Officers, was extreme belligerence on behalf of those junior to them, often to their own immediate detriment. A New Zealand Regimental Sergeant-Major on many occasions stood up to the authorities, securing the punishment of an Italian officer who had kicked a prisoner and refusing to call for volunteers from among the prisoners to go on a working party. During the hungry early days in Tuturano transit camp the same man had been placed under arrest for refusing to keep the troops on parade on empty stomachs. It was a habit of the Italians to punish hut leaders and even camp leaders for successful escapes by those under their command.
In many camps prisoners of war achieved a definite moral ascendancy over their captors, who allowed them increasingly to ‘run their own show’. The comic drawings of Arthur Douglas made at a small working camp near Ampezzo give the atmosphere of what may be called mature prison life: the guard of a working party lying asleep while prisoners inspect the rust in his rifle, the civilians chatting to prisoners through the wire on Sunday, the untidy peasant corporal in a crowded hut vainly trying to get the evening count right while a practical joker ties his bootlaces together.
* Unwilling Guests, by J. D. Gerard, p. 103.