Managing 'enemy subjects'

Managing 'enemy subjects' - dealing with the unexpected?

During the First World War public administrators were called upon to deal with security matters. How they dealt with the concern expressed by some members of the public and of the authorities about the presence of “enemy subjects” in the community reveals their hand. At the beginning of the war single men of age who were not naturalised, and who were German and Austrian subjects were interned at Rottnest Island. Initially there was a degree of public sympathy of their plight, but this soon evaporated when reports of German atrocities against civilians in Belgium started to appear in local newspapers in October 1914. Later in 1915, when information about the first Gallipoli casualties started trickling back to Australia, and especially by the end of that year when The West Australian newspaper was reporting that Gallipoli “has been the bloodiest and most terrible battlefield in history” [1], the public mood was very negative towards those of German birth or parentage.

Public administrators were tasked with liaising with the military and managing public expectations about the enemy at home, especially those in government employment. They had to manage a real or imagined enemy within WA’s civil service. By 1916 the German born employees of several State government departments had been discharged or given leave of absence without pay. Some government agencies, such as the Education Department, had even created lists of their employees who were born in Germany or who had German parentage. By 1917 concern started to grow about the number of compulsorily “retired” government employees. Many had become destitute and started to rely on acts of charity. In September 1917 Mr Shapcott, the Secretary to the Premier, sent a circular to State government agencies asking them identify those who needed compensation having been discharged or given leave of absence due to their onetime enemy subject status.

But it was not only the redoubtable Mr Shapcott who tackled this issue. The State archives collection has files detailing other public and government concerns about enemy aliens during the First World War. Files from Lands, Mines, Education Departments and the Colonial Secretary's Office which had responsibility for mental health 100 years ago, reveal across government activity. File titles such as Enemy Aliens Holding Land (Cons 541, 1914/05378v2), Royal Commission on enemy aliens in Mines (Cons 964, 1916/2294), Returns of persons of Enemy Nationality or descent or of doubtful loyalty in any Gov't Employment (Cons 1496, 1916/0095) and Lunacy Department: re employees of enemy origin (Cons 752, 1914/3418), show the breadth of the reach of security concerns and how the potential enemy working in State government employment, were perceived, scrutinised and managed 100 years ago.


[1] 1915 'THE GALLIPOLI BATTLEFIELD.', The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), 15 December, p. 7, viewed 3 October, 2014,