Holdsworthy’s German concentration camp

South-west Sydney once had its own concentration camp and the Champion had a rare glimpse inside.

We were part of a special tour group that visited the ruins of the enemy alien internment camp at Holsworthy, or “Holdsworthy” as it was known in WWI.

The letters "GCC" – German Concentration Camp – can still be found on stonework and a metal railway bridge built by the prisoners still exists.

The tour – with special permission from the Army – was led by John Oakes of the Australian Railway Historical Society and Pam Browne of Moorebank Heritage Group.

During WWI, Holdsworthy was the largest of three internment camps set up in NSW, the others being at Berrima in the Southern Highlands and Trial Bay on the North Coast.

Almost 7000 people were herded behind barbed wire, without a trial, simply because they were originally from the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

It didn't matter if they had fled these nations as oppressed citizens or refugees, or even if they had family members serving with the Australian forces overseas.

One notable Sydney businessman interned at Holdsworthy was Edmund Resch, co-founder of Resch’s Breweries.

It also housed German prisoners of war, such as those captured after the wreck of the Emden at Cocos Islands in 1914, bringing the total to about 6000 at the local site.

For a time the camp commandant was Major Richard Holman, a Campbelltown Boer War hero, and a former NCO of the Camden half-company of the NSW Mounted Rifles in 1890s.

Holdsworthy was officially known as a "concentration camp", until that word got a more evil definition under Hitler in WWII.

There were no WWII gas ovens at Holdsworthy, but of all the WWI internment camps in NSW, Holdsworthy was the harshest and resembled that of a prison.

Living conditions were overcrowded with rudimentary sanitary facilities. At its height, there were in excess of 210 buildings, split between the internee compounds and the guards’ camp area.

After the war, the internee compounds were demolished including the main watch tower, blown up by the 1st Field Squadron Cavalry Engineers in 1937. Only three buildings remain today being the gaol and the burnt-out remains of the sergeants’ mess and recreation hall.

As they sit in the middle of defence land at Holsworthy, they are rarely seen by civilians. 

The German internees were known to be resourceful, building their own barracks and furniture, a bakery, sausage factory, cafes, theatres, gymnasium, and vegetable gardens. As well, internees arranged their own entertainment, cultural and sporting events, including theatre productions and formed choirs and orchestras.

They were also employed as labourers on local road works, the military railway, quarrying, charcoal burning and timber milling activities.

The tour group visited the Harris Creek Military Rail Bridge, adjacent to Heathcote Road at Wattle Grove, which was built by the internees in 1917. It celebrates its centenary on October 20.

The tour group also visited the remnants of the old rail bridge across the Georges River, which transported WWI ordnance, ammunition, stores, cavalry and artillery horses, military equipment and personnel back and forth between Liverpool station and Holdsworthy.

It was built by NSW Railways using ten second-hand wrought iron spans. Following the closure of the line, the spans were cut up in 1979 and sent to the blast furnaces at Port Kembla. Six remnant bridge piers can still be seen today.

The Champion attended as a guest of Wal Robinson of Campbelltown RSL sub-branch. Our thanks to him.

The tour finished with a visit to the excellent recent exhibition on the Holdsworthy camp at Liverpool Regional Museum.