The Malta Independent 21 November 2018, Wednesday

The Prisoner of war camps in Egypt (1914-1921) – An album by Juann Mamo

Malta Independent Sunday, 22 November 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Anthony Zarb-Dimech

(Author of Malta during the First World War 1914-1918, 2004)

During the First World War enemy prisoners were assessed and internment camps were established. Very few records of individual internees survive for the First World War. Malta was a centre for prisoners of war and several camps were set up in 1918 by the Governor of Malta and Commander in Chief. Standing Orders for Prisoners of War Camps were issued by Lieutenant Colonel Neale who published these standing orders on 1 February 1918.

Prisoners of war and internees were also held overseas over the European Continent and also in other places where the British had vital interests, among these were the camps of Egypt, most notably Sidi Bishr. The living conditions at this camp were in sharp contrast to the Maltese camps where prisoners availed themselves of a Gestetner printing machine to publish their own camp newsletter, as in the case of St Clement Camp in Zejtun.

During the Great War of 1914-1918, Juann Mamo put together an album of authentic documents that include records, relics, mementoes and curios and many letters that were sent to these men that were held in these camps while captive and exiled in Egypt. These documents today constitute a very important source of historical memorabilia.

On the front cover of his album which he called Museum ‘Hic Jacetclavis’ Juann Mamo says that the contents of his album are self-explanatory and indeed they are. Sometimes Juann Mamo put in his own personal comments to explain some of the documents. Juann Mamo was serving as an officer in this camp.

Juann Mamo

Juann Mamo was a very progressive-minded figure for his time and from his patriotic writings such as his book Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerika and L-obstetricia Illustrata, he caused much consternation and raised many eyebrows among the British colonial rulers and the Maltese religious establishment. With his first book, Juann Mamo exposed the plight of the Maltese emigrant through his novel where many Maltese were leaving their homeland because of the lack of employment opportunities provided by the civil and military authorities. His second book on obstetrics (which was very educational and advanced for its time) contained much imagery of the female ‘parts’ that was considered as ‘vulgar’ to be put to sale for the public at large. But those were the days!

Another person who is considered as one of the most patriotic figures of his time and one of the greatest Maltese ever is Manwel Dimech, who was a close associate of Juann Mamo. As destiny had it, Manwel Dimech was interned by the British in Sidi Bishr where Juann Mamo was present to gather the records that immortalise the poor and sub-human conditions at these camps as explained and documented in this album.

Manwel Dimech died in 1921 sick and exiled from his family and his beloved Malta. The story of Manwel Dimech runs very strong in Maltese patriotic blood, being one of its most famous sons and considered a martyr for his nationalistic cause. A statue of Manwel Dimech stands in front of the Auberge de Castille Valletta. This priceless collection of documents sheds some light on the life and fate of the inmates of the prisoner of war camps in Egypt.

Among some of the most interesting documents found in this album are:

• A Plan of number 1 prisoner of war camp including Compound ‘D’ at Alexandria near Sidi Bishr.

• Covers addressed to Professor Manwel Dimech (Prisoner No. 937 at Compound D’) who was interned in this notorious compound in Alexandria.

• One letter dated 1920 was redirected from Malta to where Manwel Dimech was staying and the cover has the Sliema postmark and two notes ‘received torn and open’.

• Interesting documents in the file relate to a shooting affair which resulted in a British soldier being wounded. This was stated by the Inspector Michel Bardoni and the driver and conductor and others.

• There are also comments about the war situation such as those about France position in the war where a telegram says ‘France seems to have spent itself’. There is news about the death of Lieutenant Wilmsdorff and George Mangerh, Manchester Regiment at Leeeatu and about the death of a Salonian and how the death of Samserah and that of the former two happened.

• Another interesting letter from France is addressed to the Commandant Aliens Internment Camp War Officer, Cairo, with a photo of the French Steamer S. S. Porthos.

• There are also documents where Turkish and Arab prisoners of war who were still detained in Camp ‘D’ in 1920 fervently petitioned the Camp Commandant in 1921 to do all within his power to obtain the speedy release and repatriation of the prisoners most of whom had been held for over five years since they had been captured in Yemen and other countries. This letter was written in excellent English by one of the Turkish prisoners of war.

• The letter of Prisoner No. 20489 wraps up the situation for most of the prisoners at this camp that while they were wasting their existence at Sidi Bishr, their families were utterly destitute, suffering all the horrors of indigence which can hardly be conceived. Women and children were hungry, having not even bread to eat. The children due to their families’ poverty had been compelled to leave school. The fact that one prisoner had long been released further condemned these men who felt that no mercy was being shown towards them.

These internees were so poor that they could not even afford to buy an orange as their families were also mired in poverty.

This album not only gives important historical evidence but also touches the heart and feelings not only of Juann Mamo but also of the contemporary reader and explains the entire sad story of the poor aliens interned at that camp.

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