Portrait of George H. Sallter, the British officer to whom the autograph book was dedicated by the PoWs in the Cottonera camps.Portrait of George H. Sallter, the British officer to whom the autograph book was dedicated by the PoWs in the Cottonera camps.

Not long ago, a senior citizen residing in Canada allowed the National Archives in Rabat to make copies of a ‘Maltese’ album that had once been her father’s. Marylyn Peringer quite generously believed that this souvenir of her father’s service in Malta belonged naturally to Malta. And with perfect timing too: this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918).

The donor’s father, George H. Salter, had served in Malta for the duration of that atrocious conflict, and his job put him in daily contact with the many hundreds of prisoners-of-war then held here. At one time they peaked the 2,000 limit; mostly Germans and Austrians, but with sizeable contingents of Turks, Hungarians, Egyptians and Bulgarians thrown in too.

Military personnel predominated, but a good number were civilian detainees. Their camps spread around the Cottonera area: Verdala Barracks, New Verdala, St Clement’s, Polverista and San Salvatore. Generally, the camps distributed prisoners by nationality, though at some time Polverista was said to be destined to house women enemy aliens. It may never have been used for this purpose.

Malta did not see any active service during World War I. Its usefulness to the war effort of the Allies lay in other directions – as a huge military hospital and convalescence station, as a base to the French, British and Japanese fleets in the Mediterranean, as a victualling and supplies entrepot and as the major prisoner-of-war camp for those who fought for the Central Powers, their nationals and those deemed to be their supporters.

This latter function has lately started receiving concerted scholarly attention, particularly through the highly focussed interest of the Malta Study Circle based in London. Only last year, Rodger G. Evans, Alan Green and David Ball published in the UK two truly splendid volumes dealing with different aspects of the role of Malta in WWI, one with a marked accent on postal history. Both books have strong sections on PoWs.

George Salter was born in England in 1878, the son of a British non-commissioned officer who died fairly young, leaving his widow with five children, one of whom, William, also died at an early age. George and his younger brother Ernest registered as pupils in the Duke of York military school in Chelsea. That school made special arrangements for their fees in view of the fact that their late father had been in the army.

Towards the turn of the century, George Salter graduated from the Chelsea school to join the Army Corps of Schoolmasters. This special unit of the British Army had been formed in 1846 with a view of providing trained personnel to improve the skills of young recruits. It was reorganised in 1920. Salter’s postings included Aldershot, Ireland and eventually North India – now Pakistan – and his teaching subjects covered maths and possibly music. Part of the schoolmasters’ responsibility in peacetime included organising entertainment for the troops.

But at some unspecified time, Salter joined the Military Provost Staff Corps, as evident from the badge of the forage cap he is wearing in his only known portrait taken just before or during World War I. This corps was specifically responsible for the running of prisoner-of-war camps. His next posting, at the beginning of the war, brought him to Malta.

Salter’s functions in the prisoners’ camps included that of recording and distributing to prisoners the monies sent to them from abroad. Prince von Hohenzollern, a Malta PoW, had very strong words against some of the officers entrusted with this role – they cheated on the rates of exchange and charged exorbitant commissions. Whatever Salter’s official role, he seems to have been highly respected and loved by the ‘enemies’ in his charge.

As was common up to the 1970s, many then kept what were called ‘autograph books’, small albums in which friends or acquaintances wrote personal messages or short poems, drew sketches, left mementos. If one had to judge Salter by his Malta PoW autograph book, he must have been deemed the guardian angel of the prisoners.

Messages and hundreds of signatures testify how kind, helpful, considerate he was to the enemy, imprisoned and deprived of their liberty for no other reason than fighting a cruel war on the other side of the power divide. These testimonials to a compassionate man come from all nationalities: Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Turks and Italians from those parts of Italy still under Austro-Hungarian dominion. Regrettably, I can only read those messages written in English, French or Italian.

Two groups of German prisoners of war who left Malta, 18 on February 20 and 20 on March 7, 1916, recorded a short attestation on the album. They “beg to thank Mr Salter for all kindness shown to them”. Another PoW wrote in French that “the mission that you have accomplished in our regard is the most difficult and thankless that can exist: to reconcile an adversary through goodness and generosity. I will forever keep a grateful memory of it”.

A message by Demetrios Theodosiou, resident in Constantinople, reads “Paradox: to be held prisoner and to love the ones who hold you captive”.

Perhaps Abdel Fattah Nauvar, the personal secretary of His Highness Mahmoud Hamzi Pasha, wrote the most touching testimonial, in Arabic script. Translated into English it says: “The best days of my unfortunate days were the days of my imprisonment. One meets with all types of people, but the British know how to treat people. Yes, they have made me a prisoner for four and a half months and they have deprived me from seeing my people, but their treatment has made this burden very light and their justice has made me forget everything.”

This album is where the jailer meets the prisoner, the vanquished fraternise with the victor. It is the neutral ground where they establish a dialogue, a cordial one, where empathy was forged, where the need for compassion met the urge to compassion. The brutalising fallout of war seems to have been neutralised in Verdala.

Salter and his enemy wards found a common language, prompted by the inane monstrosity of a monstrous war. If Salter’s album was the only document available by which to profile World War I, we would say that war was a chivalric tournament fought by gentlemen on both sides of the fence. Sadly, reality was different, and that is what makes the Salters of the world so exceptional. They nourished the illusion of goodness.

Messages and hundreds of signatures testify how kind, helpful, consideratehe was tothe enemy

The prisoners seemed, in general, to respect the British officers in charge, but if Prince von Hohenzollern is to be believed, they held the (Maltese) guards in contempt – their ‘humanity’ depended on how far you were prepared to bribe them; most of them made sure the inmates knew they were corruptible. A lot was possible for the prisoners, so long as they greased the Maltese guards with money or gifts. Sometimes even one bottle of whisky was enough to make them derelict their duties and look the other way.

The German, Austrian, Hungarian, Egyptian, Bulgarian and Turkish camps in Malta housed some rather remarkable prisoners, like Karl Doenitz, who later, as Grand Admiral of the German navy, succeeded Adolf Hitler as the last Nazi Chancellor of Germany at the very end of World War II and was condemned to 10 years imprisonment for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials.

Among other legendary inmates were Karl von Müller, captain of the murderous and mythical light cruiser SMS Emden, which had wreaked havoc on the sea routes of the Allies, and Prince Franz Joseph von Hohenzollern, brother of the queen of Portugal, who wrote the most comprehensive insider memoir of life in Maltese PoW camps in World War I.

The German General Otto Liman von Sanders, who had commanded the Ottoman forces in the war, also ended in Malta, where he whiled the time away writing his memoirs. The urban legend that the top Nazi Rudolf Hess (who defected from Germany to the United Kingdom during World War II) had also been detained in Verdala finds no historical support, though an Adolph Hess imprisoned in Malta may have been the Nazi’s father.

A page in the Salter album, drawn and written by PoW Aurelio Doncich, before and after WWI conductor at the King’s Own Band of Valletta.A page in the Salter album, drawn and written by PoW Aurelio Doncich, before and after WWI conductor at the King’s Own Band of Valletta.

On a different plane, Geo Fürst, who married a Maltese lady and became the island’s leading photographer in the 1930s, was in Verdala too, as was Maestro Aurelio Doncich, the acclaimed leader of the King’s Own Band in Valletta who had been caught in Malta by the outbreak of the war and then returned to his old band after the British released him from imprisonment at the end of the war.

Doncich was born in 1867 in Trieste and had, between 1899 and 1908, directed the band of Acireale and occasionally the orchestra of the Teatro Bellini of Catania, after which he had been engaged by the King’s Own Band. Doncich hogged a whole page of the album for himself. He wrote a short musical composition (tempo di vilotta – an Italian 16th century dance) for Salter, and painted in watercolour, not incompetently, the picture of a rustic musician lying languorously on the branch of a large tree, playing his violin. As a musician himself, Salter would have appreciated this. Hohenzollern referred to Doncich in his memoirs as “a very capable conductor”.

On the Turkish side there was General Esref Kuscubasi, the highly controversial hero or villain of the campaign, patriot or traitor, suspected of having been involved in the massacre of the Armenians, and later branded as a conspirator in an attempted assassination of Kemal Ataturk. He too wrote his war memoirs, but these stop short the moment he was imprisoned in Malta (though he records his encounter with Manwel Dimech in an Egyptian jail).

Just after the end of the war, the Egyptian camp in Cottonera housed the four most vocal nationalist anti-British personalities, the Pachas Hamad El Bassal, Ismail Sidky, Mohamer Mahmoud and Saad Zaghloul. A second large Turkish contingent, this time round made up of high-profile political and military prisoners, also reached Malta after the end of the war, and Salter still seems to have been around at that time.

The Malta PoW camps teemed with competent artists, musicians, men of letters and photographers, and many of them left their mark in the Salter album. Some of the sketches it contains reach high professional standards – graphic art of quite impressive quality. Others are less so – the amateur water-colourist who produces a pretty and wholly forgettable vignette, with no creativity or personality to it.

I believe the portraits are the best things the Salter album contains – anything between straight likenesses and the more caricaturised ones. I cannot illustrate them all, but have made a selection of some of the more salient ones. I see in some the hand of those caricature artists who so enriched the Camp Nachtrichten, the inhouse magazine of the Malta prisoners of war in World War I.

Self-portrait in gouache by PoW Theodore Kofler, painter and photographer, from the Salter album.Self-portrait in gouache by PoW Theodore Kofler, painter and photographer, from the Salter album.

Perhaps the most valuable painted likenesses are the self-portraits of two professional photographers of the PoW camps. Among the prisoners were some highly-trained photographers: Theodore Kofler, probably from Sud-Tyrol, before the war ran a photographic studio in Cairo and is remembered today for his spectacular first-time aerial views of the Egyptian tombs and temples. He had been detained at the outbreak of hostilities and sent as a PoW to Verdala in Malta. A second German photographer, Daniel Hiesinger from Greding in Bavaria, also ended in St Clement’s Camp.

Both worked very actively as professional photographers inside the camps, and are responsible for a massive output of images which document minutely the people in the camps and their activities. Besides being photographers by profession, they also appear to have been quite self-assured artists.

Both painted their self-portrait for Salter: Kofler preferred a close-up in hard-edged, luminous colour realism, probably in gouache. Hiesinger opted to depict himself full-figure in watercolour, lush cigar in hand, with his large camera on a high tripod prominent behind him. Both images betray the confident hand of a trained artist. No other image of Hiesinger is known so far.

Self-portrait of the PoW Daniel Hiesinger, photographer and painter, from the Salter album.Self-portrait of the PoW Daniel Hiesinger, photographer and painter, from the Salter album.

Other German photographers, like Heinz Leichter, Christophe Schultz and Ernst Scholer also worked in the Maltese PoW camps, but they do not seem to have contributed to the Salter album. Of them all, Leichter is the most famous, having been a leading photographer in Cairo before the war. He returned there after the end of hostilities and gained further international acclaim by his work for the archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the discovery of the fabled tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922.

Two prisoners actually portrayed Salter himself. One, a likeness in profile, dated February 15, 1915, was sketched in ink by Heinz von Fachbach, an early editor of the Camp Nachtrichten, who in September 1916 obtained his release from Malta on compassionate grounds (tuberculosis threatened his life). It shows the British officer in gala jacket with its rich braided epaulettes.

Self-portrait of the painter ‘Litta’, an Italianspeaking PoW.Self-portrait of the painter ‘Litta’, an Italianspeaking PoW.

The other one, unsigned, has Salter facing an attractive young lady dolled up in chic 1915s fashions, arguing or, hopefully, flirting with him. Salter has the inevitable cigarette in his hand, his military cap on and the cane of authority under his arm. Both figures are in profile, and again, the drawing has a professional stamp to it. The artist and Salter knew what that mischievous scene portrayed. We don’t.

Perhaps the most striking among the portraits is the frontal self-depiction of a man from St Clement’s camp, executed in a free, impressionist technique in loud, aggressive watercolour, by someone who made it a point to appear as bohémienne and Mephistophelian as possible – pointed face, long bobbed hair, musketeer moustache and goatee, open shirt, intense, rather wild looks.

The artist signs himself ‘Litta’, which must be a nom de plume as no prisoner by that name is recorded. The fact that he writes the date in Italian makes it rather certain that he was from a northern Italian fringe then still under Austro-Hungarian rule – quite possibly a professional painter of the post-scapigliatura. Several other vignettes in the album are signed ‘Litta’.

St Clement’s PoW camp, Cottonera, drawn by detainee Lt. Col. Joseph Hubner in the Salter album.St Clement’s PoW camp, Cottonera, drawn by detainee Lt. Col. Joseph Hubner in the Salter album.

Some images also evidence life in the compounds, like a minutely detailed sketch of rows of tents in St Clement’s camp, drawn by Lt-Colonel Jos. Hübner, from Cairo and Groz, on March 16, 1916. Hohenzollern comments on these awful PoW tents: in fine weather it was possible to endure them but during rain or wind storms – the latter were very frequent – the wretched prisoners had a miserable existence. At night they often had to go out to secure the tents which always broke loose in a storm. In the tropical Maltese rain, the whole tent would be a foot deep in water.

An interesting sketch in pencil signed Djewad, 1920, shows an unusual close-up of a door, M.Q. 30 (Married Quarters 30?) in the Polverista camp. The artist must have been one of the Islamic political deportees, Turkish or Egyptian, who were arrested and conveyed to Malta just after the end of World War I. This drawing also confirms that Salter was still working in the Maltese camps as late as 1920. This is the last dated entry in the album.

Malta housed some rather remarkable prisoners, like Karl Doenitz, who succeeded Hitler

Some of the illustrations appear pretty generic, like a walled north African village, a red-thatched cottage or a view of the Grand Canal in Venice, again by ‘Litta’. One is a highly detailed drawing of an elaborate art nouveau mansion ‘Villa Bessie’, together with its ground-floor plan executed in 1917 by a professional draughtsman, whose signature could be ‘R(obert) Krumbholz, architekt’. This fantasy house was not an exercise in escapism by a prisoner craving to distance himself from the humiliating routine of detention by the enemy. Bessie was then Salter’s wife (she did not join him in Malta) and a grateful Krumbholz gave the British officer the only piece of his creativity his state of bondage allowed. Perhaps only coincidentally, Krumbholz is today a leading architectural firm in Frankfurt, Germany.

A few vignettes painted by prisoners tried to capture some humorous sides in an existence as intrinsically devoid of humour as that of people in captivity. We could read in this a compensating mechanism aimed at softening the contours of the eminently tragic life of the detainee who depends on the crumbs of his jailer for his survival. One watercolour shows the panicked Maltese guards shooting at someone trying to escape at night over the camp’s boundary wall – only to discover that the freedom-seeker was actually a very scared black cat. A waste of heroics. There are other cartoon-like caricatures. The in-house journal published by the Malta PoWs, the Camp Nachtrichten, thrived on high-quality caricaturists from among the inmates of the camps.

Salter left Malta sometime after 1920 and went to India. His wife Bessie died of cancer in the early 1930s. By coincidence, he then re-established contact with Mary Camilleri (née Tabone), a young widow who in her youth had worked for him as a secretary at the camp, and they were married in 1933. By this time, Salter had risen to the rank of captain.

In 1940, after seven happy years of married life, Salter’s wife and daughter went to the US to avoid the London blitz, planning to return later. Captain Salter stayed behind to give his contribution to the war effort, as a teacher and later at the Admiralty. He died in 1942 of tuberculosis. His widow and daughter, Marylyn Peringer, moved to Canada in 1954.

The spirit of a good man lives on in the National Archives of Malta.

Acknowledgements

I have to thank Marylyn Peringer, Leonard Callus of the National Archives, Hadrian Wood, Rodger G. Evans, David Ball, and particularly Alan Green for their unflagging support. All illustrations from the Salter album, by kind permission of Ms Peringer.

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