Otto Siefken was a 20-year-old butcher from Maylands, Perth, who enlisted in the AIF at Blackboy Hill Camp, Western Australia on 9 September 1914. Although of German descent, Siefken was able to join the AIF; however, his father, Carl, was declared an 'enemy alien' and required to report weekly to the Maylands Police Station.
On 31 October 1914, the 11th Battalion departed from Fremantle on board HMAT Ascanius and HMAT Medic. Siefken was on board Ascanius alongside men of the 10th Battalion, who had boarded the ship in Adelaide. The ships joined the rest of the First Convoy at sea two days after it had left Albany.
On 20 November, Ascanius and Afric were ordered to swap places in the convoy. The change was made in the dark, and as Ascanius moved into its new position it rammed the stern of Shropshire. Owing to the violence and noise of the collision, many of the men thought that they had hit a mine or had been torpedoed.
The two ships were stuck together for some time. Once they had been separated, Ascanius went ahead at full speed and rammed Shropshire again. Ascanius was left with a large hole in its bow and two lifeboats destroyed; Shropshire sustained no significant damage.
After being repaired while in the Suez Canal, Ascanius disembarked troops at Alexandria on 6 and 7 December 1914.
The 11th proceeded to Mena Camp, near Cairo, on 7 December. Siefken took a day of leave in Cairo on Christmas Day, where he enjoyed dining at the ‘best cafes in town’.
After training in Egypt, Siefken landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. B and D Companies of the 11th Battalion were in the second wave of the covering force. Their objective was to cover the left flank of the landing and capture the western edge of Plateau 400 on the second ridge. However, Siefken’s boat, like those carrying most of his battalion, landed to the north of Anzac Cove. They came under heavy fire, the Turks having been alerted by the landing of the first wave. Siefken described the first moments of their landing in a letter home to his mother:
After landing, the 11th Battalion and other units captured Plugge’s Plateau and pushed on to capture the heights of the second ridge to the left, towards Battleship Hill. In the general confusion, the 11th Battalion men often became separated and fought localised battles in the labyrinth of gullies and on the ridges. Many eventually found themselves under heavy shellfire from strong Turkish counter-attacks. Siefken described his section as constituting ‘a little fortress right on top of a big ridge’. These attacks persisted for four days before the cold and utterly exhausted men of the 11th were eventually relieved.
Both sides then dug in. The 11th Battalion eventually returned to the firing line on 1 May 1915; they spent much time digging or strengthening the trenches. A count taken on 8 May listed 453 men – over half of the effective strength of the battalion – as killed, wounded or missing. On 19 May the battalion successfully resisted a series of strong Turkish attacks. Siefken remarked that they made
a terrific row but we were having good sport knocking them … It was like a play watching them come up and get in our barb wire and all singing out ‘Allah’ ‘Allah’ ‘Mohamed’ and dropping like sheep. They had over 3 thousand … dead in front of our trenches. The stink was awful in a few days and millions of flies came round.
A truce on 24 May allowed both sides to bury their dead, after which they settled into trench warfare.
On 28 June the 11th Battalion took part in a simulated attack from Anzac’s southern flank to cover a British attack at Helles. Lying in the open under intense fire, they provided covering fire from Silt Spur and Turkey Knoll for a 9th Battalion attack across the Valley of Despair and Cooee Gully. This cost the 11th Battalion 63 casualties: 21 killed and 42 wounded, for little obvious gain. Fortunately for Siefken, as part of B Company he was held in reserve.
The men of the 11th were finally relieved on 13 July, having spent almost 11 weeks in the front line. Two weeks later, the battalion reoccupied front-line positions at Tasmania Post, but by now the men were in poor shape: many were ill, malnourished and war-weary. Dysentery was a particular problem.
It is likely that on 31 July Siefken was involved in the bloody but successful capture of what became known as Leane’s Trench, to the south of Lone Pine. This was a necessary preparatory attack for the Australian assault on that position during the August offensive, but it cost the battalion 36 killed and 73 wounded.
It is also likely that Siefken was involved in a desperate bomb and bayonet fight defending this position when the Turks counter-attacked on 5–6 August. Siefken’s commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Ernest W. Morris, stated: ‘Our men are beyond praise–they are all heroes’. However, the losses had been severe, with 55 killed and 100 wounded. The battalion was spent.
After almost a year recuperating, Siefken re-joined the battalion in France on 11 August 1916, missing a lethal German raid on the battalion in the front line near Fleurbaix in May that inflicted 118 casualties. Similarly, he was fortunate to miss the severe fighting at Pozières in July where more than half the battalion became casualties. This was the heaviest loss of any battalion in the division in this engagement. He survived the battalion’s fighting on 19–20 August in the battle of Mouquet Farm, described in the battalion history as ‘one of the most unsatisfactory engagements that the 11th Battalion took part in’. They lost a further 79 men. In total, the battalion had lost nearly 800 men in three months of fighting in France.
On 26 August they were transferred to the Ypres salient, Belgium and on 10 September went into the front line at Hill 60 in a support capacity. By 30 October, the Battalion were back on the Somme at Flers. Here they endured rain and cold, living in the sea of mud that was the battlefield. Between 7 and 12 November, they endured extreme misery and hardship in the front line: 191 men were evacuated over three days, suffering from exposure and sickness, particularly influenza and rheumatism. In total, over 450 men were evacuated over the time in the lines at Flers, mostly owing to exposure, exhaustion and illness. Remarkably, given Siefken’s long earlier hospitalisation with these complaints, he appears to have escaped illness. The battalion was again in the front line at Flers between 21 December 1916 and 8 January 1917. When not in the line, the men were engaged in continuous work fatigues that weakened them and lowered morale.
On 11 February 1917, Siefken was transferred to the 3rd Machine Gun Company. He fought in a spoiling attack at the battle of Lagnicourt alongside the 11th Battalion and on 15 April was posted as ‘missing in action’; he was among 330 Australians captured by the Germans at Lagnicourt.
Around 4,000 Australians were taken prisoner by the Turks and the Germans during the First World War. Most of these were captured by the Germans on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.
Siefken endured 13 months as a prisoner of war at camps first in France and then at Heilsburg, East Prussia. Corporal Leo Colreavy of 12th Battalion, who was captured with Siefken, stated after the war that Siefken was initially put to work in a ‘reprisal’ camp. These were harsh labour camps located near the front line. They were designed as a reprisal for what the Germans saw as the poor treatment of German prisoners of war by the allies. Colreavy stated that Siefken soon fell ill, but remained on light duties until late 1917.
He was then interned in Heilsburg prisoner-of-war camp in East Prussia. Prisoners here were treated harshly, forced to toil in the fields and help rebuild the district’s devastated towns. He was put to work in the surrounding area. There is a suggestion in one letter that he may have had a Russian girlfriend during this time. Siefken tried to keep up his spirits at Heilsburg. In a letter dated 19 December 1917, he wrote, '[a]ll the lads here are in good health and spirits and feeling fit and well’. Three months later he reported, ‘I am well. Am expecting my parcels any time now’.
In all, 397 Australian soldiers died in captivity. Otto Siefken was one of these men. Still sick, Siefken was sent on a farm work ‘commando’ to Gerdauen in Prussia. He died from pneumonia and influenza at Johanniter Hospital on 21 October 1918, three weeks before the Armistice. He was 23 years old. Private Robert Hurst, a fellow Western Australian also interned at Heilsburg, saw Siefken before he was taken to hospital at Gerdauen, a week before he died. Hurst was present when the other British prisoners buried Siefken at the Protestant Cemetery in Gerdauen. Everything, which included ‘hearse, coffin and a padre’, was paid for by fellow prisoners of war. They also subscribed to have a cross made to mark his grave. Hurst undertook to take Siefken’s papers ‘home to his people'.
A photograph of this grave was sent to his parents by the AIF in 1923. In 1925, he was reinterred in the Berlin South-Western Cemetery, Stahnsdorf, Germany, by the then Imperial War Graves Commission.
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/
Bean, C 1936, Official history of Australia in the war of 1914 -18 Vol. I, 5th edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Belford W, c. 2009 (c.1939), Legs Eleven: Being the story of the 11th Battalion AIF in the Great War, The Naval and Military Press, Uckford, & The Imperial War Museum, London
Gill, I 2003, Fremantle to France: 11th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-1919, Perth
Hurst, J 2005, Game to the Last: The 11th Australian infantry battalion at Gallipoli, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Otto John Siefken’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; SIEFKEN O J, 1914-1920
Olson, W 2006, Gallipoli: the Western Australian story, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley