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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Working Camps

Working Camps

THE ITALIANS were apparently unwilling to allow men to work singly or in small groups as they did on farms in Germany. They were employed therefore in groups of from fifty to 100, heavily guarded, a fact that itself contributed to the uneconomic character of prisoner-of-war labour. Another factor was the uncooperative attitude of most of the workers, something the Italians had difficulty in believing. A farm party for instance always had a remarkable ‘inability to distinguish between a beet and a weed’, and most prisoners on working parties were interested primarily in the black market opportunities given them by direct contact with the Italian people. They did not work very heartily, and the language difficulty was something to hide behind when reproaches were heaped upon them. The Italian guards, unless they were Carabinieri, though vigilant to prevent escapes (for which they themselves would be heavily punished), were not good as slave-drivers. Most prisoners felt that the produce of the large farms where they worked was fair game, and acquired extra vegetables and fruit with or without the connivance of friendly guards. Their rations were in any case better as manual workers. On most farms the owner found it politic to be generous, giving his prisoner-workers wine daily and generally attempting to build up a good impression. Soap was very scarce in Italy, and with that supplied to prisoners in Red Cross parcels, bread, wine, eggs, and other food could be acquired. It was reputed to be popular with the guards because it was believed to help them in their love affairs.

Hours of work on a typical farm were from 7 a.m. to noon, then, after a two-hour siesta, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. A party doing navvying work excavating a canal had a nine-hour day in summer but in winter worked only six hours. The pay, at 4 lire a day, was better than the 1 lira paid in camp, but in at least one instance it was still paid in ‘camp lire’ and had to be sent back to the parent camp to be exchanged for real money and then spent by the Italian officer in charge of the working camp on behalf of individual prisoners, a typically cumbersome Italian arrangement. Generally conditions and treatment were much better than in camp. When anything happened of page 27 which they strongly disapproved, prisoners organised effective strikes or periods of ‘go-slow’. It was amazing to the peasants, disciplined by twenty years of Fascism, to see authority challenged, even more amazing when the challenge was successful.

The Italian peasantry were mostly friendly, although the friendship did not always show itself very actively until after the Armistice. Most were indifferent to politics; many were weary of the war and wearier still of Fascism; some had sons of their own who were prisoners of war in British hands. The Red Cross parcels that prisoners received were an obvious contradiction of the propaganda story that England was starving, and in any case many Italians regarded Fascism as a ‘shop-window stunt’ unable to hide the real poverty of Italy. At work in the fields, vineyards, mines, and quarries, civilian workers would willingly trade and were also eager to pass on information about the war (often the most exaggerated of rumours) whenever the guards’ backs were turned.