• The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

    This is a fascinating book by the daughter of a POW. It’s a hefty hardback at 500 pages, but written in an easy human style and very informative. The Notes and Bibliography at the back indicate the huge amount of research that Ms. Gillies undertook, and this shows in the broad extent of material she covers. She speaks of interviews with many of the contributors to her research. Some of those must have been harrowing for both parties, and I am grateful to the men involved that they felt able to talk to her about this time of their lives.

    The narrative follows the progression of POW life – capture, arrival, daily life, getting home and the aftermath. I liked the separate sections for those in the European and Far Eastern camps, as their treatment and communications with home were so different.

    I was astounded by the variety of activity undertaken in the ‘Universities’, and the depth of study available. In a large camp there were experts in many fields, from Hindi and Urdu to German, music to engineering, book binding to Braille, literature, art, and philosophy. Ms Gillies gives detailed stories of the setting up of the classes in different places, the support from Universities in the UK, and the tireless work undertaken by those who designed the courses, set the tests, invigilated the exams and marked the papers.

    Click here to buy from Amazon

    Many of us knew about the The Red Cross ‘Business as Usual’ processing of twenty million food parcels over five years, plus next-of-kin parcels, which peaked at 1,300 per day, all during the bombing of London. However, I learned that they sent thousands of packs of flower and vegetable seeds to support gardening and allotment societies in POW Camps in Europe. In addition their Educational Books Section, led by the redoubtable Miss Ethel Hardman, pleaded for, acquired and sent thousands of educational and academic books and liaised with Universities for reading lists, schemes of work, exam scripts, revision notes, markers and moderators, so that 17,000 men could sit 11,000 exams with a 78.5% pass rate.

    I was impressed by the practical nature of much of the study, particularly in the Far East where prisoners set up a ‘factory’ using rubber to repair and make shoes, to cover books, dress wounds, repair beds, make false teeth and repair spectacle frames. All this in between the 'work parties' they had to undertake for their captors.

    There is a whole section on uses for the string from Red Cross Parcels, and enough material for another on ‘1001 uses for a tin can’.

    Some parts of the book were very moving, and as arrsers would say, my house became dusty a few times whilst reading. But this is an excellent and informative book, and contains a rather long ‘further reading list’ for me. I also learned a lot about the industriousness, adaptability and resourcefulness of the human race, and feel that the modern generation could learn a lot from reading this, whether management (all those boxes? overseas? when the trains aren’t running?), doing without necessities (I MUST have a PS3/Wii) or education (I couldn’t learn ‘coz – insert excuse here).

    I enjoyed the final section ‘aftermath’ about what happened when the POWs came home, and how they used what they had learned. The book leaves me with a sense of admiration for these men, and for their achievements in their later lives. Not just those who became famous as MPs, Actors, Naturalists, Academics, Cartoonists, Engineers or Archaeologists, but the Hull fisherman who learned to read and write, so he could go home ‘a credit’ to his fiancee.

    My one regret is that there is nothing about the lives of the women imprisoned in the Far East. I can’t imagine it’s because they didn’t record their daily lives, and hope it’s because Ms Gillies is working on another book on that subject.

    Four Wine Glasses


    Click here to buy from Amazon