The Barbed-Wire University

Julie Summers on a fascinating survey of Allied PoW experiences

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Reviewed by: Julie Summers
Author: Midge Gillies
Publisher: Aurum
Price (RRP): £25

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Very occasionally a book comes across my desk and I find myself thinking , “I wish I’d written that”. The Barbed-Wire University is just one such book. Midge Gillies has tackled a colossal subject with calm professionalism and a lightness of touch which makes it a great joy to read.

Up to 200,000 British, Commonwealth and empire servicemen were taken prisoner of war in Europe (including Midge Gillies’ father) and tens of thousands more in the Far East. This book chronicles the manner in which they were captured, the treatment of them by their captors and their myriad ways of surviving captivity, be it defying boredom, combating fear, dealing with starvation and disease or delighting in entertaining their fellow prisoners.

What emerges from this book is the power of the human spirit to face problems head on and, by and large, to rise above them.

News from home was of great importance and Gillies deals with everything from coded messages on a postcard from a captive in Thailand to a heavily censored letter sent to Clive Dunn by his grandmother which read: “Dear Buddy… love Nana”. Everything else had been blacked out, but the letter made him and his fellow PoWs laugh.

The central fascinating theme of this book is the story of what happens once men are driven to form their own kind of society in captivity. Many of the tales have been turned into books and films over the years but nothing can beat the true stories and this book is brimming with them.

The historical detail is woven brilliantly into the narrative so that facts are conveyed rather than stamped upon the reader. This is an outstanding piece of scholarship which is as readable as it is informative. It is a valuable addition to the literature of the history of the Second World War.  

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Julie Summers is the author of When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees (Simon & Schuster, 2011)