Friday, September 14, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillie - Part Two

In last week's post I described G.I. ingenuity in prisoner of war camps. This week I want to focus on just one aspect of The Barbed-Wire University, the importance of the printed word.

Whereas European POWs could order books from home, it was not until March 1945 (after the war in Europe had ended!) that the British Red Cross even began planning to send books to the Far East. Book lovers had had to fend for themselves throughout the war. In some camps libraries were formed. The only requirement for membership was to contribute a book toward the stash. But prisoners were often forced to hand over their books to the censor shortly after capture.

The assortment of available books was eclectic to say the least. Fiction by A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier and Richard Llewellyn were in demand, but bored men would read whatever they could get their hands on. Stephen Alexander remembers reading Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, The Musical Companion, Life of Samuel Johnson, some Dante, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Childhood favorites such as Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh were in high demand as read-alouds: As they lay exhausted and starving in their makeshift huts, Alice's transportation to a world of shrinking bodies, summary executions and exotic creatures from which there appeared to be no escape, must have seemed less of a flight of fancy than their own transformation from guardians of one empire to slaves of another. (544)

Artist Ronald Searle held onto his precious books as long as possible, but when forced to march in temperatures of 105 degrees, he lightened his load by discarding his least favorites and by removing the covers of his most treasured volumes. In some Thai camps books were in such short supply that they were cut into pieces so that 12 men could be reading the book at the same time.

Those who loved books had to protect them from smokers who used every piece of available paper to make home-made cigarettes. Paper was so scarce that the chaplain had to give permission for them to use pages of the Bible for this purpose, "after they read it, of course." I found it fascinating that pages of the Bible went up in smoke before any pages containing recipes since food fantasies were everyone's favorite mental escape.

Also of interest is this article on How WWII Turned Soldiers into Bookworms.

Blessings,

1 comment:

Michele Morin said...

Oh, goodness what a brutal period of history.
You do such a good job sharing books that are needed.