The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War Hardcover – 25 May 2011
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Many eye-opening facts in a bright new history of POWs…I’m finding it enthralling(Ian Jack The Guardian)
Rich and insightful panorama of POW life. Every one of the pages hums with human interest and the whole enterprise is conducted with the highest standards of scholarship(Daily Express)
These astonishing tales of improvisation, ingenuity and courage are so enthralling. Every facet of this epic story is covered with sensitivity, restraint, and a leavening humour…full of unforgettable stories…Such stories illuminate a great subject in engrossing detail.(The Spectator)
Midge Gillies has tackled a colossal subject with calm professionalism and a lightness of touch which makes it a great joy to read. An outstanding piece of scholarship which is as readable as it is informative.(BBC History Magazine)
Midge Gillies’s engaging The Barbed-Wire University…is a breezy, edifying history which knits together compelling tragi-comic tales.(Frank Keating The Guardian)
Fascinating book by the daughter of a POW…written in an easy human style and very informative.(Arrse.co.uk (Army website))
What the reader is most likely to take away from this rich and well-researched book is a sense of the extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness so many POWs displayed.(The Sunday Times)
Brilliantly researched…Gillies has weaved her findings into a fascinating and deeply moving piece of social history(Mail on Sunday)
What the reader is most likely to take away from this rich and well-researched book is a sense of the extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness so many POWs displayed
About the Author
Midge Gillies has written six books including highly acclaimed biographies of the record-breaking pilot Amy Johnson, and Edwardian music hall star, Marie Lloyd. In Waiting for Hitler, Britain on the Brink of Invasion she recreated the tension and fear that permeated the summer of 1940. She studied at Cambridge University and has written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Independent and the Los Angeles Times. She is a part-time tutor for the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education. Her father was a prisoner of war in Europe and she is married to the prize-winning crime novelist, Jim Kelly. They live in Cambridgeshire with their daughter, Rosa.
Top customer reviews
One prisoner featured in The Barbed-Wire University is John Phillips, who wrote letters to my mother, Philippa Cook, back in the UK over the nearly four years of imprisonment. In fact, Lieutenant Phillips tried both forms of exit from Oflag 1XA/H. He wrote about one ill-fated daylight escape attempt in a letter that survived the censor's pen. Touchingly, he told my mother about spending seven days in solitary "for getting about a mile on the road to England, Home and yourself".
His inner escape was into the world of Arabic and Urdu, which he learned painstakingly from fellow prisoners and he even sat Arabic exams inside the camp. After the war, his Arabic stood him in good stead for entrance to the diplomatic service and he later became ambassador in southern Yemen, Jordan and Sudan.
Midge Gillies also tirelessly researched many other prisoners' experiences, both in Europe and in the far tougher theatre of the Far East, where ingenuity was crucial to counter threats to life from starvation, sickness and overwork rather than to stave off the demons of boredom that plagued the European prisoners.
It is a wonderfully uplifting book and so valuable at a time when the direct testimony Ms Gillies obtained from many of those featured in this book is at risk of slipping into oblivion as we leave that terrible time further and further behind.
The medical situation in the Far East and the fact that POWs performed surgery was quite an eye-opener - there were many great achievements made in many fields by the internees.
I found the book a struggle to read - I tend to start reading and keep going as far as possible each evening. However I found myself having to concentrate to read a chapter, or occasionally 2 each night. I am glad I read it, but at the same time was relieved to have finished it.
Because the war in Europe was much more immediate for Britain, with the Blitz, bombing raids and threat of invasion - the Nazis have always been demonised far more than the Japanese ever were. It is still true to this day that the war in the Far East was something of a 'forgotten war' and what the POWs in Japan, Thailand, Burma and Singapore went through has never received as much attention as those held in Europe. And yet their experiences were far far worse - the suffering and indignity they experienced, the forced labour, the starvation. The Red Cross never had the infrastructure it had in Europe, so the often live-saving Red Cross parcels rarely got through, and there wasn't the same kind of ability to distribute books, musical instruments, sports equipment and small necessities that were such a highlight to the men held in camps in Germany.
What really fascinates in this book is the sheer inventiveness and ingenuity displayed by the POWs. The hospitals established, complicated medical procedures performed with little or no specialist equipment. Orchestras and bands set up, the plays and musical reviews performed, costumes and sets created out of nothing, the football, rugby and cricket teams, the classes taught, courses studied, languages learned - it is truly amazing at how these man managed to create something out of almost literally nothing. Many learned skills which changed their lives, set them on different careers and paths after they have been liberated. Many were exposed to different cultures, classes and races, men they might never otherwise have met.
I couldn't help but finish them with a really deep and abiding admiration for what this generation of men went through. Keeping one's sanity after, for some, four or more years of captivity would have been an achievement on its own, but, as some did, to take the opportunity to improve oneself, to study and educate with an eye to the future is truly remarkable.
I stingily recommend the Barbed Wire University to anyone with an interest in the recent history of the UK. So many of those imprisoned never returned but those who did appear to made truly valuable contributions to this country.
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