Cultural historian Clare Makepeace’s overarching research interest is the emotional cost of war. Her investigation into British prisoners of war was precipitated by her grandfather’s experiences of captivity. In the absence of any real knowledge about those years, and a continuing reticence on her grandfather’s part to share details despite her obvious interest, Makepeace delved into the wartime writings of other prisoners. The result, in the first instance, was a doctoral dissertation (Birkbeck, University of London, 2013) of great perception and deep reflection. Makepeace’s academic enquiry may have arisen out of a personal response to her grandfather’s captivity, but it in no way overshadows or detracts from her rigorous interrogation of source material. At all times she demonstrates meticulous research and interpretation, faultless objectivity, and dispassionate, insightful analysis. Moreover, her personal response provoked an innovative approach and unique perspective of captivity which has continued to evolve. Expanding on her original work, Makepeace has now published the first cultural history of British prisoners of Europe in the Second World War. Captives of War reaches into the prisoners’ ‘interior and intimate worlds’ (p. 5) to explore the emotional cost of war. Makepeace discerns how the prisoners of war responded psychologically and emotionally to captivity: how they coped, made sense of, and, ultimately, came to terms with wartime imprisonment. The principle means by which prisoners of war made sense of captivity was by representing themselves through what Makepeace collectively terms ‘personal narratives’. She favours personal evidence composed during captivity because ‘these narratives provide us with an awareness of how prisoners of war experienced captivity as they lived through it’ (p. 22). This segregation of source material allows Makepeace to base her analysis on an unadorned unfolding experience—how men felt at the time—untainted by late-life narrative shaping or popular culture influences. Makepeace has a solid foundation on which to hinge her analysis. Captives of War showcases the personal narratives—letters, diaries, drawings, and wartime log books—of seventy-five British prisoners of war in Germany and Italy. These private objects of material culture provide a broad range of experience, rank, length of captivity, and variety of ages of married and unmarried soldiers, airmen and sailors. (These are succinctly summarized in the appendices.) Importantly, the twenty-five wartime log books and twenty-six sets of letters are characterized by their quality. The personal archive of Captain John Mansel, consisting of 10 volumes of pocket diaries, exercise books, and log books as well as more than 250 letters and postcards, is particularly noteworthy: his commentary was perhaps the most reflective of any of Makepeace’s cohort (p. 31). While the wartime personal narratives form the foundation of Captives of War, they are contextualized by official documents. Chapter 7, however, explores homecoming entirely through medical papers and psychiatric reports because, once liberated, Makepeace’s cohort ceased writing. Those reports give a crucial insight into homecoming and the immediate post-return years and indicate that the psychological ‘consequences of captivity were not well acknowledged’ at the time (p. 27). Indeed, the language used by both former prisoners and medical practitioners denote that they were ‘shrouded with ambiguity’ (p. 27). Makepeace has used her rich source material well. Rather than mine it for what she found interesting, she allows the evidence to lead her enquiry. Her chapters focus on aspects of captivity which recur most frequently within her cohort’s personal narratives, revealing what the men cared about: the circumstances of their capture; what it meant to be imprisoned servicemen; their ties with home; their psychological state; and their ultimate liberation. Drawing as she does on personal evidence, Makepeace presents a poignant, at times searing human story. Indeed, Captives of War features many keen observations of the personal nature of captivity. Makepeace is deeply perceptive in interpreting the raw feelings, motivations, and sensibilities behind the words of her cohort, as they recorded how they responded to captivity and made sense of it. In focussing on relationships within the crowded homosocial environment, for example, Makepeace discerns that although the men bonded on a broader level and even adopted a ‘kriegie identity’, they did not, however, create group solidarity (p. 54). She also demonstrates how the prisoners of war never lost their ‘home’ identities and made sense of captivity by looking homeward to draw emotional strength. That represented a changed relationship with their loved ones. As prisoners, they were no longer the family provider. Their masculinity was under assault, as they became dependent on their loved ones who, through letters, comfort parcels, and emotional support, took responsibility for their needs. Makepeace highlights that a key function of the prisoners’ personal narratives was to establish that, as individuals, they were not culpable for their defeat and ensuing captivity. Their formation may have surrendered or been caught en masse, but they did not personally give up the fight, or have a part in their capture. Their narratives also reflect that, though the men actively made sense of their captivity as they experienced it, they did not necessarily accept it. They were not passive captives. By representing ‘normal’ productive lives in their wartime writings, by mastering boredom, eschewing inactivity, and continually exhibiting their resourcefulness in confinement, the prisoners indicated how they successfully adapted to captivity. This pioneering examination is remarkable for the richness of its source material, depth of scholarship, and sensitive analysis. It is also well written and accessible to both specialist and general readerships. It is nuanced and multifaceted, reinforcing that captivity was not a one-dimensional experience, where every prisoner experienced something similar. It embraces paradox and variety and underscores both the personal perspective and the universality of a collective experience. Captives of War illuminates what it meant to be a British man during and after the war, including the threats to his masculinity imposed by captivity. It is one of the few monographs which explores war neurosis in the Second World War. Captives of War is a major work which not only enhances what is known of how prisoners of war respond to, make sense of, and come to terms with their captivity but is a significant contribution to the cultural history of warfare. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 9, 2017
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