Tag Archives: Bernice Archer

Our tribute to warfare historian, Dr Clare Makepeace PhD, Honorary Research Fellow Birkbeck College, who died on 3rd April 2019, aged 40

By Dr Bernice Archer PhD & Meg Parkes MPhil
Clare Makepeace

In 2007 Clare Makepeace was working towards a Masters’ degree at Birkbeck University London, studying “Cultural History of War”, a course run by Professor Joanna Bourke. Having completed her MA, Clare went on to do a PhD, her thesis focused on the cultural history of British prisoners of war (POWs) in Europe during World War II. She later refined the thesis which then became her ground-breaking book “Captives of War British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”, published by Cambridge University Press (CUP) in November 2017. You can watch an interview with Clare here:

Cambridge University Press – Academic. (2017). He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ What was life really like for British POWs in WW2?. [Online Video]. 6 December 2017. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bSO2y-ROhA

In an article published in October 2017 on the Cambridge University Press history blog, “fifteeneightyfour”, Clare explained the reason for writing her book:  

“It was something my grandfather said, back in 2008, that inspired me to write “Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”. Towards the end of his life he opened up a little more about his time as a POW, and I started to encourage him to write his memoir. One day he said ‘Why would I record my story? It would just be one long tale of humiliation.’

At that moment, I realised the way he saw his experience and how I saw it differed vastly. I admired my grandfather for what he had endured and survived. He, meanwhile, was ashamed. I wanted to understand his point of view: how it felt to be a POW and how these men made sense of the experience”.

SOURCE: fifteeneightyfour (Academic Perspectives from CUP). 26 October 2017. ‘He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ Author Clare Makepeace reveals how her grandfather inspired her new book, ‘Captives of War’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2017/10/he-rarely-spoke-of-what-he-went-through-author-clare-makepeace-reveals-how-her-grandfather-inspired-her-new-book-captives-of-war/

Realising there was a much wider story, Clare began researching a more global view of wartime captivity, including those POWs captured in the Far East during the Second World War. Sadly, she did not live long enough to complete that important work.

Her interest in Far East captivity had first been kindled at a conference at Cambridge University in 2009 when she met Bernice Archer and Meg Parkes. In August 2015, during the lead up to VJ70 commemorations, Clare and Meg co-authored an article entitled, “VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps”. This featured in the BBC online magazine on VJ Day. Writing about her love of history Clare said:

“The thing I love most about writing history is that it is unique. By that I mean each historian has their own interpretation of the past, which no one else can replicate. The history they write is a product of academic rigour as well as their own character. That second component doesn’t make history fictitious. It makes it relevant. Through being written by historians living in the present, history speaks to today’s concerns. Historians shine light on possible future paths we might take from here, by illuminating those we took in the past.”

SOURCE: BBC News. 2015. VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33931660.

By re-visiting Captives of War, we reflect on the importance and relevance of Clare’s work, which not only gives an insight into her love of writing history, but also her extensive and rigorous historical research. Her character and humanity is evident, as she sought to bring a unique interpretation and understanding of how the POWs made sense of their captivity.

While acknowledging and celebrating her contribution to the understanding of the effects of captivity in warfare, here we consider Clare’s much broader view of history and the important role of historians in shining a light on the “possible future paths we might take from here”.  “History” she said, “speaks to today’s concerns”. It is that final sentence that resonates with today’s challenges and which Clare’s husband, Richard Stokoe (lecturer at the University of South Wales on Planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership) and author Professor Bourke, addressed last year in an article entitled, “We can learn a lot in Coronovirus Lockdown from Prisoners of War “.

Published on-line in “Huffington Post” (18April 2020) during the first UK Lockdown, they reference Clare’s work in highlighting the parallels between C-19 Lockdown and POW captivity. While not comparing “what we are going through to what wartime PoWs suffered. That would belittle their years of deprivation…” they nevertheless stressed that, “the government must start planning now for the coming wave of mental health issues, otherwise we risk opening up a new front in the battle to reduce coronavirus suffering in the long term”.  

The mental stresses of POW captivity were indeed a concern for Clare, but she also expressed her anger and annoyance with:

“a society that seemed uninterested in the experiences of POWs and much more interested in those who had ‘heroically’ escaped”.

These comments raise a number of questions about how Clare may have viewed society’s interest in the lived experience of C-19. Would she, for example, have wanted to highlight the experiences of all members of society affected by the pandemic, not just the “heroes”?

Would her focus have been on those stuck at home and unable to ‘heroically escape’; those who want to get back to their jobs (like the soldiers who wanted to get back to their fighting roles), and who look forward to being able to resume normal life? Would their stories be considered part of the ‘bleaker story’, of which she wrote:

“…one of guilt, isolation, wasted time, failure to unite in adversity and of mental strains from which no prisoner could escape?”

Reflecting on Chapter 3 of Captives of War, Clare writes about the ‘less admirable’ ways prisoners coped:

“British POWs did not collectively unite around two of the most significant hardships of imprisonment; length of time in captivity and shortage of food”.

Would she have drawn parallels between the “soldiers who were ready to steal, be involved in rackets,” and the selfish stockpiling by some of the general public during the first lockdown? How might Clare have considered,

“the stress and the shallow and perfunctory nature of social (military) comraderie”.

in the context of today’s pandemic world, with the impact on masculinity and the rise of domestic violence?

Sadly, we will never know what Clare’s view would have been on these C-19 issues. But we do know from her writing that her cultural history lens would have focused on the important, the relevant, and the particular, and would have pointed a way forward.

As mentioned earlier, through her analysis of the ways in which POWs experienced and made sense of their captivity, Clare encourages present and future historians of wartime captivity to “shine a light on possible future paths we might take from here”.  Of her conclusions she writes:

“Some of these [conclusions] might give historians pause to consider the experience of captivity in other wars or spheres of incarceration in slightly different terms from how it has so far been conceived.

“…one area ripe for research is how POW experience has been remembered by post-war society, why it has been remembered in such a way and what effect that remembrance had on society, families and, most importantly, the veterans themselves”.

She ends with:

”…We still know so little about the long-term effects of captivity on former POWs and how society helped or hindered them. In the contemporary era, when warfare is being commemorated to an unprecedented degree, it seems particularly important research, if we are to fully support both those who served in the past and who do so in the present”.

Clare’s message to present and future historians is to look beyond the “heroic” and to consider how captivity/lockdown is experienced in real terms by the “ordinary”, the “non-heroes”.  She urges them to consider how and why the “non heroes” are remembered by society in a particular way, and what effect that has had on them and their families. How can Clare’s research be applied to today’s incarceration of society in a pandemic lockdown?

In challenging times society is fed “heroic” stories by the media, in newspapers, books, news bulletins, TV programmes and films: from 100-year-old Sir Tom Moore stepping out to help the NHS to 11-year-old Max Woosey camping out for a year in aid of a local hospice; exercise gurus on TV, 8pm clapping for front line workers, praise for doctors, nurses and the scientists. ALL of course worthy of praise, and as Clare would have said, ‘soldier hero ideal’ (those POWs who escaped were heroic, those that didn’t were not worthy of interest’). But what about those ‘ordinary’ people stuck at home unable to ‘escape’?

Applying and continuing her approach to understanding the immediate and the long-term effects of incarceration, would be a fitting and lasting tribute to Clare and those whose stories she has told.

Clare was a contributor to our blog, you can read her work through the links below:

A personal reflection on Civilian Internment in the Far East during WWII and Covid-19 lock down in the UK in 2020

Written during early ‘lock down’ by Dr.  Bernice Archer, author of: The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese 1941-45: A Patchwork of Internment. (HKUP 2008)

As I write on this May 2020 morning in this unwelcome, uncertain and scary world of Covid-19 (C-19), I have been in ‘lock down’ for 8 weeks. I am isolated, my freedom seriously restricted, anxious about the virus, unable to travel and ‘banned’ from visiting loved ones, friends and colleagues and they me.

But as I take my lone daily walk I have had time to reflect that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Far East during which approximately 130,000 Western civilian men, women and children were interned for at least three and half years by the Japanese.

In 1941/2 the interned civilians were traumatised by the battles. After the colonies surrendered, they immediately lost their freedom, were terrified of the enemy and fearful for their lives. Anxious about the future, they desperately missed loved ones, some of whom had been killed in the fighting. Their homes had been bombed and/or looted and they were now crammed into unfamiliar, unsuitable and unbearable overcrowded accommodation, surrounded by complete strangers from the outset of internment. 

In camp they were constantly aware of their enemy. They could see, hear and ‘feel’ their presence and often suffered physical violence. They must have felt powerless. But before long, many found ways to silently ‘mock’ their enemy, to circumvent their increasingly incomprehensible rules, avoiding contact whenever possible and in some cases perhaps found a way to accommodate their enemy.

Here and now, C-19 is our enemy. It is ‘out there somewhere’, maybe close, maybe not. We can’t see, hear, smell, feel or touch this ghostly, silent and invisible ‘presence’, until it strikes its unfortunate victims. It is hard to mock or to accommodate it. We too feel powerless. In order to survive, we must try to evade it, so mostly we abide by the rules imposed on us by our politicians and their scientific advisors, ‘social distancing’ friends, families and strangers. To quote the current political mantra, we are “staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

Historians have written much about how and why Far Eastern civilian internees found themselves in such a disastrous situation. Records show the disappointment, anger and frustration with politicians and senior military personnel who appeared complacent, under-estimating the capabilities of the enemy and the speed at which it would travel and overwhelm. It took just 100 days for the Japanese to conquer much of the Far East.

Evacuation plans were confused or non-existent. Western troops arrived late, and with local forces were under-trained, ill-prepared and equipped. As a result, approximately 130,000 civilians were interned with almost 15,000 dying, mostly from malnutrition and related diseases.

So, 75 years on, I think about how we are dealing with this C-19 enemy? Purportedly first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, it reportedly arrived in the U.K. in January 2020. Since then there have been over 40,000 deaths. Questions and criticism abound – about lack of preparedness, under-estimating the timing of onset, the severity and potential of infection, the delayed start of lock down, inadequate medical equipment and testing, the disappointment, anger and frustration of exhausted NHS and care staff about PPE – all endlessly raised, discussed and debated by politicians, the media and the public.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it should not be dwelt on if one wants to remain sane!

Looking forward then, comparing a C-19 ‘lock down’ with the experiences of Far East civilian internee internment, is manifestly incomparable. The mainly Dutch men, women and children captured and interned in Java and Sumatra suffered unbearable and unforgivable abuse and brutality at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. And although the internment of civilians in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines was perhaps less brutal, they also suffered interminable years of deprivation in dreadful conditions.

But how, after the initial shock and seemingly insurmountable challenges, did internees survive physically and mentally for over three years?

Daily routine was not a choice or an option, it was imposed by the Japanese. They had to adhere to Tokyo time, the Japanese calendar, rules and regulations, as well as adjusting to a harsh and alien environment. Morning and evening roll calls (tenko) were compulsory and could take hours. Days were filled with queuing for inadequate rations, washing and insanitary toilet facilities.

Their captors provided only meagre amounts of rice, rotting vegetables and occasionally meat. Hunger, starvation and weight loss were the norm, as was ill health, compounded by limited medical equipment, drugs and medical care. The overcrowding was constant and appalling, made worse whenever more people arrived. In Stanley camp H.K. it was recorded that:

There was a desperate shortage of clothes, beds, blankets, shoes, soap, toilet paper, brushes, disinfectant, refuse bins and material for fly and mosquito control.1

All rooms were overcrowded and in many cases one room contained a collection of men, women and children whether related or not. All possible odd spaces, holes under staircases, corners in passages, kitchens and pantries came to be occupied with no thought given to hygiene or public health.2

Of course, internees did not live without some strife. The overcrowding, stress, fear and uncertainties, the health of their children and whereabouts and survival of loved ones, were constant. But when I asked how they managed, the common response from all the women I interviewed was “We just got on with it”. 

But how?

After the initial chaos of internment, life began to settle to what we now refer to as a ‘new norm’.  Many internees eventually made new and unexpected friendships, they became creative, adapted old skills and discovered new ones. Innovation, adaptation and stoicism were the keys to survival in internment.

If you were fortunate to be interned with professional men and women then medical teams ‘built’ hospitals, gave medical care and worked together experimenting with drugs and medical equipment. Engineers, chemists and biologists surveyed the camps and created essential utilities. Gardening, after a fashion, became invaluable and essential to augment the meagre rations. Even in single-sexed camps the women formed work committees and allocated teams for various jobs. The ‘Womens’ Group’ in Stanley Camp Hong Kong argued:

“Above all our object as a women’s group is to be ready to undertake any work which is within our scope.” 3

And the Work Organisation chart prepared by the women in Changi Gaol records that:

“Office staff, Medical and Health Department, Education, Recreation, Labour and departments dealing with food, Finance, Red Cross and Creche….. Every woman had to clean her own sleeping accommodation, wash her own clothes and fetch her own food”….“ There were 247 other daily camp chores to be done but of the 398 women in the camp only 140 were available for heavy duty work and 186 for light duty, consequently many women found themselves doing more than one job.” 4

The work was unpleasant and demeaning. But the women found innovating ways to use it to communicate with their male relatives in other camps. As the women cleaned the drains they would shout and send messages through to the men’s section of the camp. The Changi quilts, recording the embroidered names of women internees and sent to the men’s POW camp a few miles away, are a perfect example of their sewing and embroidery skills and ingenuity; the ‘dustbin parade’, where notes were dropped in the bins for husbands to read:

“By the simple expedient of putting a note into a scarlet toffee tin in a dustbin and getting someone to warn my husband to salvage the tin”. 5

was another example of brave and subversive contempt for the rules. Both men and women used ‘selective’ wording in their Red Cross postcards home. 

Meanwhile each camp found ways to come together in groups, creating entertainments and other social activities – plays and concerts took place in most camps, although these had a ‘darker’ side:

“We were like a herd of elephants the women said, but had the nerve to do things we would not do normally as we might have been machined gun down at any time”.6

And even though there were fewer entertainments in the camps in Java and Sumatra, the amazing women’s vocal orchestra was created in a Palembang camp in Sumatra in 1943.

Has any of the above been reflected in this present-day C-19 situation?

I think it has. Engineering companies have changed profit-making production to produce ventilators and other breathing apparatus; willing volunteers are producing PPE equipment; scientists across the world are working together to adapt drugs to help alleviate the symptoms of C-19 and to create a new vaccine. In the community, there is home schooling, home-made face masks, gardening is becoming a lifeline for many with more people learning how to grow vegetables. Entertainments of course flood the TV, and for calming the brain exercise, jigsaw puzzles and books are the focus of much online shopping.

On a personal level, I have discovered the unexpected but welcome care and friendship of previously little-known neighbours who help with shopping and check on me daily. I have discovered new ways to communicate via Skype (Zoom was unsuccessful) and I am using email and text more. But should the internet collapse, I have discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written letters and cards. There is a new community spirit, as each Thursday evening more and more neighbours emerge from isolation to clap the NHS and other essential workers, to wave and chat – at a distance.

There are many families not so lucky, crammed into small flats with no outside space and little income, who are finding it even more difficult to adjust, cope and survive. Domestic abuse is rising, the virus is still active with no vaccine yet found. Covid-19 still holds us captive and, currently, ‘lock down’ remains in place.

Post War/C-19:

In due course historians, sociologists, medical, scientific, political and public enquiries will draw conclusions as to how we handled the invisible and stealthy C-19 enemy, and what lessons must be learned to avoid such a catastrophic global situation in the future. But when our ‘enemy’ is defeated there will be more and different challenges: economic and social, mental and physical health issues. How many people will have lost their lives or lost loved ones, homes, jobs and businesses? These are the inevitable consequences of every war or conflict.

What will our post C-19 ‘new norm’ be? Who knows?

Meanwhile I wonder what would civilian internees make of our responses to C-19 and ‘lock down’ today? Sadly, all the adults I interviewed have passed away, but it seems to me that implicit in their responses to internment, was the message: remain active both physically and mentally, adapt your skills, re-evaluate your needs and wants, standards and values, cherish friends and family.

Re-visiting the Far East civilian internees’ camp experiences has given me a whole new perspective on my C-19 ‘lock down’. It has lifted me out of my isolation inertia and highlighted ways to cope and manage these uncertain times. We are fortunate here in the U.K. that at least most, though undoubtedly not all, have enough food, ample clean water, functioning utilities, a bed to sleep in and the means, if only by telephone and the internet, to communicate with friends and family members.

And while we wait anxiously for our ‘liberating forces’ – the scientists – to find a vaccine to defeat the virus, we still have access to doctors and the medical and caring professions, some of whom are also making the ultimate sacrifice while helping others to live.

So, if they were here today the civilian internees would quite rightly be telling me to “Stop the self-pity, stop the moaning and just get on with it”!

******But Note to self: Next time get hair cut immediately before lock down! 


1. Dean. A. Smith and Michael F. A. Woodruff. ‘Deficiency Diseases in Japanese Prison Camps’ in Medical Research Council Special Report. Series No.274 HMSO, 1951.p.14

2. Report by C.C.Roberts, billeting officer in Stanley Camp. Thanks to Charlotte Havilland for a copy of this report.

3. Hong Kong Public Records Office (HKPRO). Phylis Ayrton private papers, H.K.M.S No.72.

4 IWM. Dr. M. E. Hopkins papers.

5. AWM PR89/59. Letter, 4 September 1945, from Helen Beck to Colonel Stahle, pp 4-5.

6. Correspondence with the author from ex-internee, February 1992.)