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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: