The Barbed-Wire University provides an overview of the lives of British prisoners of war in Europe and the Far East. It’s strength is the insights it provides into the everyday lives and experiences of the prisoners, showing how they coped with being in captivity. The book deliberately avoids the dramatic tales of escapers and instead concentrates on the mundane and banal - gardening, entertainment, sport, learning - as well as work details, camp conditions and contact with home. At one level it is fascinating, using individual accounts to provide a rich description. At another, it has a number of shortcomings that prevents the text from rising above an empiricist account.
The principle problem of the book is that it describes the men’s lives largely outside any in-depth contextualisation of how camps were structured and organised both by the prisoners and guards or the inter-relationships between these groups. Indeed, the guards and the structural organisation of camps are curiously absent in the text except for brief mentions. There is very little about the social relations between men, the social structure, how regimes of regulation and punishment operated, the power dynamics operating, or even how the camps and work were temporally and spatially organized. There is very little detail on how the allies organised their connections to prisoners beyond a short discussion of Red Cross parcels and it would have been good to get a better sense of how that was all organised and operated. Instead, we get descriptions of football games or organising concerts or taking education courses which are interesting, but lack a real depth of analysis that frames and explains what was going on a deep social and psychological level.
Second, given that the book covers a wide range of experiences and not just education, I took the main title to be synonymous with the idea of a ‘university of life’. However, the subtitle is a little misleading. The book almost exclusively relates to the lives of British prisoners of war, with the occasional mention of Dutch or Australian. There is either no, or very little, discussion of Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians, Poles, French, Russian, etc. How nationalities and ranks were treated and their experiences in captivity were very different. Indeed, the book could have been strengthened by much more systematically comparing and contrasting the experiences of Allied prisoners, and with how Allied prisoners were treated vis-a-vis Axis prisoners.
Third, I found the structure of the book a little odd. It’s divided into six parts. Parts 1 and 3 concern Europe, parts 2 and 4 deal the Far East, and parts 5 and 6 relate to the closing of the war and repatriation, and after the war. In the latter two cases, Europe and the Far East are dealt with together, comparing and contrasting the experiences. That probably would have been a more effective way of dealing with the first four parts as well. As it is, themes are repeated across all four parts and it’s left to the reader to do the work of comparison. Moreover, it’s not really clear why there are two parts per continent as there’s no real differentiation in time or the logic of themes between them. It all seems a little haphazard. Rather than organise the book almost exclusively around activities, it would have been profitable to also have mixed in structures, organisation and social relations.
Overall, an interesting account full of description and anecdote, but lacking any real depth of analysis as to how the camps operated as social systems that shaped the life that took place in them.