Life as a prisoner of war is an indeterminate sentence, and for that reason nothing you say about it afterwards can ever be quite true. In its more mitigated forms, with Geneva conventions, Red Cross parcels, letters from home and all that, no doubt a sense of the normal order of things can be maintained. But in some forsaken gulag, outside all the rules, with all information filtered through the enemy, you enter a new dimension whose nature is hardly communicable in words. While it is going on, no one knows whether it is ever going to end, and the absent ending colours every moment of every day. Once it has ended, if you are still alive, you know it was always going to. The basic premise of POW life has disappeared, and no effort of retrospection can make it real again. Notes taken on the hoof are no good: too many words are needed to flesh out the experience, and there is never time for them. But there is an art, more rapid and more immediate, that can bring back that lost eternal present. One would hardly believe it if it had not actually been done. But it has been done, in Ronald Searle’s wartime drawings.
They fall into three groups: trainee soldiering in England, the voyage out, and the encounter with the Japanese in Singapore and Siam. All are bristling with life, but it is the third and largest group that stand out as a unique record. The earlier drawings were made in freedom and at leisure – the kind of freedom and leisure that barracks and troopships allow; and they are on subjects which in two world wars have acquired a traditional status. What distinguishes Searle’s drawings is the sense of character and individuality. Most war-artists reduce their soldiers to types – heroic, or scruffy, or suffering. And of course soldiers can be all three of these, as we are shown here. And they can also be responsible, childish, intelligent, brutish, sensitive or simply thick-headed. All these and a hundred other nuances of expression are seen on Searle’s faces. Indeed he was not a ‘war-artist’ but a participant; and the faces he portrays are not subjects or models – they are just ‘our lot’, drawn out of the sweaty intimacy that army life makes normal. The later drawings were done in captivity, made in fear and in secret, on salvaged or purloined scraps of paper, and concealed against periodic searches. The chances against their being done at all were enormous, and the chances against their survival probably greater still, and sometimes grimmer:
The climate alone was capable of rotting anything, men included, and what did not disintegrate naturally was likely to be turned over at some point by the Japanese who, even deep in the jungle, continued to search our rags and filthy belongings ... The Japanese were right, of course. We were all hiding something. In my case it was frequently due to the selfless aid of men sick or dying of cholera that this bulky record remained undetected by the Japanese. They were terrified of cholera.
They were also chary of exposure. I remember a time in Chungkai, a relatively unoppressive camp, when some of Searle’s slighter comic sketches were pinned on a noticeboard, but had to be hastily removed at the order of the commandant. The Japanese were right there too, for it was always evident that Searle’s drawings were not just notes or mnemonics. ‘They were made,’ he says, ‘with sweat, fear and, at the outset at least, wide-eyed noble intent’ – the intent to bear witness, as fully as possible, to the true nature of the whole drawn-out tribulation.
Here I should declare my interest. We never met, but what happened to 2072249 Sapper Searle R., RE, was pretty much what happened to 13906 Gunner Hough G., SRA(V). We were in the same places, in Siam our paths criss-crossed up and down the river, though I was far luckier in getting out of the worst hellholes at the worst times. Since we were both other ranks, we belonged to the same sub-culture and saw things from the same ground-level point of view. And everything these drawings say I have wanted to say myself in words, but have never managed it. Searle’s own words are admirable too. He aims to provide a commentary and background to the drawings, and this he does, plainly, truthfully and with no false notes, secure in the knowledge that the major impact is being made all the time by the graphic work.
It is a record of progressive defeat and humiliation, and the sequence, undesigned, just as it came, tells its own story. The drawings in England and on the voyage out are leisurely, uncommitted, sometimes humorous, filled with interest and pleasure at the mere variety of human types, and pleasure in the varied means of portraying them. Sometimes the very draughtsmanship is witty: a particularly stolid chunky soldier’s face is drawn in all its bluntly moulded contours with the most scrupulous precision and a Picasso-like delicacy of outline. But when we come to the fall of Singapore, and ‘the enemy’ – that purely notional and abstract concept to the peacetime soldier – has become a brutal fact, there is neither the time nor the place for such stylisations, and the line becomes rougher and more aggressive. A sketch of prisoners queueing for their rice shortly after the surrender draws them neatly, still looking trim and soldierly, in decent shape, still wearing recognisable shirts and shorts. A year later in Siam we see a collection of near-naked emaciated wrecks standing uncertainly in dejected ranks, hacking at rocks, or carting baskets of earth and stones. And the drawing, without losing anything of precision, has arrived more hesitantly at its goal, no longer interested in its own graphic quality but only in tracing accurately the pathos and pathology of its subjects. The most poignant studies are of men dying of cholera, drawn in faint broken lines, fitting signs for lives at their last ebb.
Regarded purely as description, is there anything missing from the dossier? Yes of course there is. As Searle often tells us, the record is fragmentary. The need for secrecy, and long spells of sickness and exhaustion, saw to that. The drawings show what could hardly be shown in words, but what they cannot show is how ordinary much of it became. What are really horrors soon attain the status of routine. In Chungkai, a camp where in 1943 the Japs dumped up to ten thousand prisoners who were too sick to be any more use on the railway, an extraordinary situation arose. About half of these men were desperately ill, many of them dying. The others, of whom I was one, got better quite quickly, and for some months we found ourselves in a sort of Shangri-La, for the Japs forgot about us. So we did camp jobs, bathed in the river and started up a brisk economic life on strictly free-enterprise lines: cigarette-making mostly – I had a small marmalade-making business myself. All this going on in a jog-trot accepted sort of way, though half the camp was a lazar-house populated by men with little chance of ever leaving it alive. There was comradeship, there was mutual help, but a degree of insensibility to anything but your own situation was, I suppose, a necessity for survival. The sense of the monstrous never leaves Searle’s prison drawings, but a great deal of the time we blanked it out, in order to live through it.
It was the same with violence, beatings and overt physical cruelty. These things did not go on everywhere or all the time, and if they were not going on in your immediate neighbourhood you shut your mind to them, as far as you could. There was a good deal of casual brutality, and some patchy outbreaks of deliberate sadism – institutionalised in some camps, quite absent in others; and a curious phenomenon, distinctively Japanese, of whoever was in authority systematically lashing himself into a frenzy over some minor misdemeanour like the bandit in Rashomon. And there was also, as Searle remarks, sometimes a genuine puzzlement, among the more dedicated Japanese, that we who had been admitted, in however lowly a capacity, to the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere were so little appreciative of the privilege. Our situation was more like slavery in the ancient world than anything in modern war. We were the Athenian captives in the quarries of Syracuse, or the surviving males of some sacked city driven off by a Roman legion to imperial servitude. Of the feelings of such people we know little, for history is written by the winners. The losers expect what they get, and so after a time did we. Most of what we endured was not the result of extraordinary cruelty. Like the ancients, the Japanese had never thought of any other way of treating the vanquished, and their standards came to seem almost normal.
The officer class is notably absent from the drawings – and indeed they were notably absent from our lives, though we lived cheek by jowl with them. A popular view was that everyone of field rank and above was on the other side. But that was unfair. It was just that their authority had been eroded, and most of them had become a functionless aristocracy, since our captors, with their strong sense of hierarchy, did not require them to work. The minority whom the Japanese recruited to act as leaders of working parties and as camp administrators faced demands on their courage and adroitness largely unknown to other ranks. They had either to drive and cajole their own men into docile submission to enemy orders or to find a whole camp subjected to savage punishment if they hung back. In that long holiday from moral responsibility that imprisonment generally is, this cruel dilemma was real: and the only excuse for the preposterous film The Bridge on the River Kwai is that in its ridiculously cock-eyed way it tries to deal with this situation.
The Japanese are drawn by Searle strictly from the outside, and without indulgence. This is true to the real climate. The sort of complicity that often seems to grow up between captives and captors rarely began to happen. Few men learnt any Japanese, beyond the names of agricultural implements and terms of abuse. Just as the end was coming – already clear to the Japanese but not yet to us – Searle describes a remarkable exception. Most of us in Siam stayed there till the liberation, but Searle’s detachment were sent back to Singapore, where they were shut up in the civilian gaol at Changi, built to take five hundred men and now holding ten thousand. Overcrowding and undernourishment made this in many ways the foulest part of the captivity. I went the other way – northward to a very jungly place called Nikki on the Burma border. I cannot recommend Nikki as a health resort, but it was a pastoral interlude compared with what one hears of Changi gaol. Searle arrived there more dead than alive, and the sense of utter exhaustion is reflected in the drawings. But there were compensations in this relatively metropolitan prison life: a camp theatre, for instance, Searle’s designs for which acquired a certain fame. They attracted the notice of Takahishi, the Japanese administrator of the prison. He sent for Searle’s drawings, thus causing considerable consternation: it was better not to be noticed. But all was in order. Three days later they came back with a polite note and sixty sheets of superfine paper ‘for the furtherance of your studies’. Later Sapper Searle was detached from his normal duties, provided with materials and set to decorate the officers’ beach club. While this was going on Takahishi came in, did a drawing in Searle’s sketchbook, said that he himself was an artist – and never made any attempt to communicate again. Shortly afterwards he disappeared from Changi and was heard of no more.
It was as though, when the long winter of the war was nearly over, the shoots of civil behaviour began to push up again. In a minor way something of the same sort happened to me. I was thatching a roof – a steady job that, being six feet up in the air, kept one out of trouble – when I was gently prodded with a long bamboo. This turned out to be a summons from a Japanese officer. He had heard that I was a professor of literature in private life and wanted to talk about Symbolist poetry. The level of the discussion was not very high, as the linguistic barrier proved almost insurmountable. But he was very amiable and we parted on the best of terms. At about the same time the camp guards were going about saying that the Americans were dropping some very large bombs, and that this was not fair. Three days later we were turning out in the evening for the usual roll-call, but instead of the usual strutting bevy of Jap NCOs our own camp commandant came, and quite quietly told us the war was over. I never saw so many soldiers crying on parade in my life before. There was no further meeting with the Japanese officer. Symbolist to the last, he decided to leave living to others: we heard later that he had committed hara-kiri.
When we got out, we saw the photographs in illustrated papers of Belsen and Buchenwald. Not all of it was unfamiliar. We looked on the pictures of individual survivors with a practised eye: this one might pull through; that one, no, he’s finished. But in respect of the sheer scale of the catastrophe, and its hideous deliberation, it was plain at once that we had known nothing like it. Those piles of shoes, those heaps of bodies, the ordered systematic massacre, were perhaps more horrifying to us who had seen other but lesser horrors than to those who had been spared them altogether. No one would talk of it. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
Comparative ratings of suffering are always an impertinence, but even now, forty years afterwards, reading the records of other captivities, one gets a powerful demonstration of the varieties of prison experience and the variety of reactions to it. To read Gustav Herling’s account of a Russian labour camp, as I did, just after Searle’s drawings had revived my own recollections, was to realise how much was the same and how much was different. The grisly routine of work camps seems to be much the same the world over. But we were a very unviolent lot, and the internal reign of terror that apparently established itself after nightfall in some Russian camps was quite foreign to our habits. In other ways, our experience was a radically simplified one. Certain kinds of pain, certain areas of distress, were unknown to us. We had lost a battle, and that was all. A wartime enemy, of an alien race, in a country that belonged to neither side – there was nothing here to stir up political passions, conflicts of loyalty, ideal nostalgias or awareness of betrayal. There was no vast and sudden deception like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to turn our world upside down. Herling, a Pole fighting the Germans, found himself, before 1939 was out, fighting the Soviet Union as well.
His book A World Apart (now reissued by Heinemann after an unaccountable lapse of over thirty years) is dense and complex enough to stand with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead – indeed it almost explicitly challenges the comparison. In Herling’s world, criminals, politicals, old Bolsheviks, rejects from the NKVD, Uzbek peasants, women as well as men – all the gallimaufry of types and races that go to make up the Soviet Union, with their separate allegiances and past histories, were thrown pell-mell together, for a hundred different reasons, or for no reason at all. The senselessness of the captivity, as well as its interminable duration, was an added torment. How much simpler to be just soldiers, as we were. We had got more than we bargained for, but we had after all made the bargain, as individuals or collectively; we could at a pinch have refused it, as the conscientious objectors did. We were all in the same boat for the same reasons. We often reached the borders of despair: but we knew even then that the fate of a defeated army was a special one, a professional deformation. The all-encompassing, all-annihilating cruelty of the Russian system, devoting half its energies to crushing its own people in their own country – that belongs to a world apart, from which perhaps it is hardly possible to conceive the existence of any other world. This was a sense we did not lose. Though we were not sure that we would ever get back to it, we were somehow always sure that our own country would be there to go back to. And so it was when we got back in 1945 – battered, but recognisably the same. In buoyant moments, I can sometimes manage to think it still is.