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Compensating the Railway Men

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The suffering of prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War has coloured the British view of the conflict in the Far East. Clare Makepeace highlights a little known aspect of the captives’ story: their quest for compensation.

On January 28th, 1944 a statement was made to Parliament that was considered so serious it was issued simultaneously in Washington: ‘I fear I have grave news’, announced the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to the House of Commons. This was the first time the world had heard of the conditions of captivity in the Far East. For some months the British government had been receiving disturbing reports and it was now sufficiently convinced of their authenticity to make them public. Eden spoke of inadequate shelter, clothing, food and medical supplies; how a high percentage of Allied prisoners were seriously ill; and how thousands had already died. A second statement was made in the House of Commons towards the end of the year. The government had now learned of a railway that prisoners of war had been forced to construct between Burma and Siam. ‘The conditions under which all these men lived and worked’, the secretary of state for war, Sir James Grigg, revealed, ‘were terrible … many lacked clothing, boots and head covering; the only food provided was a pannikin [small cup] of rice and about half a pint or less of watery stew three times a day. But the work had to go on without respite, whatever the cost in human suffering or life.’

By the time VJ day came, in August 1945, almost 12,500 British prisoners of war in the Far East (FEPOWs) had died in captivity. Over the following months the remaining 37,583 were repatriated. Their suffering during imprisonment forms one of the most dominant shared narratives of the Second World War. The media attention Far East POWs have received in recent decades reached new heights earlier this year, with the release of The Railway Man. The film looks at how Eric Lomax, a former FEPOW, came to terms in his later life with the torture he experienced during his incarceration. However, the origins of the narrative of suffering lies in an aspect of their history that has long been ignored by historians and largely forgotten by relatives. It is the ‘Claim’ for compensation, pursued in the early 1950s. Through it, Far East ex-POWs united to develop a concerted national campaign demanding public recognition for how they had suffered.

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