A engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial. Amanda Farrell.
February this year saw the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on 15th of that month 1942. Between June of that year and October 1943, over 60,000 Allied troops would be forced to labour as prisoners of war (POWs) on the Burma-Thailand railway. It is not so popularly known, however, that after this a second ‘Death Railway’ project was overseen by many of the same Japanese engineers. This second railway was built on the island of Sumatra, and its construction involved nearly 5,000 Allied POWs.
As an island rich in coal and oil, Sumatra presented a vital energy resource for the Japanese. Their intention was that the new line starting at Pakanbaroe in the east of Sumatra would connect to an existing track at the town of Moeara, and continue to the western port of Padang. By joining the new track with the old, and constructing a tributary line to connect the railway to Sumatran coal mines, the Japanese planned to transport fuel and troops by rail for shipping from Padang to Singapore.
The track between Pakanbaroe and Moeara was approximately 140 miles long, with a total of 17 camps made and lived in by prisoners. Since there was no place to which men could escape, very few were fully enclosed by the bamboo fences or barbed wire associated with typical images of POW camps. The railway was built through mountain ranges and thick jungle, and across swamp and river.
William Boyd, An Ice Cream War, 1982
How do we ‘get’ history? If not at first hand, then where do the people we get it from find it themselves? I have been exploring the ways in which other people’s research into IWM Collections gets shared with a wider public. Formal works of written history and biography provide some obvious examples, which I will look at in a later post, but works of fiction offer a rather more left-field starting point.
Then there are writers who have included scenes at IWM buildings in their plots – the protagonists of both W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung (2007) view film at the All Saints Annexe, a First World War veteran gives talks to schoolchildren in the London galleries in Pat Barker’s Another World (2001), a woman commissioned to write the biography of a First World War flying ace turned politician begins her researches here in Isabel Colegate’s Deceits of Time (1988), and the whole final chapter of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) concerns a visit to the Reading Room by the central character.
Many writers of historical novels have acknowledged the help they received when researching here – examples include Len Deighton (Bomber, 1970), William Boyd (An Ice Cream War, 1982), Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger, 1987), Pat Barker (Regeneration, 1991), Elizabeth Buchan (The Light of the Moon, 1991), Leslie Thomas (Other Times, 1999), Jody Shields (The Crimson Portrait, 2006) and Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, 2006).