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Digital Gallery: Victoria Gallery & Museum: Secret Art of Survival – Creativity and ingenuity of British Far East prisoners of war, 1942 – 1945

Secret Art of Survival – Creativity and ingenuity of British Far East prisoners of war, 1942 – 1945
25 October 2019 – 20 June 2020

Location: Galleries 6 & 7, first floor

An exhibition of artworks and artefacts by Far East prisoners of war (FEPOW) revealing their conditions in captivity but also their spirit and resourcefulness. Their captors forbade the keeping of any records so the artworks were made secretly and most have never been displayed before.

Exhibition information:

This exhibition is available to view in 360 on YouTube, click below:

During the Second World War around 140,000 military personnel were captured by the Japanese. These Far East prisoners of war (FEPOW) remained imprisoned until the end of the war, August 1945.

This exhibition provides a unique glimpse of the battle to survive extreme adversity in wartime. It explores the self-help strategies used by British servicemen including making art as therapy and as a way of documenting their situation.

The artwork had to be created in secret as it was forbidden by the Japanese. It records all aspects of FEPOW life, from the realities of living in extreme conditions to finding beauty in the tropical flora and fauna, plus humorous cartoons to boost morale.

FEPOW hurriedly documented daily existence using pencils and pen and ink wherever they found themselves.

Secrecy was imperative as punishment was swift and harsh. Artworks were kept hidden, sometimes rolled up inside bamboo tubes, in walking sticks and artificial limbs, buried in bottles or tins under huts and even with the dead.

The artwork and artifacts displayed here eventually made the long journey back to Britain as the men returned home. Man

Environment (above)

The majority of British servicemen captured had little time to acclimatise to the tropics before captivity. The climate and environment proved extremely challenging.

FEPOW were used as slave labour and worked in difficult terrain including dense jungle, mountains, ravines, rivers and coral islands. They worked relentlessly through extreme weather conditions and were constantly plagued by insects. The ever present flies and mosquitoes spread disease rapidly. Bites and scratches from lice, bed bugs and scorpions led to intractable skin infections. This made life intolerable at times.

In contrast the terrain, from jungle to white sandy beach, inspired artists along with the exotic plants and wildlife.

Medical Ingenuity (above)

FEPOW suffered a variety of illnesses related to an inadequate diet and exposure to tropical diseases. These diseases such as malaria, beriberi, cholera and tropical ulcers presented major problems to the FEPOW doctors. Drugs and medical equipment were in short supply.

A “Citizen’s Army” was forged with craftsmen, engineers and scientists working secretly together. Their ingenuity ensured doctors could do their best and countless lives were saved.

Hospital huts including operating theatres and dental surgeries were set up. Discarded materials and homemade bamboo whisks made transfusions possible while illicit stills produced sterile water for intravenous infusions and alcohol for surgical antisepsis. Infusion needles were made from small engineered bamboo shoots. Vital supplies of B vitamins were made from yeast cultures, producing a “Camp Marmite”.

Amputations were often performed for severe tropical ulcers with a variety of sophisticated artificial limbs, some with articulated joints, made from wood, bamboo, leather and canvas.

Camp Life (above)

FEPOW acted as a workforce for the Japanese in locations throughout south-east Asia and the Far East. They were often moved between countries or sent to work on roads and railways, down mines and in heavy industry.

Japanese military philosophy held that anyone surrendering was beneath contempt. Treatment of captives was harsh. FEPOW were controlled by their unpredictable captors, living from day to day in fear of punishment for the slightest infringement. Red Cross parcels were deliberately withheld.

FEPOW had to be resourceful, learning from those who had lived and worked in the East. They utilised all scrap materials available to them and used the ever-present bamboo to make life bearable. Scavenging became a necessity.

Camp accommodation varied from bamboo huts roofed with palm leaves in the tropics, to draughty wooden dormitories in the colder, industrial northern regions.

Survival (above)

Survival in Far East captivity depended on courage, tenacity, character and luck. Officers and men banded together in small tightknit groups, depending on each other for sustenance, strength and companionship.

Retaining a sense of purpose, the will to live and a sense of humour were key elements in the survival strategies that kept men alive. And it helped some of them to recover after their ordeal was over.

Small acts of rebellion, such as making art, provided a much needed boost to morale. For some it was a way of documenting their situation, for others it was a soothing hobby or a way of feeling closer to loved ones back home.

Most startling perhaps was the amount of humour and in-jokes that abounded, plus the ingenious theatrical entertainments to raise spirits and laughter.