Harold Gill (1919-2003): War and Memory Part Two

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Harold’s memoir is the gruesome authenticity of it. He does not try to glorify his experiences or boast about his bravery. Instead we are provided with a down-to-earth and realistic personal account of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Harold, as a working-class Lancashire lad is surely sceptical to bare his raw emotions to the world. His memoir delves into the darkest of these emotions. He writes: ‘The roaring in my ears had reached a crescendo, and I could dimly perceive a patch of light in the distance, to which I seemed ever so slowly to be moving. I was struggling now, like a swimmer who dives into deep water, and tries to surface before his emptying lungs need to inhale again’ (Pg.52). Through Harold’s memoir, we can see true war.

The subject of war, and particularly Harold’s experience in the camp, takes up the vast majority of his memoir. This suggests that it was such a massively significant part of Harold’s life. The memoir ends with his liberation and homecoming. Perhaps we can assume from this that anything that happened after World War Two paled into insignificance for Harold. He witnessed unspeakable things in the prisoner-of-war camps, writing in his memoir: ‘From these hell-holes were later to come the casualties of hard labour, and the worst of ill treatment, whose skeletal structures were the ‘dying proof’ if evidence were needed, of the absence of any compassion on the part of their captors, the Japanese’ (Pg.45). Perhaps it is these experiences that made war such an unforgettable part of Harold’s life, and a time that dominates his autobiography. Or maybe the emotions that came with these events are what stick in Harold’s mind. He writes: ‘Can anyone doubt that we had murder in our hearts on these occasions, and how we longed for a sweeping victory by the Allies to put the military record straight, as it were’ (Pg.46). Harold recalls passionate emotions of murder and fury. Roper proposes that memory ‘tends to underplay the significance of the events of war themselves, and the unconscious processes associated with them, in shaping memory’.

Liberation of a POW Camp

As the memoir transitions from Harold’s childhood to war, the tone shifts dramatically. In the opening stages of Harold’s memoir, Harold remembers his childhood with sweet nostalgia. He has fond memories of school and church, even noting: ‘I was reluctant to leave and would, had I been allowed, have postponed indefinitely the prospect of employment in an adult world’ (Pg. 10). These memories darken as the memoir progresses. In the midst of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Harold reaches the bottom of his mental state, recalling: ‘I was in a deep, black void, a morass’ (Pg.52). This encapsulates how the horrors of war hold the power to eliminate the joy from an individual’s life. Harold’s experience was clearly an emotionally exhausting one.

Homecoming, WW2.

The mood picks up again though. Harold remembers the day he learnt of his liberation from the camp. He writes in his memoir: ‘One day, – one wonderful, – in August’ (Pg.65). He recalls the official announcement of liberation and the sheer jubilation that followed: ‘Because of my deafness I did not hear the words he spoke, but as I looked around at my pals and saw their expressions of joy I knew at once what the Jap commandant had said., although I could not know the exact words used’ (Pg.67). The joy only escalated as Harold arrived home to his family. Harold Gill had survived four years of unimaginable hell, losing his closest friends and dancing with death on numerous occasions. In his memoir, Harold shares all of these experiences, no matter how difficult they might be. But as he is re-united with his beloved mother, he cannot find the appropriate words for his memoir. He writes: ‘There are still some of life’s scenes, and situations that are too sacred to print’ (Pg.68).

Works Cited:

Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316

Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’. History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000): 181-204.

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Liberation of a POW Camp’. Accessed on 25/04/19.

Image of ‘Homecoming, WW2’. Accessed on 25/04/19.

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