Harold Gill (1919-2003): War and Memory – Writing Lives

Harold Gill (1919-2003): War and Memory

Harold’s memoir is dominated by the topic of war and conflict. From the moment of conscription in 1939 to his emotional homecoming in 1945, Harold takes us on a journey of trauma, joy and unprecedented insight. Harold enters the world of war with keenness and a naive readiness to get started. He writes in his memoir: ‘We seemed totally committed and the inevitable happened’ (Pg.12). Harold also recalls the first weeks of life in the army being particularly enjoyable. He and his friends would parade the streets during ‘black-outs’, looking to spark romance with groups of girls. Harold jokes ‘the term “blind-date” took on a more realistic meaning’ (Pg.13). Harold, in 1939 at least, saw his upcoming involvement in the war as a transition into manhood and maturity: ‘To mere boys of 20 it hastened maturity, and bestowed a new independence’ (Pg. 13). As the gruesome war progressed though, Harold’s thoughts on the conflict darkened.

Conscription Poster, WW2.

After Harold leaves England, it’s not long before he is captured by Japanese forces and brought to Singapore in 1942. Before Harold’s capture, Singapore was ‘one of those “far away places with strange sounding names”‘ (Pg.21). But it was to become a place of misery and trauma for Harold. He glumly remembers: ‘Some of us wept the virgin tears of a misery, abject, utter and complete’ (Pg.25). Harold moved from country to country as a prisoner-of-war, including Singapore, Thailand and most infamously Burma in 1943. He recalls the sickening, deadly conditions in the camps: The long days of hard labour which would have fatigued a horse, on a diet of rice, and hot water, insufficient in quantity, or nutrition to have sustained a bird’ (Pg.56). The experience was emotionally taxing as well as physically exhausting for Harold and his fellow captives. He writes in his memoir: ‘One harrowing scene was of a Chinese woman nursing the decapitated head of her spouse, and combing the hair of it in her lap accompanied by a frenzied wailing, and weeping’ (Pg.27).

Even in such a dire situation, the hierarchy of the British Army was still well respected and enforced. Harold remembers how this necessity to follow orders could have had a detrimental effect on his health and life. He recalls: He hailed me in a peremptory manner, “I say, you, I want you to go down this hole and bring out that dead dog”‘ (Pg.28). After refusing the order in the interest of his own health, Harold was sentenced to seven days ‘in the “chore” of cutting grass’ (Pg.28). This highlights the respect of authority even in such desperate, anarchic circumstances. Perhaps though Harold is also suggesting the abuse of power by some senior officers in World War Two.

Japanese Prisoner-Of-War Camp

Amidst the darkness of Harold’s war experience, there were some shining lights. He found good friends in the army. Harold remembers his best friend Sam being abused by Japanese officers, and offering ‘to help Sam find the Japs who had beaten him, and mete out the same treatment’ (Pg.35). Such was Harold’s loyalty and the strength of fellowship that had been bred into him from childhood. Harold also mentions the loss of some of his friends, and the devastation and sadness that followed. He reflects on the death of his friend Jack: We had been a togetherness gang of 4 until death struck, and claimed too early one of our number, Dearden, Jack had caught dysentery in the middle of 1943, and, under it’s onslaught had wasted almost to nothing’ (Pg. 39).

Harold’s account of war demonstrates a sense of human togetherness and solidarity. Even in a seemingly apocalyptic situation, Harold and his comrades still pulled together to support each other. He remembers: ‘Such a person was Alf, who thought always of his two friends, Gasgarth, and myself, before himself’ (Pg. 39). Harold also uses ‘we’ when remembering war time tales. For example, ‘We waged an unceasing war against flies and mosquitoes, rigging up ingenious fly-traps which sat atop the latrine’. Jonathan Bolton suggests that ‘These autobiographies favored the collective “we” over the individual “I”‘. This is proof of the loyalty and comradeship that encapsulates Harold’s character.

Works Cited:

Bolton, Jonathan. ‘Mid-Term Autobiography and the Second World War.’ Journal of Modern Literature 30, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 155-172

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

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Conscription Poster, WW2’. Accessed on 24/04/19.

Image of ‘Japanese Prisoner-Of-War Camp’. Accessed on 24/04/19.

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