Prisoner on the Kwai

In the early 1960’s Basil Peacock found himself unexpectedly in Bangkok, some twenty years after his last visit to that city. He hired a car and with his wife and American friends and drove up to the river Kwai. The hire car manager charged little, exclaiming:

“You work on railroad! Not dead yet! You must have iron bones — I make special price.”

His companions listening to him talking about his time as a Far East Prisoner of War (FEEPOW) persuaded him to write up his story. It was published in 1966 and is, as he says, mainly about the:

“bizarre rather than the tragic. My memories of unusual, odd and even crazy incidents were vivid and detailed, but those of horror curiously blurred.”


 Basil Peacock was a veteran of the First World War, he joined under-age in 1916, received the Military Cross in 1917 and was wounded and captured in 1918. This gives him a perspective on his later captivity that few other writers possess. Prisoner on the Kwai is an excellent, extremely readable account of the FEPOW experience under the Japanese. [It includes some non-PC language.]

In the last five years I have read more than fifty books by or about FEPOWs, some published, others as private accounts or diaries in museums. Contemporary diaries are rare; they contain truth that is of the moment, but the contents can be restricted by the fear of discovery. The early post-war accounts vary and were often rejected by publishers as too brutal, particularly those by ordinary soldiers. Many who felt the need to record the three and a half years taken out of their lives were not natural writers, and their accounts lack balance and structure; sometimes bitterness, sensationalism or vainglory overwhelm the story. Others are brilliant, painful, heartbreaking and heartwarming.

The basic truths that always emerge are the desperation of hunger, the dependence on mates and the extraordinary endurance of the human will under every conceivable insult to the body. Reading these accounts, will confirm that altruism is a real human quality and so, sadly, is sadism, and that luck plays a very big role in survival.

Another thing that also emerges is that each man’s experience is unique. It is almost unheard of for even two men to spend the whole of their captivity together. Prisoners were sent hither and yon with no predictability throughout the war.

Some entries from the diary of Edward (Ted) Hammond who served as an ordinary enlisted soldier in the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment:

April 28th [1942]   Been at work on road making. Bullied about and beaten up by the Japs with sticks and iron bars. Kept at work until 6.15p.m.

April 29th [1942]   No work today. Emperor of Japan’s birthday. Usual breakfast, plain boiled rice and watery milk. Fine day after rain all night.

Sun. Dec 27th [1942] Work on the railway. I’m very weak indeed. Two more funerals today.

Wed. Dec 30th [1942] Work on malarial drains. Another funeral.

Sun.Feb 14th [1943] Work as usual. Pte Jarvis died last night.

Mon. Feb 15th [1943] Work again. One year ago today since the fateful day of Singapore’s capitulation and one year of hard work, chiefly on rice. Now we must hope for the best.

This is Ted’s last entry. He was marching up to the higher reaches of the railway, he was very cold at night, starving and his two particular friends were very sick. Work on the  railway was lasting all day from dark until dark. He died on October 16th 1943 of bacillary dysentery and beri-beri.

See also pacific paratrooper on this subject.

Invisible DIY, finding heroes, writing and autumn outside

It been a busy week!

Today I relaxed by covering another two wall areas with thin woollen jackets. Our house has a mere nine solid inches of brick between us and the winter storms, so each year we add another layer here or there or another piece of secondary glazing. Some panes arrived with the new magnetic attachment system which works brilliantly (though to my embarrassment I had the dimensions of one of them wrong).

I needed to relax from the excitement of two days of Internet connections. Pierre Lagacé, of Lest We Forget, found a website for me with the story of my airman uncle’s Commanding Officer ( I have been in touch with his son, Marcus, and had a a wonderful and productive email exchange and the blog ( has now become a rich repository of Mosquito and meteorological lore of WWII.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Both these activities have been punctuations in my all out blitz on the manuscript of Writing to a Ghost: Letters to the River Kwai 1941-45. A few weeks ago we visited the museum where some of the materials – letters to my mother from the wives and mothers of my father’s Unit, all Far East POWs – are housed. This time we photographed all the photos my mother had collected. I have been able to put faces to nearly half the men in the story. They are brilliant, but some of them make me weep.  I have also been following a friend’s advice as I worked over the manuscript.

Meanwhile, the sun has come out again and the air is warm, and autumn is raging outside. I want to be in the garden. (We did have lunch in the garden.)

Rosa Mary Rose

Rosa Mary Rose


Acer palmatum Sengokaku

Acer palmatum Sengokaku


The pig-sty that was Ban Pong – POWs 9

In late autumn of 1942 we were told of a new delight to come. We were to be moved north into Siam [Thailand] where we would be engaged in light healthy labour with good food and pleasant sunny weather, housed in well-built camps in open country. We couldn’t wait for this promised treat.

We marched to the station carrying our backpacks and were there entrained in metal-sided cattle trucks, about 40 to each truck. […] We took it in turns to sit in the better places and arranged our packs in rows so that we could sit on them with our legs pointing towards the middle of the truck. […]

There were no latrine arrangements at all, not even a bucket. One could pee through the open sliding door and the train stopped twice a day at some point well away from a village so that we could get out and ease ourselves squatting over a ditch or under a hedge. As many of us were already suffering from dysentery, these two stops were not nearly enough and we got over the problem by rigging a rope across the doorway at a convenient height so that one could hang on with both hands, bottom outwards and shit on to the track.

We arrived at Ban Pong, all 800 of us soon after the start of the rainy season. Ban Pong was a substantial small town of about 5000 and the camp was a very disgusting place. As a transit camp there was no senior British officer in command who could see that the place was kept in order. […] After a few days we marched out of the pigsty of Ban Pong.

Ban Pong in Thailand was the starting point for the railway designed by the Japanese to link Bangkok with Moulmein in Burma. The planned stretch between Ban Pong and Thanbyusayet (roughly 400 km) ran through barely charted territory following the river Kwai Noi. Designing the railway posed an enormous engineering undertaking; building it, in wartime, with no mechanical aids, required enormous manpower and resulted in over 100,000 deaths, the majority of which were forced gangs of Chinese, Indians and Malays, but also included around 13,000 Allied POWs.