Hardwick Heath PoW camp at Bury St Edmunds should get a 'historical marker', not a memorial, argues Nicola Miller
Years ago, in a small Suffolk village lived a man who had been a Japanese prisoner of war. On each Remembrance Sunday he would stand at the war memorial and cry.
He never spoke of what he went through but was adamant that holding on to resentment and hate by viewing the nation that put him through such hell as a perpetual enemy would make another war more likely.
My own grandfather served in the Royal Navy and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War spent time in Italy where he saw the starvation inflicted on the population. This included their forces. He was another serviceman who believed reconciliation and honest acknowledgment of the ugliness of war was the way forward and developed a great affection and respect for the Italian people, visiting every year. He knew that war was the business of politicians, arms dealers and despots and that ordinary men and women were used as collateral because of this. He also knew that appeasing Hitler led to millions of unnecessary deaths and maintained that if the politicians were as brave as the men and women lauded for fighting their war, this might not have happened.
It is easy to fall into the habit of ‘othering’ former enemies in perpetuity although if my former father-in-law could buy a Japanese car after decades of refusing to have a single Japanese product in his home, there’s hope for everyone. This is why I believe there should be a historical marker on Hardwick Heath, the site of a Second World War prisoner of war camp known as Camp 260 where more than 2,000 prisoners were houses in Nissen huts until 1948 when the last men were either repatriated or remained to live, work and marry in St Edmundsbury.
Notice that I use the term ‘historical marker’ instead of a memorial because I think the semantic difference between the two is where a lot of resentment and objection could lie.
To commemorate is to show respect for something or someone and I understand there are many people who might understandably wish to have no part in commemorating enemy troops. However, a historical marker at the site, acknowledging this part of history could mark the fact that (in the main) we adhered to the Geneva Convention. Considering the appalling brutality that British PoWs were subjected to, surely a historical marker would bear witness to the much-better treatment German, Ukrainian and Italian PoWs received here? I think this is something to be proud of.
Researching the location of these camps has proved challenging, writes Sophie Jackson, author of Churchill’s Unexpected Guests, with patchy records and the sites temporary nature meaning few official lists of camps or prisoners remain from that time. English Heritage has carried out a lot of work to identify them and the fact that Bury St Edmunds has one such identified location, alongside a wealth of oral history is also something to mark.
War is ugly and it makes us behave in ugly ways. This is not something that should be carried over into peacetime and an accurate (and dispassionate) historiography of the region’s involvement in housing prisoners of war provides an accurate recording of human activities at the time and therefore, a deeper understanding of them.
Most people find that when they get to know those they consider enemies, antipathy and mistrust wears off to be replaced by something a little more nuanced. And as tributes to the PoWs who decided to remain in St Edmundsbury make clear, friendships began and endure to this day among their descendants. Now that is worth marking.