Opening the door to research on prisoners of war

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Bradford Central Library local studies senior information manager Susan Caton Bradford Central Library local studies senior information manager Susan Caton

This weekend the nation will remember them.

As the Last Post is played at Remembrance services throughout the country on Sunday, silent tributes will be paid to those who lost their lives during both world wars and other conflicts.

Gathering around cenotaphs, laying wreaths, is the traditional way of commemorating the courage and bravery of the servicemen and women who have and continue to protect the country, but technology is now playing a part too.

For the first time, details of thousands of British prisoners of war from the First and Second World War are being published online. The records from 1914 to 1945, on family history website Ancestry.co.uk, include camp locations and dates of capture and release.

The newly-digitised records also include names and details of Spitfire pilots such as Sir Douglas Bader, who was imprisoned in Colditz.

Information about prisoners of war is also available in Bradford, in the city’s archive storage department based at the Central Library. Susan Caton, senior information manager, local studies, at the library, says the archive offers information on British Army, Navy and Airforce prisoners of war.

She says the publication of information online indicates the growth of interest, particularly in the First World War.

“When I first started working in local studies in 1980 very few were interested in the First World War,” says Susan. “But as time has gone on and we started to lose that generation, the interest has grown.

“It’s now moving into the Second World War because people (who served in that war) are now well into their 90s, so we are nearly losing that generation too.”

Susan says the children and grandchildren of those who served are wanting to find out more about their experiences. Through the Central Library they can access the ancestry website for free along with the website Find My Past, which also details military records.

To commemorate Remembrance Day, the local studies department has also produced a small display promoting the resources available for researching military records.

Interest is set to grow with the centenary of the start of the First World War in two years’ time. Susan says some local history groups are already using the online census to find out about ex-servicemen in the city in the hope of producing some Poppy Walks.

The ability to tap into our past at the touch of a button has led to a rapid growth in people tracing their family trees.

Susan says programmes such as BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities research their family history, has contributed to the interest in genealogy.

“We are the children of the people who went before us. It is part of that understanding; you are part of a chain, and when you have children you realise there is a link from you to your child and from you to your parents, it comes from a sense of identity,” says Susan.

Lorna Troughton’s late husband, William, wrote a book about his time as a Japanese prisoner of war. William spent three years in a camp in Burma during the Second World War, during which time his family understood he was missing, presumed dead.

Prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps are known to have suffered unimaginably terrible experiences, but Lorna says William didn’t speak about what had happened to him.

It was at the suggestion of his doctor that he eventually wrote his 64-page book, Surviving The Red Chapatti, to help him to come to terms with his experiences.

William wrote most of the book while staying at a residential facility run by national charity Combat Stress. Some proceeds from the sale of some his books went to the charity, which supports ex-servicemen and women.

Lorna says the new online information will be “fascinating” for those who want to find out about their relations. “I think for the next generation it is a good thing,” she says.

Miriam Silverman, of Ancestry.co.uk, says: “This collection will allow thousands of people to find out more about the war heroes in their own family.

“They serve to highlight some truly amazing tales of escape and cunning from POWs captured across both world wars.”

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