Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Hell Upon Water

Hell Upon Water
Hell Upon Water by Paul Chamberlain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well written and well researched book about the prisoners of war kept in Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Most of these were French, but also included French allies, Americans (from 1812) and even British soldiers who had misbehaved.

Although life in the prisons was no pleasure, Chamberlain makes every effort to show that it wasn't too bad and most British officials earnestly tried to provide for the men in their care.

Part of the problem was the breakdown in Anglo-French agreements over care and exchange of civilians captured at the recommencement of hostilities in 1803. This meant that the French refused to pay for the food and lodging, but also that there were hardly any exchanges. French soldiers therefore knew they were in it for a long time and this created further problems for discipline.

However, the vast majority of prisoners seems to have behaved as well as might be expected in confinement. Escapes and mutinies were rare and even officers rarely broke their parole to escape.

The best bits of the book are where Chamberlain describes the social stratification of the prisoners, but Chamberlain also extensively describes how they occupied themselves with crafts like carving, straw work and forgery.

The officers on parole and the craftsmen through their sale on markets became a part of the local communities, even resulting in a few marriages and permanent settlement. Another nice feature of the book is the many examples of remaining signs of the POWs in artifacts, graves and geographical names like Frenchmen's Road.

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