"Survivor of the Long March: Five Years as a POW 1940-1945" is Charles Waite's account of life behind barbed wire in World War 2. As a young man working in his family's greengrocer shop, he is conscripted into the army and put to work as a driver, a profession that was invaluable at that time. Later turning down a chance to become a sniper, the self-effacing Waite admitted he barely knew one end of the rifle from another.
- Charles Waite and Dee La Vardera
Posted to France, Waite took part in a supply convoy, fatefully taking a wrong turn and running into hundreds of German troops, supported by several Panzers. After a very short contact which saw several of Waite's friends and contemporaries killed or injured, he was taken prisoner. For Charles, the war as they say, is over. All that is left is the battle to survive.
Survival meant twelve hours of hard manual labour a day, sleeping in filthy cowsheds and surviving on rations that would barely sustain a young child, supplemented only by what they could forage safely. The German guards were an additional fear on top of the daily struggle to survive, being "generous" with discipline, using their boots, rifle butts or spades.
Waites has an engaging story to tell and it's told well through his ghost writer Dee La Vardera. The pages almost turn themselves and at 224 pages, it's not going to last long for an avid reader. He was a charming, self-deprecating man who saw and experienced horrors that stayed with him for the rest of his life. That likeability translates well to print form and the reader grows to like the humble Essex man, who was sent into combat without any rounds for his rifle.
That leads to my main problem with the book. Five years of captivity translates into precious few anecdotes about him or his fellow captives. Years pass without comment and his infamous "Long March" back to Germany (a trip of 1600 km) should be full of incident and how he felt as he passed through village after village, fighting the cold and hunger. Yet, it remained fairly sterile in describing the horror of an epic journey. Waite is an interesting person to read about and naturally, the reader wants to hear more; but it is a measure of the man that he glosses over things that he saw as terrible and never does he lapse into self-pity or introspection.
Added to that, is the slightly annoying habit of him early on in the story, mentioning incidents that happen later in the book. When you reach that part later on, they have lost their power due to the reader's prior knowledge of it. It removes a lot of the emotional gut-punch that should accompany such events.
Those flaws aside, it is a very easy read and it illuminates an everyman's conscripted view of the war.
Four out of five Panzers.