BOOK REVIEW: ‘British Concentration Camps: a brief history from 1900-1975’ by Simon Webb

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simon-webbBritish concentration camps in 1975? If this sounds far-fetched, how about holding people indefinitely, with no hope of a court trial? Or legally being able to destroy people’s houses? Or imposing a curfew? Why not flog people who take part in demonstrations, or who own a car without permission? The Special Powers Act of 1922 provided for all this, and it was still being used as recently as 1972 – in Northern Ireland.

Internment without trial had been used periodically in Northern Ireland since 1922, and had, apparently, been effective. Since 1969, a new wave of disorder and violence had been rising in Ulster, so perhaps it would work again. Even the problem of accommodating those who were interned was solved: by bringing back into service an unused RAF base, at Long Kesh, together with a prison ship moored on Belfast Lough. While the government in Westminster thought that this would be a solution, the Army was not so keen; indeed, internment gave a tremendous boost to IRA recruitment.

Not only could detainees be held without trial for an indefinite period, but torture was routinely used to try to discover who the leaders of the insurgents were. Five techniques were used: sleep deprivation, withholding food and drink, prolonged exposure to noise, hooding, and being made to stand against a wall for long periods.

When this was discovered, word was put out that it was the work of rogue army officers; some 40 years later it transpired that this had been sanctioned by the government in Westminster. Not until 1975 was internment ended, and Long Kesh was thereafter occupied by those who had been convicted following a court trial.

The 1970s were the last time that Britain ran concentration camps. Simon Webb gives us a full history of their use by the British – from the Boer War, through World War I, to the inter-war labour camps, and the internment of ‘aliens’ during World War II. We also learn of their use during the Malayan ‘Emergency’, the Mau Mau uprising, and in Cyprus a er the war.

While the first chapter could have benefited from some editing, overall this is a timely reminder of how concentration camps have been used by Britain throughout
the 20th century.

Francesca Robinson

This review appeared in issue 74 of Military History Monthly.

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