A printable activity sheet to help develop students' understanding of wartime artworks. British soldier and artist Jack Bridger Chalker created this drawing in 1942. In World War II, Chalker was captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. This image shows 2 prisoners of war (POWs) walking along a road. The POWs were amongst the many Australian and British soldiers who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. The drawing captures the caring nature in which survivors did their best to support each other emotionally and physically. Use the background context and inquiry questions to encourage student research and learning.
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In February 1942, the Japanese army captured Singapore Island. Thousands of Australian and British troops on the island became prisoners of war (POWs). Many were later put to work on the Burma-Thailand railway, along with indigenous labourers the Japanese called 'rōmusha'. The railway was 415 km long and passed through rugged terrain and dense jungle. The workers built more than 600 bridges and many viaducts, embankments and cuttings. The workers had to build the railway even when they were seriously ill. Many POWs and r?musha died while working on the railway. The survivors did their best to support each other emotionally and physically as the railway was built.
Jack Chalker was a gunner when he was captured in Singapore. He was an accomplished artist, but he had to keep his artworks hidden from the Japanese guards. During his time working on the Burma-Thailand railway, Jack created artworks that depicted the conditions and the treatment of the POWs. The artworks created by Jack and other POW artists are an important record of the lives and experiences of POWs.
Two working men, Konyu River Camp was created by Jack Chalker in 1942. It depicts 2 POWs walking along a road. The POWs were amongst the many Australian and British soldiers who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway.
- Look carefully at the painting and describe what you see. Include all the details of the painting, even if you think they might not be significant. Keep in mind what you don't see in the painting, as often things left out can be as important as things that are visible.
- Is the painting a primary or secondary source of historical information? What does the artwork tell us about life for POWs who ended up working on the Burma-Thailand railway?
- How has Jack Chalker used the composition of the artwork to express the care and compassion the prisoners showed for each other?
- Jack Chalker's artwork relates to the theme of friendship and support amongst the POWs. What other themes or aspects of life for POWs in the Second World War might have been represented in artworks? Create a list of those themes and then look for artworks expressing them. The artworks could be about POWs captured in the Pacific or in Europe during the war. Organise the artworks into each theme. Look at the similarities and differences in how the themes are represented.
- Imagine you're the POW on the right, helping your mate. What would you be saying to him? What else could you do to help him survive the harsh conditions of the Burma-Thailand railway? What would you do for yourself to make sure that you survived as well?
For more information about life as a POW, see Endurance: Stories of Australians in wartime captivity.
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