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Bloody imperial rumble in Burma’s jungle

by David Burleigh

The prologue to this stupendous book opens in Yamagata, where a Japanese general from World War II is struggling to atone for the deaths of soldiers who lost their lives under his command in India. They had been trying to mount an assault from Burma, which Japan had already conquered.

ROAD OF BONES: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane. HarperPress, 2010, 548 pp., £25 (hardcover)

The book recounts the story of the tremendous battle in which the Japanese were finally defeated, “held off by a British and Indian garrison which they outnumbered ten to one.”

It is the battle of Thermopylae for modern times.

Fergal Keane is a distinguished television journalist and writer, originally from Ireland. He has covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and is well acquainted with the suffering that war entails. There are theatrical connections in his family (his father was an actor, his uncle a playwright), and he brings a dramatist’s skill to the orchestration of his material in this volume, as he does for television. Military history is a new venture for him.

In 1944, after the Imperial Japanese Army had rapidly overrun Southeast Asia, and Britain had ignominiously surrendered in Singapore, the territory the army commanded reached as far as Burma. Here the overstretched forces were poised, and eager, to push into British India as well. It was the meeting point and final clash between two empires. “Both were in decline, and both desperately needed victory,” as Keane observes.

The struggle between them was fierce, the result unpredictable. It was the intention of the Japanese forces to try and take the Allied base at Imphal, requiring a trek through steep mountains and jungle, for which they were ill-prepared. Both sides would suffer from the leeches, dysentery and other tropical hazards to which they were unaccustomed. The particular weakness on the Japanese side was a lack of food, while the British and Indian forces were well provided for, and well-equipped with ammunition. Sheer determination, the Japanese would now discover, was not enough.

Even so, it was a close call, and involved weeks of bitter fighting, in appalling conditions, which the book evokes in detail, from diaries and interviews with former combatants on both sides. It is not the first time that the battle at Kohima has been described, but Keane has discovered a good deal of new material, and draws everything together in a deeply moving, well-informed account. He is extremely fair to all sides, including the native hill tribes unwillingly caught up in the conflict.

It takes nearly a hundred pages to set the scene and introduce the main participants in this epic faceoff, but by then the reader has a good grasp of the strategies on both sides, and of the personalities involved — from the aristocratic Lord Mountbatten, who became the last viceroy of India and oversaw its postwar independence, all the way down to the Japanese foot soldier known only from a diary account. Some survived only in the recollections of their companions, while others went on to take important public roles.

The main focus of the fighting was on a narrow ridge, at the hill station of Kohima, in the tribal territory of the Naga people. One of the more unusual participants was Ursula Graham Bower, an upper-class young Englishwoman, “a Roedean debutante” as Keane puts it, who had gone out to do an anthropological study. Seen as the reincarnation of a priestess by the Naga, she was recruited to head a guerrilla force.

Some of the most affecting stories are of young men giving comfort to others who are dying, sometimes soldiers from the other side. Keane has an excellent grasp of the varied strands in this complex tale, not only the individual personalities and the conflict at command level but also the goals of different governments and parties.

Winston Churchill wanted to salvage something of British prestige in the face of American expansion. The Indian Army fought together with the British, while the Indian National Army, involved in the struggle for independence, sided with the Japanese.

Some of the bitterest fighting took place on a tennis court, where a memorial now stands. The title of the book is taken from the name given to the road leading away from Kohima by the retreating Japanese. Bodies littered the trail, and almost half of the soldiers died. It was a turning point in the war. Gradually the Japanese forces were driven out of Burma. Then came the August surrender after the atomic bomb was dropped.

Keane follows the story back to Japan, where the main architect of the disaster, General Mutaguchi, was afterward appointed to a Self-Defense Forces post. Lord Mountbatten would be murdered by an IRA bomb in 1979.

Keane closes his account with a story of reconciliation, of a former Japanese combatant who worked in England to establish good relations, as far as he could, with former British soldiers. There were many ugly episodes in this dreadful conflict, but the author brings it to a heartening conclusion. He is well aware of the embittered and unyielding attitudes that frequently remain, but offers a little hope. I was reminded of “The Railway Man” by Eric Lomax (1995).

“Road of Bones” comes with detailed notes and maps, a list of the main dramatis personae and a bibliography.

I noted that the last includes the travel journals of Matsuo Basho, although the 17th century haiku poet’s work is never mentioned in the text. But I know that Fergal Keane is a reader of poetry, and war and the pity of it are well evoked in Basho, too.