FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia 1941-45, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper. Penguin/Allen Lane: London, 2004, 576 pp., £25 (cloth).

This is a sprawling and spellbinding account of Britain’s Asian campaigns during World War II. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, archives and personal accounts, the authors successfully evoke the ambience and human tragedies of an empire at ebb tide.

We meet gin-swilling pukka sahibs and strutting Colonel Blimps, swagger and swizzle sticks at the ready, ranting on to their dachshunds about perfidious “Japs” and ungrateful natives, oblivious to being yesterday’s men.

There are humorous tales about officers squeezing in a round of golf while retreating, and a future viceroy of India courting a younger woman with bananas. The stories of coolies, comfort women, prisoners of war, guerrillas and refugees are also retold in vivid detail.

The narrative sweeps across India, Burma, Malaya and Singapore, an Asian crescent in turmoil that had been “supported by narco-colonialism on a grand scale.” (“The Glass Palace” by Amitav Ghosh is a wonderful epic novel focusing on the same era and area.)

“Forgotten Armies” is much more than a narrative of military history; it excels at lampooning the pretensions of colonial society and exposing the bumbling of military officers and civil servants. Britain’s rigid class hierarchies and tensions flourished in the colonies and cemented insurmountable racial barriers. Even under duress, there was a marked reluctance to shrug off the habits and inclinations of smug bigotry.

In the great exodus from Burma, involving some 600,000 people running from the Japanese “liberators,” the whites were the chosen people while other races were treated like so much flotsam and jetsam and died accordingly.

Ironically “the honour of the British Empire was upheld by some of those most widely disdained within its hierarchies of race and class.”

While colonial henchman met the anti-British “Quit India” movement with a mailed fist — jailing 66,000 and shooting dead 2,500 people — in their first encounter with Japanese military units, they were observed to “run as no deer had ever run when chased by a tiger.”

The authors draw attention to British savagery and sporadic torture to challenge the “usual stereotypes of Japanese brutality and British solicitude for the civilian population.”

The Bengal famine of 1943 claimed some 3 million lives and exposed, more than any other incident, the malign neglect of an incompetent and inefficient colonial government. A natural disaster spun out of control due to dithering and misguided policies. The authors conclude that “it is difficult to escape the impression that the War Cabinet was simply hostile toward India. The prime minister [Churchill] believed that Indians were the next worst people in the world after the Germans.”

So they starved. In the aftermath, the writing was on the wall; British legitimacy in India was in tatters and independence was a matter of time.

Tempers sometimes flared between the British and their U.S. and Kuomintang allies. One officer said, “By gad! Sir. I am not at all prepared that anyone, Yank or Chink, should poke either projecting or flat noses into the problem of the reconstruction of Burma.”

It is 60 years since the debacle at Imphal, where the Japanese Imperial Army sacrificed some 80,000 of its own men in a campaign, launched from Burma to liberate India, that seemed to make little strategic sense. Given the lack of supplies and mechanized transport, it was a suicide mission.

Subhra Chandra Bose, leader of the Indian National Army created under the auspices of the Japanese, could only watch with despair as his troops and Japanese soldiers were routed by Indian troops who remained unexpectedly loyal to the Raj.

At this time, “the British army began to use Indian troops to stiffen the morale of the British in particular circumstances.” But, like the Japanese, British troops never took to saluting their comrades in arms.

British and Japanese soldiers traded atrocities as propaganda, rumors and horrific excesses rendered both sides ruthless and inured. Cloak-and-dagger campaigns, treachery, betrayals and reprisals, orchestrated in equal measure and with equal insouciance about consequences, set the stage for settling scores during the final days of war and in ensuing years.

Aung San, once a favored acolyte, came to realize that Japanese promises of real independence were empty and eventually led his troops against them. However, many British officers and administrators with “old scores to settle and old prejudices to vent” viewed him as a traitor, overlooking their own hasty retreat and failure to defend the Burmese from the ravages of Japanese rule.

Tired of waiting for the British Army to arrive in Rangoon following the Japanese retreat, some enterprising former POWs painted “Extract Digit” on a roof in large letters: “It was spotted by one of the British reconnaissance aircraft and relayed back to Allied command, which duly got its finger out and moved on the ravaged city.”

The colonial edifice, based on an intricate racial and status hierarchy, conveyed a false sense of permanence that was ripped asunder by the Japanese. They nurtured a militant nationalism that put empire on notice. We are reminded that “after the war, the long imperial summer of the 1930s would be remembered by the British in Asia as a lost idyll: a time of peace, prosperity and tropical chic.” But only for whites. For the colonized, humiliating subjugation, deprivations and war sparked a yearning for independence that was realized in the turbulent wake of Japan’s surrender.

Thus “the real significance of pan-Asianism lay not in what it achieved for the Japanese empire but in what it allowed others to achieve for themselves.”

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