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A war of obstinacy and misery


BURMA: The Forgotten War, by Jon Latimer. London: John Murray: 2005. 610 pp., £9.99 (paper).

The ambitions and fanaticism of officers all too often imperil the men they lead into battle. The story of Imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of colonial Burma in World War II reveals just how many soldiers were sacrificed as little more than cannon fodder in battles that made no sense in a war already lost.

Gen. William Slim, a British officer who defeated the Japanese in Burma, expressed his admiration as follows, ” Whatever one thinks of the military wisdom of his pursuing a hopeless object, there can be no question of the supreme courage and hardihood of the Japanese soldiers who made the attempts. I know of no army that could have equaled them.”

Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi was the man who overruled the objections of his advisers and pushed for the liberation of India, using Burma as a base of operations. It was sheer folly and of no strategic value, but he would have his “March on Delhi.”

By March of 1944 Japan was on the ropes and the infamous Railway of Death linking Burma and Siam, built at the cost of 12,000 Allied POWs and some 100,000 Asians, never relieved Japan’s logistic nightmare. The destruction of Japanese shipping by Allied submarines ensured that Japanese troops had to contend with insufficient supplies. Instead of delivering 3,000 tons a day, the railway struggled to move 400 tons a day in early 1944, condemning many soldiers to rely on little more than fighting spirit.

According to Latimer, once the British became accustomed to Japanese tactics, and learned their weaknesses, the tide of the war turned. Initially, the banzai charges, involving a screaming human wave with fixed bayonets, intimidated Allied soldiers, but after they learned what to expect they dismissed such tactics as “moving target practice.”

This richly detailed narrative history draws on meticulous research and must certainly be the definitive history of what the forgotten army was engaged in during the forgotten war, forgotten in the sense that this was something of a sideshow for the British military and media. After reading extensively about the rout of the British at the outset, and other debacles, perhaps it is best forgotten. On both sides, Burma proved a lush setting for the eternal themes of obstinacy, myopia and vainglory.

This door-stopper of a tome will appeal to military historians, war buffs and perhaps some of those who survived, or relatives of those who didn’t. It is chiefly focused on battle movements, tactics, weaponry, logistics and when which regiment was doing what, where. Throughout we read passages such as, “To the south and east of Moulmein 2nd Burma Brigade deployed 7th and 8th Burma Rifles, with 3rd in the north watching the crossings at the Ataran river . . . In reserve was 4th/12th Frontier Force regiment, with 12th Mountain Battery, a troop of 3rd Indian Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and 60th Field Company in support.”

Many readers will find this a hard slog as the author only casts tantalizing glances at the larger picture. He is, however, excellent at evoking the heat of battle and the misery of jungle warfare, especially during the monsoon when mud and rain took no prisoners

Latimer has an eye for the telling detail. There is an account of the last mounted charge in the history of the British calvary, while on a less glorious note we learn of British soldiers taunting starving Muslims in Bengal with bacon fat! When future CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid parachuted into the midst of spear wielding tribesmen, a familiarity with cowboy and Indian movies inspired him to raise his palm and say “How.”

Soldiers suspected that their rations contained not only mule meat, but also the leather harnesses the mules were slaughtered in, and were impressed at how well their biscuits resisted all assaults. The tragedy for Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, aka “Dormant Myth,” was also grievous as, “there was no iced consomme, sole, duckling or ice cream for the Governor’s dinner, just some mutton from an old sheep of which . . . he had grown fond.”

The British relied on troops drawn from the Empire; those from Africa and India proved exemplary. They also relied on ethnic hill tribes for intelligence gathering and could count on their loyalty in no small part because the Japanese were not adept at wooing them.

It is a shame that the impact of the war is largely seen through the eyes of the British troops and there is little attempt to assess how the war affected Burma and its people. Far more attention is paid to the internecine battles within and between military commands. Overcoming the finger pointing, office politics, petty rivalries and jealousies, not to mention class-rooted hostilities and uneasy relations with the Yanks, render the defeat of the Japanese an all the more impressive accomplishment.