Christopher Bayly, Tim Harper. Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945. Cambridge: Bellknap Press, 2005. xxxiii + 555 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-01748-1; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-674-02219-5.
Reviewed by Steven Patterson (Department of History, Lambuth University)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2007)
Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia 1941-1945 by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper has quickly established itself on the must-have list of British imperial history. The work is a magisterial and panoramic account of the war in the Far East, focusing on the region stretching from Calcutta to Singapore. This crescent of the British Empire produced an abundance of rubber, tin, rice, gold, and oil, which in turn supported a very narrow elite who sought (ultimately in vain) to retain their prestige, even while the Japanese overran Malaya, "impregnable" Singapore, and Burma. For the British, the loss of "face" in the East was perhaps as important as the military losses, and the apparent ease of these Japanese conquests would reverberate long into the postwar world, since defeat and dishonor could never be compatible with empire. The death rattle of the British Empire could be heard by almost everyone but the victim, who blissfully tried to cling to its worldly possessions and to its reputation for avenging every defeat suffered at the hands of Asians. Accordingly, one of the most important themes of Forgotten Armies centers on the ascension of the Japanese as they were transformed, in the British imagination, from being misfits in modern society to relentless and frightening exemplars of military technology.
Bayly and Harper ably untangle the strategic issues in the Far Eastern theater, which rarely seem straightforward, since the "good war" of World War II historical imagination has never seemed fully applicable to the campaigns in the region, neither at the time of the fighting nor during the recent deification of the "greatest generation." The British armies in India and Burma dubbed themselves "forgotten" early in the war, and they are to a large extent still forgotten today. According to Bayly and Harper, British officers quickly realized that the Far Eastern Theater was not the place to make one's reputation, and even General William Slim, one of the ablest commanders of the war, was dismissed by Winston Churchill for being a "sepoy general," since Slim had been a Gurkha officer. Moreover, some of the historical neglect of this theater can perhaps be attributed to the nature of the two governments fighting for supremacy in the East. In a war between Japan and England, portraying this theater as a Grand Crusade proved to be difficult, especially when Churchill had decreed that the Atlantic Charter and self-determination for all peoples did not--curiously--apply to Indians, nor to the Burmese or Malayans ostensibly to be liberated by the British and returned to the imperial fold. In the Far East, the war against fascism and totalitarianism was bound to reveal the contradictions of one empire fighting against another, as two authoritarian governments squared off, with disastrous consequences for those caught in the middle.
Although the soldiers in this campaign remain largely forgotten, the experiences of Asian civilians are even less well known, especially in the West. Close to 80,000 Indian civilians died on the walkout from Burma, and transit camps set up in Burma lacked adequate food and medicine. Even worse, the famine in Bengal in 1943 claimed some three million lives, partly due to a cyclone the previous year which ruined the rice crop, but also because of the ineptitude of the government there. The government of Bengal was weak and corrupt and had no famine code, and Bayly and Harper relate the familiar tale of food from India being shipped overseas, and that even the word "famine" had been forbidden in the press for as long as possible. To Churchill, Bengalis were the next worst people after Germans and the prime minister was determined not to help, and he "heeded the advice of his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann, who thought Bengalis were a weak race and that overbreeding and eugenic unfitness were the basic reasons for the scarcity" (p. 286).
Although many of these narratives are well known to historians, Bayly and Harper untangle all these historical threads and deftly describe the complexities of the war, both from a panoptic and microscopic point of view. They likewise synthesize most of the relevant sources, masterfully merging the military history of this theater with the political, social, and cultural implications of the war. As such, this is no mere military history, but a social and cultural history of the effects of the war on their respective societies, and the work bears all the hallmarks of the best history writing--it is incisive, in places witty, and with a great eye for the telling detail. Bayly and Harper continually link individual acts to the larger historical picture, and they relate many anecdotes that in part explain why many of these episodes have been forgotten, at least in the West. During the evacuation of Singapore, for example, one Chinese judge was removed from a ship while the fortress commander managed to get his car onboard (p. 120). Easily caricatured, the "modern Pompeians" of Singapore did not seem to be "putting up a good show, and the manner of their withdrawal was long remembered, and never forgotten or forgiven," and these "tales of despair and betrayal were never erased, even by the striking British victories of 1944" (pp. 120, 187). Ultimately, the garrison at Singapore with 85,000 troops would surrender to a Japanese force of around 30,000 men. Yet, with no aircraft carriers in the region and only outdated Brewster Buffaloes ("flying Beer Barrels"), Singapore had little chance. Churchill nonetheless initially ordered Singapore to fight on until the end, and the sense of betrayal by the British stranded there lingered on. Bayly and Harper even dig up a ditty concerning the flawed leadership:
"Never before have so many Been f***ed about by so few And neither the few nor the many Have f*** all idea what to do" (p.132). The authors have furrowed through the archives to turn up such amusing and illuminating anecdotes, but one very slight criticism of the book is the curious omission of diaries or other sources for the British armies who fought in these campaigns. The authors employ a Japanese soldier's diary to great effect to tell the story of Japanese occupation, but the experiences of the British Other Ranker are surprisingly missing. Brian Aldiss's unjustly forgotten novel A Soldier Erect (1971) and George McDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here (1992) could have added compelling narratives to story of the British Other Ranker. There are also several diaries in the Imperial War Museum from soldiers in India and Burma, many of them with titles like "Nobody Gave a Damn," and such sources could have augmented the authors' considerable research. As it is, the voice of Tommy Atkins is still somewhat muted and forgotten in Forgotten Armies, (although surely he would be used to that by now).
Resentment, in fact, resurfaces often in Forgotten Armies, and from all sides. It almost seems to be the dominant mode for understanding the war in the East. One Anglo-Indian (in this sense meaning someone of mixed European and Asian ancestry), staggered from the "green hell" of Burma emaciated and near death, but he was refused treatment at the first British club he encountered due to his dark skin. Such ideas would not survive the war, at least not as part of a ruling ideology, and the high-handed treatment that Asians suffered under the British and the Japanese would be the catalyst that spawned the independence of India, Burma, and Malaya. (The postwar struggles for independence are told in the authors' just-published Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia.) Forgotten Armies has provided a long-needed overview of this "forgotten" theater, and this is sure to remain the standard work on this topic for the foreseeable future.
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Steven Patterson. Review of Bayly, Christopher; Harper, Tim, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945.
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