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Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2005

The American view of the war with Japan begins at Pearl Harbor, proceeds through Midway, Guadalcanal and "island-hopping," and ends with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For that reason alone, the new book by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper should be required reading. Well-known American victories like Iwo Jima and Okinawa barely register here, and the names Nimitz, Halsey and MacArthur do not even place in the index. The focus instead is on the epic struggle for British Asia, defined here as "the great crescent" stretching east from India through Burma and thence south into the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Hundreds of years in the making, built on an ornate base of racial and social hierarchy, the British empire in Asia came tumbling down in roughly two months in late 1941 and early 1942, courtesy of a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.

It was a total rout, equally shocking to the British rulers and their subject peoples. To the latter, the collapse engendered a deep sense of betrayal. When the Japanese launched their "bicycle blitzkrieg" against Malaya, for example, the "heaven born" European rulers of the colony simply bugged out and left their "native" subjects to their fate. With scarcely a thought they abandoned their servants, the mixed class of Eurasians that had grown up during the colonial years and the native masses whom Britain was supposedly civilizing. On the island of Penang, the order to evacuate the European population came quietly and in the night. Asians desperately trying to get on the boats were forcibly turned away, although the British commander did manage to find room on board for his car. Bayly and Harper mince no words on any of this. The imperial ruling class in Asia was a privileged caste. It consisted of people who had spent their entire adult lives being served by someone darker, who never had to bother with carrying cash, and who regarded pink gin, the gimlet and the whiskey stengah as a food group. Their pampered habits died hard. In fact, they didn't really die at all. Even in captivity, the British tried to remain a race apart.

Good historians like to probe for the long-term causes of such devastating events, and Bayly and Harper are no exceptions. While they savage British officialdom for its hidebound bureaucratic ways and for racial attitudes that would not have been out of place in the antebellum American South, the problem went beyond the personal failings of the "gin-swilling pukka sahibs" who ran British Asia. The empire, in fact, was in deep trouble long before the war broke out. The entire crescent was a hotbed of anticolonialist and anti-British activity in the decades before the war. Discontent was not the work of a few agitators, as the British liked to claim, but a deep-seated sentiment among the subject peoples. While the nationalist struggle of Gandhi and Nehru in India is well known, the authors devote much more space to the movement's more extreme wing, led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The start of the war would find him first in Berlin and then in Tokyo, convincing the Axis that there was benefit to be gained by arming Indians against Britain. He would lead a pro-Japanese Indian National Army (INA) made up of prisoners of war taken in the Singapore debacle.

Like India, Burma had seen a huge amount of civil unrest in the 1930s and the rise of a powerful nationalist movement among the urban masses. Its greatest leader was Aung San, a devout patriot and revolutionary who drew inspiration from Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez in equal measure, and who doggedly polished his English by memorizing entire speeches by great British parliamentarians. Aung San would see Britain's problem as Burma's opportunity, and he too would be in the Japanese camp upon the outbreak of war. His Burma Independence Army fought alongside the Japanese and played a material role — both political and military — in their easy conquest of Burma.
At least partly as a result of these political problems, it would be a long road back for Britain. The campaign in Malaya saw a British army of 80,000 men shredded by just 35,000 Japanese. With Thailand occupied and Burma conquered, the enemy was now knocking on the door of India itself, a land already seething with unrest. Thankfully for Britain, the "door" was through Assam, some of the most difficult jungle and forested terrain anywhere in the world. Even so, getting India into shape to wage modern war proved to be beyond the ruling classes of the Raj. The year 1943 was perhaps the worst in Indian memory, as a famine in Bengal killed some 3 million people and the British authorities actually thought of abandoning India as a military base.

Bayly and Harper argue that the famine was a turning point in the war and in Indian history. Japanese victories had already destroyed the notion that whites were inevitably entitled to rule India; the famine robbed the British of their last argument to rule: the issue of competence. In the end, Bayly and Harper say, three factors rescued British India, at least for its last two years of existence: large amounts of U.S. aid to rebuild the Indian infrastructure (the Calcutta docks, for example); the heroism of the minority hill tribes in Burma, the Lushai, Naga, Kachins and others, who brought the fight to the Japanese at a time when no one else could; and finally, the millions of Indian men who volunteered for service in the army. It took two full years for Britain to turn them into a decent force, but by 1944 the Fourteenth Army was ready to fight the Japanese. Employing its superiority in airpower and armor, it stopped the Japanese cold at Imphal and Kohima in early 1944, and then pursued the defeated enemy to their total destruction.

It is a stirring story, extremely well told and comprehensively researched. The narrative is marred only in places by the authors' ideological bias. As they rightly point out, the Japanese were able to call upon a great deal of goodwill, or at least anti-British sentiment, within the lands they conquered. "Asia for the Asians" was a slogan with real appeal. The Japanese habit of putting white prisoners on parade in the various territories of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was not just an example of Japanese cruelty — it served the political purpose of showing the Asians that a new day had dawned. Nevertheless, the day-to-day reality of Japanese rule was something else again: a nightmare of mass shootings (especially of ethnic Chinese, a large minority population all over the crescent); brutal smash-and-grab economic exploitation; and the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of women — Asian, white and mixed — forced to serve their new masters as "comfort women."

While Bayly and Harper do not pass over the horrors of Japanese rule, neither do they emphasize it. As social historians and anti-imperialists, their principal enemy is Western colonialism in Asia, not Japanese aggression. In fact, they speak of a "constructive" phase of Japanese rule; they relativize Japanese sexual slavery by referring to the "many more" women forced into prostitution in British territories "by the insidious operation of famine and the 'free market'"; and they wax far too romantic about the fighting qualities of the Japanese in retreat, extolling their "fanatical bravery and self-sacrifice" and their "unquestioning belief that, even in the distant jungles of Burma, they were literally defending their native soil." That is a ridiculous, completely uncritical characterization and if taken to its logical end, would seem to offer a blanket excuse for Japan's brutal war of conquest. The Japanese army deserves every bit of the same critical treatment that good military historians have been giving to the Wehrmacht of late, but Bayly and Harper evidently are not the ones to give it.

There is a similar tendency to romanticize collaborationist individuals and regimes in Japanese-occupied Asia. Bose and the INA, in particular, receive far more credit than is their due. The claim that Bose was "the greatest military hero of India's modern history" is controversial, to say the least, and the authors come nowhere near to proving it by the evidence they present in this book. The INA was never more than a splinter group in terms of size, it fought badly for the most part, and then it fell apart altogether. Bose's tirade after the debacle at Imphal that he would "set about preparing for another attack on Imphal. If need be, he must attack Imphal ten times" recalls nothing so much as Adolf Hitler's hysterical ravings toward the end of the war. In fact, the INA had hardly attacked Imphal at all — it had been primarily a Japanese show.

Bose met defeat after defeat with increasingly bizarre optimism; Bayly and Harper praise him for his indomitable spirit, but it could be said with equal justice that he was simply delusional. In the end it is difficult to argue with the characterization of historian Gerhard Weinberg in A World at Arms: "Bose's belief that real independence for India could be won in alliance with the fascists in Berlin and Tokyo reflected poorly on his intelligence."

These criticisms aside, Forgotten Armies is one of the most important books on the war to appear in years. It succeeds above all by reminding us that even a decisive military victory can turn out to be hollow in political terms.

In June 1945, with the defeat of Japan now just a matter of time, the Allied supremo of South East Asia Command, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, offered a toast to the victorious powers in the great Asian war. "To the King," he cried, "the President, the Generalissimo [Chiang Kai-shek], Queen Wilhelmina [of the Netherlands], and France." Talk about famous last words! Within 10 years, the British, Dutch and French empires in Asia would have vanished, and Chiang would be ruling a fugitive regime on the island of Taiwan. A mere 20 years after that — a blip in the history of the ancient kingdoms of the region — the last American helicopters would be fleeing from the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Asia had awakened.


One Response to “Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Book Review)”


  1. 1
    K Crosby says:

    ~~~~~"Bose's belief that real independence for India could be won in alliance with the fascists in Berlin and Tokyo reflected poorly on his intelligence." ~~~~~

    Unlike the fascists in London and Washington?



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