Their Lousiest Hour

By Benjamin Schwarz



SEVERAL hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese troops stormed the beaches of southeastern Thailand and northern Malaya. Their goal was Singapore, some 400 miles south, among the world’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities, and, along with Gibraltar, the most heavily defended piece of land in the British Empire. Just over two months later that supposedly impregnable fortress was in Japanese hands. A garrison of more than 85,000 troops had surrendered to a Japanese assault force numbering about 30,000. Singapore’s capture, Winston Churchill said, was ”the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” By April the Japanese were bombing Calcutta, and India was preparing to be invaded. Britain’s ”great crescent,” which had stretched from India’s border with Burma down the Malay peninsula, was lost.

SAVE0880In ”Forgotten Armies” Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, two Cambridge historians, explore these events and their intricate and often terrible repercussions from the perspectives of both the British and the Asian peoples of the region. A work at once scholarly and panoramic, it is as precise in dissecting, say, the logistical problems the Japanese Army confronted during the 1944 campaign in northern Burma (”the worst defeat in Japan’s military history”) as it is arresting in examining such sweeping events as the 1942 trek of some 600,000 Indian, Burmese and Anglo-Indian refugees from Burma through the high passes of Assam into India, fleeing the advancing Japanese.

Hundreds of monographs have examined aspects of this story, but Bayly and Harper’s is the only history that matches the scope and nuance of novels like J. G. Farrell’s ”Singapore Grip,” Paul Scott’s ”Raj Quartet,” Anthony Burgess’s ”Enemy in the Blanket,” Orwell’s ”Burmese Days” and Amitov Ghosh’s ”Glass Palace.” Their 70-page prologue is a triumph of scene setting. The great crescent between Calcutta and Singapore was, Bayly and Harper show, a multinational and multiethnic stew. Indians, Chinese, Malays and Burmese toiled in the factories and oil fields of Burma and the rubber plantations and tin mines of Malaya; Chinese merchant princes ruled the trading houses of Penang and Malacca; Japanese owned shops in virtually every small town on the Malay peninsula, controlled Malaya’s iron mines and dominated Singapore’s fishing fleet.

At the apex of this world, of course, the British ruled. ”Forgotten Armies” artfully evokes their prewar idyll: the string of posh hotels; the mountaintop golf courses carved out of the jungle; the torpor of the hill stations (exacerbated by chronic gin-swilling), where expats speaking an ”outmoded English slang” saw to it that ”the ova of trout were carted up on ice” to stock the streams; and, most memorably, what Lady Diana Cooper characterized as the ”Sino-Monte-Carlo” atmosphere of Singapore — a strikingly clean and modern city of snobbish clubs, air-conditioned cinemas and a glut of playing fields, populated by Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Parsis and White Russians, as well as Indians, Malays, Burmese, Chinese, Japanese and their British overlords.

The ignominious British and Australian rout down the length of the Malay peninsula (the retreating soldiers sardonically adopted the theme from theRV-AE586_BURMA1_G_20111013183123 Hope and Crosby movie ”The Road to Singapore” as their marching song) and Singapore’s subsequent fall have already been described, memorably, in Farrell’s novel and in a host of military histories, most notably Alan Warren’s ”Singapore 1942,” but Bayly and Harper’s account is both vivid and authoritative. One of their great contributions lies in their stinging appraisal of the debacle — all but inevitable given Britain’s competing strategic priorities, but made worse in every conceivable way by the fecklessness, dithering, incompetence, jealousies and cowardice of commanders on the spot. A second is their chronicle of the nearly complete moral collapse of British colonial society and civil administration throughout the great crescent. That collapse, they convincingly show, began just eight days after the Japanese invasion, with the shameful European evacuation of Penang, in which Britons abandoned the Asians they ruled to an utterly vicious conqueror. British imperialism certainly had its high-minded and responsible aspects, but at the time and place ”Forgotten Armies” recounts it revealed itself to be selfish, unlovely and, in the parlance of the time, unmanly.

This British failure of nerve enormously strengthened the region’s national independence movements during and after the war. The Japanese, of course, tried to exploit anti-imperialist sentiment in the name of pan-Asian solidarity, but Bayly and Harper, though plainly unsympathetic to Britain’s imperialism, make clear that Japan’s was incomparably worse. The Japanese systematically executed 70,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore and southern Malaya. They sexually enslaved well over 50,000 of the great crescent’s women, and raped tens of thousands more; 14,000 Allied prisoners of war died as slave laborers on the Thailand-Burma railway (an ordeal made famous in ”The Bridge on the River Kwai”), along with possibly 20 times as many Indians, Burmese, Chinese and Malays, who were starved and worked to death. (Bayly and Harper should be praised for making plain a grim fact of war that nearly always goes unsaid: ”The scale of animal fatality was colossal.”) The British of course temporarily took back their Southeast Asian empire, but only with the help of their erstwhile subjects (Asians and Africans made up 70 percent of the soldiers in William Slim’s victorious 14th Army). In the terrible choices war gave the inhabitants of the great crescent, the craven hypocrisy of the British was infinitely preferable to the medieval sadism of the Japanese.

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