In his sweeping account of the battle in Kohima in 1944, Fergal Keane does justice to the memory of the men who fell and who survived.

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Rorke’s Drift, Tobruk, Gloster Hill, Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sanh. The siege; a town or a military outpost held by a vastly outnumbered force against a persistent and determined enemy is one of the most stirring and compelling of war stories.

Most will have heard of at least two of the aforementioned examples, but the battle for Kohima may be new to some. Along with the battles for Imphal and the Admin Box, it turned the tide against the relentless Japanese Imperial Army in Burma and signalled the beginning of the end of the war in the Far East.

Much of the war in Burma was fought around a series of towns, villages and junctions on the all-important “Lines of Communication”; roads running through the jungle between Burma and India. In 1944, The Japanese Army launched a 15,000 man offensive to take India from the hands of its Imperial masters; one of the battles focussed on Kohima, a tiny town in the Naga hills that was defended by a paltry 1,500 men of the British and Indian Armies. Even at the beginning of the two week siege, the perimeter was barely a mile around and by the end it had been reduced to less than two hundred yards across. The battle was fought with great savagery and persistence on both sides, but the level of that savagery is remarkable. One of the most hotly contested areas in the town was the District Commissioner’s tennis court, and it’s sobering to read the description of this part of the battle which sounds more like something from the Somme, thirty years before…

“Lance Corporal Dennis Wykes was also dug in with A Company at the tennis court, In old age his heart would quicken as he described the Japanese attack. ‘They came howling and screaming and full of go. It was terrifying but the only good thing was the screaming let you know where they were coming from and so we got our lines of fire right and mowed them down. Wave after wave, we cut them down with machine guns. I didn’t know if I was killing one or a dozen. I just swept the machine gun through ’em and that was it.'”

Keane’s account may not be the first and perhaps it says nothing new, but it brings the story of this terrible battle to a new generation of readers. It is very very well written; readable and compelling, and as clear a description of a confused and hellish military encounter as one could hope for. Not only does it provide an account of the battle itself but also describes the political situation in the Far East and the wider campaigns leading up to the crucial moment. There are plenty of maps (although they are distributed rather randomly through the paperback version) and a nice mixture of tactical description and personal account.

There are some fine pen pictures of the leading personalities of the battle, including Generals Slim, Sato and Mutaguchi, but also of the humble squaddies who did the killing – and dying – on both sides. Importantly, Keane has gathered accounts from the Japanese, Indian and Naga combatants as well as the British. The accounts from the Japanese soldiers are particularly poignant and give the lie to the misconception of the robotic Nip killing machine that endures to this day. The description of the operations by the Naga hill men (led by the indomitable Roedean girl Ursula Graham Bower) make a truly fascinating – albeit tantalisingly brief – addition to the story.

“An (Assam Regt) officer moving into his position at the tennis court found several (West Kent Regt) men leaning on the parapet in firing positions. He ordered them to move and then he pushed one. There was no response. They were all dead.”

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 6th April 2015

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