Review: NOT ORDINARY MEN The Story of the Battle of Kohima by Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes
 
 
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Having driven the British and Indian Forces out of Burma in 1942, General Mutaguchi, Commanding the 15th Japanese Army, was obsessed by the conquest of India. In 1944 the British 14th Army, under its commander General Slim, drew back to the Imphal Plain before Mutaguchi’s impending offensive.
Having driven the British and Indian Forces out of Burma in 1942, General Mutaguchi, Commanding the 15th Japanese Army, was obsessed by the conquest of India. In 1944 the British 14th Army, under its commander General Slim, drew back to the Imphal Plain before Mutaguchi’s impending offensive.

Feelings remain raw. If you are a regular subscriber to WHO you will have dipped into the occasional Second World War themed article on the war in the Far East which often excite a fair amount of pretty hot comment aimed at the behaviour of the Japanese towards the wounded, prisoners, innocents and just about anyone who got in their way.  Even after seventy odd years it is impossible to find an excuse for a society that condoned the idea that a wounded man could be lashed to a tree and used for bayonet practice. Yet, it happened with appalling regularity.  This was the tip of the iceberg and I use it merely as an example.

We know that when the atomic bombs were dropped the overwhelming feeling of ‘good riddance’ was almost universal in equal measure to that of relief for the idea that an invasion of Japan would not be needed. We have to balance this with the reality that, for all their brilliant adaptation of western consumerism and technology and many other but, significantly, not ALL the trappings of our lifestyle, the Japanese, like other baffling peoples who have followed them since; just aren’t the same as us. It usually clicks when it’s way too late.

We know the Japanese soldier as a hardy, ruthless killer who could fight through everything and anything; living off meagre rations, enduring great hardship. He was prepared to die for his emperor and showed no quarter. He feared no one and expected no mercy. His enemies were soft white men who could not fight; they ran away and were easily beaten. He had bested them at every turn and seen them surrender in droves with great dishonour.

The flip side to this came as a rude shock to the all conquering sons of Nippon in 1944 when they came up against a British army at a hill station which has gone down in history as the place where that army showed it could fight and beat the Japanese; the hallowed ground of Kohima.

This book was first published in 1994 and has seen several reprints. The author John Colvin knew his subject. He was born in Japan, he knew the people. He had fought them and taken their surrender in Saigon. His writing style is often fast flowing like your favourite brook from a childhood memory where you looked for tadpoles – where it widens and gets a little lazy or where it is trickier to ford. At times it slows to a dormant meander and you get a little hazy and then it zooms off again. You want to throw stones into it. But the detail is all there and so are the magnificent people. Too many of them die.

Inevitably we find ourselves drawn to the Epitaph written by the classicist John Maxwell Edmonds who never set foot anywhere near Burma, but was inspired by similarities with Simonides and the Spartans at Thermopylae. He wrote the immortal lines

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.

Those lines get you, don’t they? Don’t say they don’t. I defy you. Poems come out all long and way too wordy and I can’t be doing with all that. But there in two lines you have it all. Sacrifice and Remembrance. Take note. Never forget. Nuff said.

The British 2nd Infantry Division included proud regiments whose colours bear the battle honour “Kohima” as well they might. But only one regiment from the actual garrison, the Royal West Kents, through the epic fought by the sturdy 4th Battalion has “Defence of Kohima” on theirs. They endured horrors of the like no man should bear against that most resilient and terrifying enemy, the Japanese soldier. They withstood the jungle and all its evils. They took it all on and won. But the things that were done to them left a terrible mark and down the years they have faded away as old British soldiers do. When they held a gathering of veterans at Kohima many years ago; British, Indian and Japanese, nobody from the West Kents would go. Feelings remain raw.

Mark Barnes

NOT ORDINARY MEN
The Story of the Battle of Kohima
By John Kolvin
Published by Pen & Sword Military £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 848884 871 9

 
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