on 21 March 2007
John Masters is a fantastic writer, as shown by his post-war career. But here he concentrates on his wartime experiences, and brings them to life as well as any of his novels. Although he details his other employment the book concentrates on the famous Second Chindit operation, which he began as brigade major of 111th Brigade. But following the death of Wingate and the promotion of the brigade commander, 'Joe' Lentaigne, to take over, Masters was appointed to command the brigade.
With Wingate dead the Chindits found themselves supporting the American-Chinese forces under 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell, a noted Anglophobe - indeed, misanthrope - who told Lentaigne the Chindits were a 'bunch of lily-livered Limey popinjays'. He then fought them until they were so exhausted that to Masters everyone seemed to move like sleepwalkers in slow motion. 'A Cameronian lieutenant fell headfirst into a weapon pit and two Japanese soldiers five yards away leaned weakly on their rifles and laughed, slowly, while the officer struggled to his feet, slowly, and trudged up the slope the shells fell slowly and burst with long slow detonations and the men collapsed slowly to the ground, blood flowing in gentle gouts into the mud.'
Finally, after a bitter series of signals, Masters' demand for medical examination of 111th Brigade was agreed to. Over three days all the remaining 2,200 men were examined, of whom those judged fit for service in any theatre amounted to 118. Masters added his own name to the list and
asked, with bitter sarcasm, for orders from Stilwell for the remainder of his brigade. Stilwell sent them: 111th Company, as he now called it, would guard a Chinese artillery battery. When they arrived at their new task the friendly but puzzled American liaison officer said that they did not, really, need guarding much. 'I wasn't going to let the Chinese get away with that nonsense', wrote Masters. 'When a major of Chinese artillery gets a brigade commander of the Regular Indian Army assigned to protect him, he's damn well going to be protected.' They dug positions; when begged to leave, they dug deeper. After 10 days someone tired of this nonsense and 111th Company was finally permitted to leave Burma. Masters 'scrambled into a C-47 and, not knowing or caring where it was going, fell asleep'. 'The Road Past Mandalay' is surely the best memoir of campaign.
on 25 January 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's an easy read and Master's style is informal and personal, like he's writing to a friend.
The book opens surprisingly, a long, long ways from Burma, Imphal, Blackpool or Rees's 19th Division. They're in the Middle East under the command of William Slim of the 10th Indian Division. If any of you have read Slim's Unofficial History you'll quickly recognize two of the incidents from Slim's book repeated in Master's Road Past Mandalay. The two incidents are immediately recognizable (think Deir-es-Zor and the Pai-Tak Pass), and its interesting to read about the two actions; once from Slim's perspective, then from Master's point of view.
This is one of the few books written by "one who was there." Think Swinson's Kohima, Evan's Imphal or Slim's Defeat Into Victory. Like Slim's errors at Kohima and Imphal, Masters allowed himself to be backed into Blackpool on the second Chindit expedition after Joe Lentaign (111th Indian Infantry Brigade) was promoted to replace Orde Wingate. Blackpool was a travesty and its refreshing to read an author take responsibility for his actions instead of blaming Stilwell, Slim or Lentaign.
What drew my attention to Road Past Mandalay is how many other authors (Allen, Lattimer, Edwards, Keane) reference this title in their bibliographies.
The book is more then Master's time in the Chindits in 1944. In the book he describes being assigned to staff college at Quetta. Because of this assignment to the Quetta staff collge, he missed the opportunity to be surrounded, killed or captured by Rommel's Afrika Corps in the Cauldron battles prior to El Alamein.
He also takes the time to describe life in India before and during World War II when it was still part of the British Raj. Remember, Masters was born in India to a career Indian Army father, and except for school (Sandhurst) I don't believe he spent any significant time in England before or after World War II.
He describes his meeting Barbara, their courtship, fathering a daughter and separation from his family while deep in Burma as a Chindit.
One thing I did learn in this book was that after his Chindit experience he was assigned to Pete Rees's 19th (Dagger) Division at the time Rees was driving down the East Side of the Irrawady towards Mandalay. For a very, very short period of time, Rees went back to Corps headquarters and left Masters in Command of the Division. This was at a time the Division was in direct contact with the Japanese and fighting its way into the Northern outskits of Mandalay.
Again, its an easy read. Very few maps or pictures. Its more like reading a very long letter from a friend, far away, who you haven't seen for awhile.
He ends the book by telling us what happened to some of the characters in the story. How Rees died on steps of City Hall of a heart attack, or Chindit Bill Henning that is (or was) farming, Desmond Whyte, Chindit doctor; now (or was) a Radiologist in Northern Ireland, or how he (Masters) ended up in Montana with Barbara and their daughter.
If an author of Jon Lattimer's status takes the time to read the book and critique it in the pages of Amazon dot com, then, potential readers are advised to take notice.
The book is out of print but I notice that numerous copies still seem to be available. If you're interested in Chindit operations, the Burma Theatre, India and World War II you'll enjoy this book. I certainly did.
on 11 September 2013
Memoir of a Forgotten War: John Masters's The Road Past Mandalay
Previously, I was vaguely aware of John Masters as the author of Bhowani Junction (1954), a novel set in the late 1940s at the end of the Raj and known to me only via the mediocre film adaptation starring Ava Gardner. More recently, I wanted to read something about World War Two in Burma, the theatre of war my father experienced and in which I was therefore particularly interested. By chance I came across Masters's The Road Past Mandalay (1961), the second volume of his autobiography and primarily about the war in Burma. I have just finished reading it and find it an honest, well written and informative book based on first-hand experience of a sometimes visceral intensity.
Masters is well qualified to write about the war in the East. Though educated at Wellington College and Sandhurst, he was born in Calcutta in 1914 and served on the North-West Frontier in the 1930s, first with a British infantry regiment and later with the Gurkhas, experiences described in the first volume of his autobiography, Bugles and a Tiger. Such a life follows tradition, for Masters's family had a long genealogy of military service in India. He is both insider and outsider, knowing the country well but as a member of the imperial caste. This doubleness has advantages but also limits. Masters is a knowledgeable and perceptive chronicler of both the war and the last days of the Raj, but there is little if anything radical in his thinking and his limited sympathy with Indian nationalism may now seem very much of its period, though his remarks about British rule in India do call attention to achievements which it's currently fashionable to ignore.
Mandalay begins with Masters serving as a temporary captain in a regiment of Gurkhas fighting in the Middle East in 1941-42. From there he goes for training at the army Staff College in Quetta, in present-day Pakistan but then within the Raj, and later takes part in the Burma campaign as a Chindit, a soldier fighting against the Japanese behind their lines. The account of his intimate personal life, a phrase that could apply equally to his army experience, such is the intensity of its relationships, appears in the background and comes to prominence at the end of the book, when Masters, now a brigadier, makes a pilgrimage with his wife through the Himalayas and discovers that the war has ended.
Masters's narrative is primarily linear, a chronicle studded with anecdotes. Such a structure enables a balance between the large picture and the tiny but telling detail. Masters gets the mix of close-up, the wider view of the action in which he's involved and the bigger picture of the whole campaign exactly right. Tiny vignettes with, apparently, the actual spoken words, ghastly details like the problem of overcrowding in the Main Dressing Station at the base in Burma being solved by "two direct shell hits," and the relentlessly close-up pictures of the terminally wounded who, in a nadir of horror, must be executed, are placed in the larger, more generalised narrative of the fight, making it vivid and shocking. Masters does not romanticise military action or its consequences, emotional as well as physical, for the participants, and the reader can well believe that the author remembers the very words and tiniest details at the time of writing even 15 or 20 years later. No account, however powerful, could really give the war-virgin reader full empathy with the intense experiences Masters describes, but his use of stabbingly vivid detail within the larger narrative comes close.
Masters's use of language or, more accurately, languages enhances the telling of his story. Like many Anglo-Indians, he is polyglot, speaking Gurkhali and Hindi, and the presence of words from these and other Asian languages colours the text, adding to its strong sense of authority and authenticity. The language of Mandalay is further enriched by army terms, for example, a listing of ranks in the Indian Army, which gives a flavour of that wonderful compendium of the language of the Raj, Hobson-Jobson, and the then not-so-long-lost world of Kipling's India. Period terms, such as "flicks" for films, a usage familiar to my parents' generation, further enhance the sense of another time and place.
Towards the end of the book, and the war, Masters goes on a journey with his wife through the Himalayas. High up, they find "one of the rarest and quite the most beautiful flower in the world, a Himalayan Blue Poppy." This flower, reminiscent of German Romanticism's Blue Rose, is a symbol of Masters's quest or pilgrimage to transcend the war and the horrors of it, to connect with something beyond the ephemera of human history, with some essence of existence beyond words. Masters manages to convey the reality of this desire without indulging in fortune-cookie philosophising like, say, Somerset Maugham in The Razor's Edge. The pilgrimage, in fact, occurs elsewhere in Anglo-Indian literature, in Kipling's Kim, for example, and Masters is following that tradition. Similarly, escape to and challenge by the mountains has a long history in English autobiography and the lives of military men, as in Robert Graves's Good-bye to All That or, more recently, as documented in Wade Davis's Into the Silence. As the title suggests, Masters's novel, Far, Far the Mountain Peak (1957) has a similar focus. In the end section of Mandalay, the reader may feel the novelist's shaping hand, though events themselves may be as neat as fiction's patterning, and autobiography and the novel are, inevitably, overlapping genres. Mandalay ends with Masters's discovery that the A-bomb has been dropped on Japan. This is the way the war ends, not with a whimper but a bang.
Like all of us, Masters is a product of his time and place, though he isn't the prisoner of these. His love for India and its people and for the men he serves with is clear. Mandalay is a vividly written, informative account of the Burma campaign, one that has received less attention than the European war. There are good histories of the Burma campaign such as Louis Allen's Burma and Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper's Forgotten Armies. These don't ignore the soldier's eye view but a well written personal account is unmatched at conveying the first-hand experience. Along with George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here and Julian Thompson's anthology of oral history, Forgotten Voices of Burma, Mandalay is essential reading for anyone interested in that campaign and the reality of war.