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Competent, though more drama please...,
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This review is from: Burma 1942 (Hardcover)
In terms of the historiography of the Second World War that of the Far East remains not just the first cousin to the European and Mediterranean theatres, but such a distant relation that it often appears they are not even related. This is especially true of the Japanese invasion of Burma, which began in late 1941, and reached its triumphant apogee only six months later as the defeated British marched out, humiliated, across the Chindwin at Kalewa, into monsoon-swept Manipur and the relative safety of India. It was an immense disaster for Britain, China and the vast numbers of Indians domiciled in Burma who trusted fully in the continuance of British rule for their security amidst a generally hostile Burmese population. It was also the longest retreat in the history of the British Army, the troops retiring from Rangoon nearly 1,000 miles in 100 days. Had it occurred at any other time in history (Singapore fell in February) it would play a much more dominant role in British military history, on a parallel with such horrors as the retreat from Kabul in 1842, the slaughter on Majuba Hill in 1881 or the incompetent defence of Kut in 1916. There have only been a handful of published accounts of this dreadful time, some by survivors, a few excellent though horrifying memoirs and, until now, only a tiny number of books dealing with the events of this period as part of a lucid, historical narrative.
It is for this reason that Alan Warren's foray into this subject is to be welcomed. An academic historian in Australia, his account is thorough and the context of war in Burma in 1941 and 1942 clearly presented. He weaves accounts of the participants (seemingly secured entirely from published sources) into his narrative in a coherent and thoroughly competent way. His account of the naval battles in the Indian Ocean add very useful strategic context to all that was going on at the time on land. It is clear that Warren is a master of the technical dimension of the historian's art.
However, the book is not the full-orbed account that it could be, because Warren's approach and style over emphasises the principle of historical detachment. As a result the book conveys none of the passion and drama of these times that make the period so overwhelmingly vivid, from the debates in London, Singapore and New Delhi over strategy and resources, to the agony and grief of the wet jungle battlefield. There is no analysis of the protracted and bitter debates between Wavell, Hutton, Smyth and - later - Alexander, about whether or not to defend Rangoon forward. Nor have we any sense in these pages of the human drama of the time; of 'Dormouse-Smith's' naivety, Wavell's exhaustion and anger, Hutton's prevarication, Smyth's arrogance, Alexander's ignorant nonchalance and Slim's cool brilliance. It is these things that bring the reality of life in Burma in 1942 alive, for the British at least. These were tumultuous times, but little sense can be gained from these all too clinical and dispassionate pages of the chaos, fear, passion, anger, trauma and end-of-the-world feeling more readily apparent in books written, for instance, by Louis Allen, James Lunt and Alfred Draper. It is unfortunate that in his laudable eagerness for objectivity Warren has missed much of the human drama, heroism and dirty squabbling, both British and Japanese, that characterised these times.
It appears also that Warren has depended exclusively on accessible published sources for his material, and has ignored the unpublished diaries, memoirs and diaries that are readily available in archives in the UK. The Burma Campaign Memorial Library at SOAS in London has an almost complete collection of everything ever published on this campaign, but a study of his bibliography indicates that Warren was seemingly unaware of its existence when writing his book. There are certainly some surprising gaps in his use of secondary sources, such as his failure to examine the work of Daniel Marston on the Indian Army. Equally, nothing seems to have been taken from the vast treasure of official documents - war diaries, accounts of battles, formal and semi-formal correspondence - that are bursting at the seams of files in the National Archives in Kew. For these two reasons an otherwise excellent account remains deficient. The subject still awaits exhaustive - and less dispassionate - treatment, the best of which still remains that by Ian Lyall-Grant and Kazuo Tamayama (1999).