Kohima. In this remote Indian village near the border with Burma, a tiny force of British and Indian troops faced the might of the Imperial Japanese Army. Outnumbered ten to one, the defenders fought the Japanese hand to hand in a battle that was amongst the most savage in modern warfare. A garrison of no more than 1,500 fighting men, desperately short of water and with the wounded compelled to lie in the open, faced a force of 15,000 Japanese. They held the pass and prevented a Japanese victory that would have proved disastrous for the British. Another six weeks of bitter fighting followed as British and Indian reinforcements strove to drive the enemy out of India. When the battle was over, a Japanese army that had invaded India on a mission of imperial conquest had suffered the worst defeat in its history. Thousands of men lay dead on a devastated landscape, while tens of thousands more Japanese starved in a catastrophic retreat eastwards. They called the journey back to Burma the ‘Road of Bones’, as friends and comrades committed suicide or dropped dead from hunger along the jungle paths.
‘It is a noble book that Keane has written’ – Jan Morris
‘It’s some of the smaller, emotional details of this account that strike hardest. The leeches accompanying every march, the lice that infect open wounds, the mud and guts, the almost berserk heroism as Corporal John Harman VC storms two Japanese machine gun nests, the count of the dead day after day on that damned tennis court. Keane catches both shrinking revulsion and astounding courage to brilliant effect because he so often puts people first, because he knows that this all-consuming encounter could only look in on itself as the battle crawled from trench to trench through days and weeks without sleep. There wasn’t a wider world in Kohima then: just more broken bodies in the ad hoc hospital, more broken minds slipping away into the forests of the night.’ Guardian, read the full review here.
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