Remembrance Day: Reflecting on a Forgotten Front

Indian troops wade ashore at Akyab, Burma.

Almost every year, I do some sort of post to reflect on Remembrance Day. Usually, I cover North Africa, as my paternal grandfather fought at El Alamein and onwards. But on my other side of the family, I have my great-uncle, a controversial man who is the source of many family stories, good and ill. He fought in Burma, probably as part of the 14th Army under General William Slim.

The 14th Army is often called the Forgotten Army, and the whole Burma campaign is often a source of contention in how important it was to the defeat of the Japanese Empire…

But, the 14th Army was made up mostly of Colonial troops, from as far afield as West and East Africa. The biggest contingent also had the biggest reason to put up a fight; Indian troops. India was in the process of achieving independence from the British, and there was many schools of thought on how to achieve this.

Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian Nationalist, thought this was through armed rebellion, and his Indian National Army consisted of Indian POWs, expatriates in Malaya, and other sources recruited into Japanese service. This was in an attempt to take India with Japanese aid, and 43,000 Indians fought in it. There was also the bizarre case of the Indische Legion, a German unit of Indian defectors and students, 4500 all told.

Mohan Singh of the Indian National Army meets with Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, Imperial Japanese Army.

However, the other school of thought was to fight loyally in British service and earn Indian independence that way. 2.5 million Indian soldiers would fight in WW2, as part of the British Indian Army, the largest volunteer army in history. They would fight in North Africa, Italy, Burma, East Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore and even Iran.

Indian and Gurkha soldiers inspect captured munitions after the Battle of Kohima, specifically the hill known as “Scraggy”

Admittedly, how my family fits into this is a bit different then the heroic account of either fighting for independence or fighting to earn independence. We are Anglo-Indians(well, Anglo-Pakistani, but that distinction is lost in the 1940’s). While I can’t ask either my grandfather or grand-uncle about their reasons for enlisting, chances are it is more about adventure and doing their bit for King and Country, preserving the status-quo. We are not Indian enough to be accepted in Indian circles, nor British enough to be accepted fully by the British. Still, when the time came, they both answered the call.

Back to the 14th Army. The Japanese, after their victories in Singapore and Hong Kong, got the wrong idea about the British and Indian armies, believing them weak and ready to fall. They thought by going through Burma, they could invade India, taking the Jewel of Empire away from the British just as they needed it most. What stood in their way was a depleted garrison, stripped to fight the Germans in the west, in clothing ill-suited to the environment. Japan had the support of Thailand and the Burmese Independence Army.

Initially, the Japanese made swift gains. Unrest in India kept troops away from the frontline, and those that were at the front were tactically outmatched by veteran Japanese troops. Famine in Bengal, which may have caused around 3 million deaths, was also an issue. Morale was low. Imphal, in northeast India, fell under siege.

Indian troops move ammunition up a mountain path, muddy and treacherous.

It was in 1943/44 that the balance shifted. The Indian and British troops managed to reverse the Japanese offensive into India. Even with amphibious landings being called off to move landing craft to Europe for the Normandy Landings, offensives were made.

The contribution of the Chindits, famous behind the lines raiders, is not to be underestimated or overestimated. The Chindits were drawn from Regular Army units of both the Indian and British armies, and while most of the their deep penetration operations achieved only minor gains, the morale boost was worth its weight in gold. The myth of the Japanese being better jungle fighters, and the air of invincibility was lost. The Chindits arguably greatest moment was harassing Japanese supply-lines in support of the Battle of Kohima, leading to the Japanese starving out.

Even the Americans got involved, with Merrill’s Marauders, a similar US Army unit formed along Chindit lines, operating in Northern Burma, allying themselves with the Kachin natives. The Chinese fought here as well, but were hampered by bad command; they had bigger problems elsewhere in China, Burma was a distraction they could ill-afford.

The 14th Army was formed in late 1943, amalgamating several smaller commands into one cohesive chain of command. They took Kohima, turned an almost defeat into victory at the Battle of the Admin Box, and relieved Imphal.

Gurkhas clear the Japanese from the Imphal-Kohima road, with the help of Grant Tanks. The Grant soldiered on in Asia since the Japanese armour had trouble with it.

The 14th Army then proceeded to follow the retreating Japanese into Central Burma, defeating them at the Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay. This opened up the road to Rangoon, which was key to solidifying the victory in Burma.

Sherman tanks of the 63rd Motorized Brigade move into Meiktila.

Once Rangoon was captured(the Japanese abandoned it), the war in Burma petered out. The 14th Army was relieved of its duty to hold Burma, and was now tasked with retaking Malaya and Singapore. This didn’t pan out, due to the small matter of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrender brought an end to the campaign, nearly 4 years after it began.

M3 Stuarts of the Indian Army advance on Rangoon.
Lieutenant General Kawada, surrenders himself and his 31st Division to Major General Arthur W Crowther, 17th Indian Division, at Moulmein, Burma.

The end of the campaign, and the war, brought about massive change to the geopolitics of the region. The former colonial rulers could not afford to stay and within three years both Burma and India would become independent states. The victory in Burma did allow however a graceful exit; in the words of American historian Raymond Calhoun, “helped the British, unlike the French, Dutch or, later, the Americans, to leave Asia with some dignity“.

India, especially, had some growing pains. The partition of India and Pakistan and the subsequent war that followed in 1947 would pit veterans of the 14th against one another.

The Indian National Army trials would cause serious unrest in India, and the charges were dropped by the British authorities. While not allowed the same privilege’s as Gandhi’s freedom fighters, they are remembered just as much in India as the British Indian Army is.

On Remembrance Day, in Imphal and Kohima, small services are held each year to honour the fallen. India doesn’t universally mark Remembrance Day, but there are services held each year. In Canada, many Indian and Pakistani immigrant families(mine included) remember both the sacrifices of Canadian serviceman, and the sacrifices of Commonwealth war dead from all across the Empire.

This is not to take away from the main goal of Remembrance Day, to honour our mother or adopted countries fallen. And I will remember Vimy Ridge, The Scheldt, Ortona, and many other places where Canadian lives were lost. But I also choose, alongside many people I know, to remember Gallipoli, Kapyong, and many other places where the British Empire and her sons fell.

This year, I’m adding Burma to that list. The Forgotten Army is long due for some recognition.

Indian’s fought for Empire, and fell in France, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, in two World Wars. Tomorrow, I choose to honour that commitment.

Lest we Forget.

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