BOOK REVIEW War without end Roads of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944 by Fergal Keane
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - The remote hilltop town of Kohima, which a few decades ago was
little more than an overgrown village, may not bear any resemblance to the huge
industrial city on the Volga river in Russia, where Germany's advances east
were halted by decisive battles with Soviet forces in 1942-1943. But Kohima in
the mountains of northeastern India was in many ways "Asia's Stalingrad".
It was here that the Japanese Imperial Army was defeated by British and
British-Indian troops and forced to retreat back into Burma (Myanmar), marking
a pivotal turning point in the Asia
theater of World War II.
As British writer Fergal Keane describes this epic battle: "When fighting
ceased, the Japanese army that had invaded India on a mission of imperial
conquest had suffered its worst-ever defeat. Thousands lay dead, while
countless more starved in a catastrophic retreat eastwards to Burma. They
called this devastating journey the 'Road of Bones'."
The siege of Kohima lasted from early April to late June 1944. It was a fierce,
hand-to-hand battle where the frontline went right across the British deputy
commissioner's tennis court, and where many of those who died fighting on the
Allied side are buried in a beautifully laid-out cemetery, now Kohima's main
There were so-called "native troops" on both sides. The Japanese had the
support of soldiers from Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA) -
although most of them never got beyond Imphal in Manipur to the south, and,
according to Keane, "suffered heavy casualties on the retreat from India and
troops complained bitterly of being used as porters by the Japanese".
Apart from regular Indian troops on the British side, local Naga tribesmen also
took part in the war as scouts and fighters in guerrilla-type units that
harassed and ambushed the Japanese wherever they could. One such unit was
commanded by a female British anthropologist, Ursula Graham Bower, who had
fallen in love with the Nagas and the Naga Hills. During the war, some
tribesmen believed she was the reincarnation of a Naga priestess and became her
But Keane's book is more than an outline of a now almost forgotten war, where
two imperial powers clashed and one defeated the other. He also shows
remarkable understanding of the Japanese soldiers who fought and died in these
rugged hills and dense jungles through extensive interviews with Japanese
survivors and their relatives. One of his Japanese sources, he states, "spent
many hours translating documents for the book, including [the commanding
officer] Lieutenant General Kotuku Saito's handwritten account of Kohima".
The book is dedicated to "all the dead" in this fierce battle that changed the
course of World War II in Asia. Had the British and their allies been defeated,
Japan could have invaded India and today's Asia would have likely looked very
Indeed, the legacy of the siege of Kohima is important in a modern context.
Many Nagas had hoped they would be rewarded for their fighting efforts with a
special status, perhaps even independence, when Britain eventually relinquished
its Indian Empire in 1947. But that was not to happen.
According to Keane, when the supreme commander of the Allied forces in
Southeast Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and later viceroy of India, "Promised
that Britain would never forget her debt to the Nagas, he was not indulging in
mere rhetoric. But [he] was speaking in the bright glow of victory, when nobody
could have imagined a civil war in the hills."
The Naga National Council (NNC) declared independence for the Naga Hills on
August 14, 1947 - a day before India's declaration - and a civil war broke out
in the mid-1950s. The situation in the Naga Hills was similar to that in
Burma's frontier areas, where the Karen and some other ethnic minorities,
hoping the British would support them, took up arms for independence when World
War II came to a close.
The Karen and Kachin were among the non-Burman tribes that had sided with the
British against the Japanese. And they are still fighting today, if not for
separation from Burma, now known as Myanmar, but some degree of autonomy within
a federal union. Like the Nagas, many Karens and most Kachins are Christians,
converted by Western Baptist missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th
The legacy of World War II in the Naga Hills is somewhat similar. Local rebel
forces fought the Indian army for years, hoping for independence and
maintaining that they were not Indians. In the end, Britain was not sympathetic
to the idea of independence for those tribal communities. While some Naga
rebels had fought alongside the British against the Japanese during the siege
of Kohima, the NNC was led by Angami Zapu Phizo, who had been allied with
Bose's INA. Phizo nevertheless later settled in London, aided by British
supporters to his cause.
Many old hands from the colonial era clearly sided with the Naga independence
movement. Keane points out that "Graham Bower persuaded her friend David Astor,
editor of the Observer, to send an undercover reporter into Nagaland" to
investigate alleged Indian atrocities there and to write about the rebel
In 1962, that reporter, the late Gavin Young, became the first foreign
journalist to spend time with the Naga guerrillas. This reviewer was the
second, when I stayed for a couple of months with Naga rebels across the border
in northwestern Burma in 1985.
The war in the Naga Hills was the first internal war against the Indian state
after it achieved independence in 1947. And it has been an extremely bloody
conflict, as Keane writes: "Accurate casualty figures are not available. The
number of Naga dead is estimated at anything between 20,000 and 100,000. The
casualties occurred as a result of insurrection and factional infighting
between Naga groups and, during the 1990s, with the Kuki tribe. The Indian
security forces also sustained thousands of casualties."
It is often argued that World War II never ended in the hills of northern
Myanmar and northeastern India. Viewed from that perspective, Keane's
outstanding account of the battle of Kohima, "Asia's Stalingrad," has important
contemporary value. For the present can not be understood without recalling the
past and Keane has brilliantly tied events from more than 60 years ago to
today's ongoing conflict in the Naga Hills.
Roads of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944 by Fergal Keane.
HarperPress; 1st Edition edition (15 April 2010). ISBN ISBN-10: 0007132409.
Price US$30, 550 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer
with Asia-Pacific Media Services.
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