Row after row of neatly arranged rectangular gravestones stretch across the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, forming a dark gray silent phalanx of 6,977 tiles punctuated in precise intervals by close-cropped patches of lush green grass upon which, almost imperceptibly, splashes of water fall from a sprinkler. The graveyard is dominated at its center by a white marble cross that towers over the gray formation. In the late afternoon sun, the cross throws its shadow over a stone, darkening the inscription: “L.G. Kidd, Royal Army Service Corps, Age 23, 1st November 1943, In Loving and Everlasting Remembrance of Our Only Beloved Son. R.I.P.” Kidd is one of a few thousand soldiers buried here who died defending Britain’s Asian Empire.
Kanchanaburi, a small provincial town in Northern Thailand, is home to the largest allied war cemetery in the region. It is the final resting place of around 7,000 of the more than 12,000 British, Dutch, Australian, Malayan, and Indian soldiers who perished building the infamous Burma-Siam railway —“the Railway of Death”—during the Second World War. (The 700 Americans who died on the railway were repatriated after the war). The approximately 80,000 Asian forced laborers who also succumbed during the construction of the railway from October 1942 to December 1943 have no marked graves.
The town is mostly famous for a railway bridge built by British POWs crossing the Kwai River (also called the River Kwai Yai or Maeklaung River), which became the inspiration for Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and a subsequent movie of the same name. Kanchanaburi has again risen to temporary prominence with the movie adaptation of the book The Railway Man, the harrowing memoirs of the late Eric Lomax, a former British officer and prisoner of war of the Japanese, who was put to work on the railway as one of 60,000 allied prisoners. Like so many of his comrades, Lomax was tortured by his captors and almost died during interrogations by the Kempei—the Japanese secret police—in a prison in Kamburi, a name given to Kanchanaburi by the allied POWs.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In addition to being an uplifting personal account of a man battling his war-induced inner demons, learning to cope with them, and even forgiving one of his former torturers, the book also unintentionally chronicles the end of European supremacy, including Kipling’s race-induced White Man’s Burden, the fall of Singapore in February 1942—“the worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history according to Winston Churchill—and the subsequent sufferings and humiliations of those who once ruled huge swathes of Asia.
The Pukkah Sahib
“There were few parallels in history to this sudden and dramatic humiliation of an old and complacent supremacy—the British Empire in Asia—by an underrated and despised enemy,” argue the historians Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper in their book, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan. Seventy-two years after the fall of Singapore, and the stories of survivors as well as pictures of the emaciated, raggedly clothed columns of half-dead European and Australian prisoners of war working in the jungle under Korean and Japanese guards, it may be hard to understand how utterly the world turned upside down for the inhabitants of Southeast Asia in 1942, where the white man was seen as godlike, invincible, and without reproach.
The 1930s were the heyday of the Pukkah Sahib, the white male European, who merely by relocating anywhere “East of Suez” was transferred into a “lord” and “master” regardless of his social standing in Great Britain. In his Burmese Days, Orwell sardonically observes the complacency of imperial administrators to the deteriorating conditions in the British Empire, sitting in, “Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whiskey to the right of you…listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil.”
In Britain’s Asian Empire, the importance of the city of Singapore was paramount. By 1930, 23 percent of the Empire’s trade was funneled through Singapore’s markets. As Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper point out, “Singapore was by the 1930s outwardly one of the most prosperous cities of the British Empire…More than Calcutta, London, or even New York, it was perhaps the first truly global city of the twentieth century. It was a hub of communications and a city of infinite ethnic fractions. Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Parsis, White Russians, and not least, the 3000-odd Japanese residents all contributed in their way to Singapore’s general obsession with technology and consumption…Singapore was obsessed with modernity.” At the same time, Singapore was home to the most racist of all British colonial regimes in Asia with strict, racially segregated quarters and little social interaction between the white elite and the rest of the population.
George Orwell and other perceptive authors such as E.M. Forster in his 1924 masterpiece A Passage to India increasingly highlighted this inherent racism of British imperial rule and the incompatibility of the idea of a modern liberal empire founded upon force and a segregated colonial society. “The Indian Empire is a despotism—benevolent no doubt but still a despotism with theft as its final object . . .It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere,” emphasized Orwell in Burmese Days. While in the novel another character presciently argues, “In the end, we shall simply leave India,” this departure was always thought to be an internal decision rather than foreign imposed since even well into the 1930s Europeans still believed that “whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.”