Published: 7 July, 2011
by ERIC GORDON
SO often our lives are shaped by big world events. This old saw, admittedly, came to me with a bit of a bang when I began reading this book on the bloody campaigns our armies fought in Burma in the Second World War.
And I thought of a journalist I knew called Selwyn Evans.
After some time the big secret came out. I had known him for several years and never once had he revealed he had been in the war, never mind that he had served in one of its steamiest and bloodiest campaigns. And not as a backroom boy either but as a frontline infantryman.
He just mentioned it one day as a kind of afterthought. We were in the middle of designing pages and goodness knows why his mind wandered back 40 years or more – but it did.
I can only admire how the author of The Burma Campaigns, the London University historian Frank McLynn, went about assembling this massive amount of material on what is known as the “Forgotten Campaign”.
McLynn describes in the preface how Britain, Japan and the United States jockeyed for economic dominance in the inter-war years, and I began to see Selwyn’s life reflected in the times in which he lived.
He grew up in a poor mining town in Wales in the 1930s, but he wouldn’t have guessed as a radical teenager who supported the Republicans in their war against Franco – and no doubt sympathised with the Chinese in their struggle against a colonising Japan – that within a few years he would be caught up in events and find himself in the campaign to win back Burma from the Japanese.
Today, the lives of many young teenagers, mostly unemployed, are being decided by Imperial interests in the Middle East and Far East. Thus, these young people volunteer for the army and within months find themselves fighting over the same terrain in Afghanistan that their forebears fought over in the 19th century.
When Selwyn found it more comfortable to talk about his Burma days he mentioned how he missed one battle, falling seriously ill with a mixture of malaria and dysentery – common diseases among our troops.
A man of the left – his father had been a radical preacher – Selwyn often spoke about how he became friends with Indian nationalists, led by Nehru and Gandhi, in their struggle for independence. But then, a little self-consciously, and obviously uncomfortable, he talked about his company’s involvement in a battle to take a Japanese-held hill. Two days before the planned assault, he fell dangerously ill, where he could hear the sounds of battle – the gunshots, the screams, the whimpering.
Then, fit or not, Selwyn and other patients were made to clear up the bloody, messy battlefield. “It was the smell, the smell. I can still smell it today, the smell of dead bodies in the sweltering heat, the stench, it was terrible...” he said. He added that many of his comrades were killed. And he said it in an almost matter-of-fact way.
McLynn writes racily about the leading officers of the day, many household names in the Second World War, such as Field Marshal Slim, Orde Wingate of the “Chindits” fame, and the bad-tempered American, General Stilwell, known as “Vinegar Joe”.
But only one name kept on coming back to me – that of Selwyn Evans. To me, he typified those thousands of brave British young soldiers who died.
Some of them would have known they were fighting a battle against fascism. Most, perhaps, didn’t know.
But they were all young men and, as McLynn sadly writes, too many are the “forgotten” men of the war.
• The Burma Campaigns – Disaster to Triumph 1942-45. By Frank McLynn. Vintage Books, £8.99