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The Fall of Singapore and Railway of Death

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A new film remembers the end of Britain's Asian Empire and a "complacent supremacy."

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Photo from georgeorwellbooks.com

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.

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 and 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 3,000-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."

Fortress Singapore:

Britain's military in Asia, especially the forces of the Indian Raj, never made the transition from an essentially 19th century colonial police force to a modern army capable of defending the realm against a determined and well equipped external enemy. British power rested on the hollow predicate of the martial prestige and technological superiority of the white man solely derived from its 19th century exploits and the innate complacency of being on the victorious side in the Great War of 1914-1918. Indeed, this was true for all European empires in Asia.

By 1941, British and Indian martial prowess was an illusion -- a bluff waiting to be called -- especially regarding the "impregnable fortress" of Singapore, the "unassailable Gibraltar of the East" to which Eric Lomax and his undermanned and badly equipped 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery were dispatched from India in November 1941, a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite an impressive -- albeit not entirely completed -- naval base at Sembawang, various airbases on the Malayan peninsular, and huge 15-inch guns in Singapore itself (which could, however, only be used against naval targets due to the lack of high-explosive rounds and more than 100,000 imperial troops), the city was a cul-de-sac, and the British high command was suffering from strategic delusions amplified by a vehement belief in their own racial superiority.

Once he received word of Japanese landings on the Malayan coast on December 8, the colonial governor of Singapore and Malaya casually remarked to the commanding British general Percival, "I suppose you'll shove the little men off." Eric Lomax recalls that his superior, General Wakeley, advised the troops to fight the Japanese at night because they were supposedly suffering from night blindness. "Prejudice masqueraded as fact," as the historian John W. Dower emphasizes in his work War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.

After the Japanese sunk the only two modern British battleships in the region, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, on December 10, 1941, Lomax recalls that for the first time, he and his comrades seriously considered defeat. All of a sudden, the racial equation reversed. With race as the single most important justification for European rule in Asia, Europeans themselves began to turn racial stereotypes upside down, making super-humans out of the Japanese. The British General Slim wrote that the Japanese suddenly became "the superbogeymen of the jungle," whereas British imperial troops developed an "inferiority complex" never seen before. John W. Dower quotes the official British history that the day the two ships were sunk "created the myth of Japanese superiority in all three services, which took a long time to die."

A Japanese expeditionary force of 36,000 men under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita fought its way down the Malay Peninsula equipped with light tanks and bicycles. Circumventing static British positions, the Japanese pushed back Australian, British, Indian and Malayan forces in what observers called a "bicycle blitzkrieg," inflicting heavy casualties as they went. The imperial British troops had no air force to speak of and ceded the sky to Japanese aircraft, which bombarded Singapore on multiple occasions, inflicting thousands of casualties among the civilian population. When the British rearguard crossed into Singapore on January 27, 1942 and blew up the causeway connecting Singapore to the mainland, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore and then a student at the elite Raffles College, told a British professor, "That is the end of the British Empire."

Winston Churchill wired his infamous telegram to General Wavell, the overall commander of allied operations in Southeast Asia:

There must be at this stage no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end and at all costs. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.

Eric Lomax spent the battle of Singapore at Fort Canning, General Percival's headquarters in Singapore: "This was the battlebox... I went in and didn't come out for three weeks." Once he ventured out, he was a prisoner of the Japanese. The battle for him "was a series of clipped shouts for help over the radio and terse bulletins of disaster." Singapore fell on Sunday, February 15, 1942.

"For the British, it was the end of a world that was never to be recreated, despite a second hand occupation after 1945 of nearly twenty years," argue Bayley and Harper in Forgotten Armies. In London, the British diplomat Harald Nicolson observed, "The Singapore surrender has been a terrific blow to all of us. It is dread that we are only half-hearted in fighting the whole-hearted." The collapse of the half-hearted colonial administration was total; the prestige of the Pukkah Sahib had vanished in an instant.

By May 1942 the Japanese also had completed their conquest of British Burma and had begun to transfer large numbers of allied POWs, soldiers mostly captured in Singapore including Eric Lomax, to camps in Northern Thailand and Burma to commence building the infamous death railway to improve communications with the large Japanese army poised to strike at India in the near future. What was left of the Pukkah Sahib prestige was lost in the subsequent months with European and Australian prisoners of war working and dying next to their former subjects, among them mostly Tamils, Malays, and Burmese. Even the eventual victory and the brilliant campaign of British General William Slim in Burma in 1944 and 1945, inflicting the largest defeat of the Japanese Armed Forces in their history, could not alleviate this fact.

In the latter days of his captivity, Eric Lomax found himself in a cell with an Asian from Indonesia. "He was the first Asian person I had ever been close to as an equal, and so my forced education in other ways of life continued," he noted. Once the awe of the Pukkah Sahib had vanished, a more open and democratic discourse was possible across racial boundaries. It took a while for this forced education to permeate through to the returning European colonial administrators in Southeast Asia; the war made the return to the pre-war status-quo an impossibility. In that sense, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, with its 6977 rectangular stone tiles, can be seen as a symbol of the unintentional emancipative forces unleashed by those who were alongside Eric Lomax on that infamous railway.

A version of this article has appeared in The Diplomat.