Book Review: Burma ’44, by James Holland

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cv_burma44A photo caption, “Every man had to dig himself a hole in the ground” almost sums up the nature of the Battle of the Admin Box, as told in James Holland’s astonishing account of a crucial but forgotten battle fought by a “ragtag collection of clerks, drivers, doctors and muleteers….” that saved Britain’s 14th Army – the forgotten army of the war against Japan.

After many disasters and an almost total loss of faith, the British in 1944 were planning the retaking of Burma, the hard way, across the Indian Border and through the jungle. They were under new command with General Slim supported by the newly arrived Commander and Chief of the all forces in the East, Earl Mountbatten. Everything was going according to plan with a careful build-up of well-trained men, veterans from many other fronts such as Alamein. Food, ammunition and most importantly top quality fighter aircraft, Spitfires, were all available and ready to go.

But the Japanese had other ideas. They wanted to invade and conquer India. And they moved first, catching the British, who were preparing to go on the offensive, by surprise. Their path lay through Arakan, in North West Burma, an area of dense tropical forest with heavy rain and sweltering heat, making conditions very difficult. The area was defended by units of the 5th and 7th Divisions of the Indian Army, a collection of many nationalities and faiths.

The real focus of this book is what became known as the Battle of Admin Box. But is not until Part Two on Page 161, that the amazing story of this battle begins to be told in detail.
Prior to that, James Holland skillfully develops the context of the battle that took place over those few fateful days in February 1944.

Part one is really a tale of how the Britain’s Indian Army of the Raj, an army basically of occupation, was turned by defeat, retreat and humiliation into one that was well led, trained and resourced with modern equipment; that had learned how to fight, had discovered that Japanese soldiers were not superhuman and by withstanding and winning a most brutal and murderous assault, eventually triumphed.

There were later, bigger battles, at Imphal and Kohima which have had considerably more attention by historians. But perhaps for the War on the Indian sub-continent it can be said that the Battle at Shazeya was, as someone said of another battle, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. And it was not even fought by a majority of trained soldiers but a “ragtag…”

Readers, taking up this book, would be well advised to observe carefully its construction. Get a clear understanding of the maps before starting and also of “The Cast,” noting that there are no footnotes but lots of quotations from officers and soldiers. References to these are found at the back, along with an order of battle, timeline, glossary and comprehensive index.

The story is actually told by “The Cast” from their own diaries, letters and oral histories, skillfully woven into a comprehensive account of events.

This book is good, modern military history: very readable.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Burma ‘44: The Battle that Turned Britain’s War in the East
by James Holland
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN: 9780593075869

Book Review: Roly the Anzac Donkey, written by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_roly_the_anzac_donkeyRoly (Roland) is a donkey who was born on a farm in a village in Greece. When he was one year old a soldier from the British Army came and took a group of donkeys to use during the First World War. They were taken by ship to Gallipoli, in Turkey, where the British Army and other allied forces were fighting the Turkish army. These donkeys were used to carry water to the soldiers who were fighting in the hills, and the drivers worked their donkeys hard, while bullets and artillery shells were flying around them.

One day Roly stumbled and spilled some of the water he was carrying. His driver beat him for it and other transgressions, so Roly decided he would try to escape. When the right opportunity came, he ran for his life. Roly wandered around for the rest of the day. He became cold, tired and hungry, with only a bit of grass to eat; and he missed his friends.

The next day he started to walk back to where he had last left his driver the previous day, knowing full well that he would probably beat him for running away. Coming towards him was a tall soldier with a biscuit with jam on it, in his hand. He stroked Roly’s back and said “you’re just what I need, but I’ll need to fatten you up first”. This was the start of a friendship between the donkey, Roly and the New Zealand soldier Richard Alexander Henderson, a solider with the New Zealand Field Ambulance. The Field Ambulance service moved sick and wounded soldiers from the trenches to the beach at Anzac Cove. From there the soldiers could be taken to a hospital ship.

This story is an amazing story of a real New Zealand soldier and the donkey he discovers wandering, hungry, on a Gallipoli road. They save many lives, but when the time comes for the soldiers to leave, a heartbreaking decision has to be made over the future of the donkey. Where does Richard go to find Roly a good home, with kind people?

I read this story to my 4-year-old granddaughter Abby. At this age, they have no concept of war, or what a soldier is. I found it quite challenging to try and explain to her in simple terms, but I think I managed to convey to her the basic concept.

I loved the fact that this story was based on a true story of a friendship between a soldier and a donkey. The illustrations by Jenny Cooper are beautiful. Abby loved Roly’s beautiful big brown eyes with the long eye lashes and his long ears.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Roly the Anzac Donkey
Written by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN  9780143506638