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     Volume 4 Issue 24 | December 10, 2004 |

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Book Review

Working on the Railroad

Jonathan Mirsky

Remember Colonel Bogey's March? That uplifting tune in The Bridge on the River Kwai ? And Alec Guinness, the pukkah but crazy commanding officer, his upright officers, and the salt-of-the-earth other ranks? And that opaque Japanese commander? Seven Oscars! Of course one mustn't expect accuracy in blockbuster films. But Denys (as he likes to be called) Peek's book about the three years and more he spent working on the railway the Japanese forced their prisoners to build through Thailand to Burma during the second world war makes it impossible for me to watch that film again. He claims to remember perfectly the events of 50 years ago. Usually I distrust total recall over such stretches of time; in this case I suspend disbelief. At first I thought 50 pages of prison-camp horror would be enough, but Peek drew me in with his detail, his lack of sentimentality and his downbeat account of kindness, comradeship, brutality and cowardice.

What makes the book unusual - and I have read quite a few PoW accounts - is not Peek's abiding hatred of the Japanese. If I had survived what he did, while more than 20,000 PoWs had died (many fewer than the number of dead Thai, Malaysian and Burmese slave labourers), I would hate the Japanese too. He is generous enough, anyway, to recall his horror watching newsreels of German atrocities "carried out by nations we used to think were civilised and, indeed, almost our kith and kin". No, what surprises is Peek's hatred of Churchill and the other war leaders he alleges ordered the abject surrender of Singapore, where Peek had lived for most of his 20 years. Even worse, he writes, were the inadequate equipment and training of the British forces in Singapore, although thousands of volunteers, like him, flocked to the colours and were eager to fight. "Surely," Peek writes, "the truth will come out some day when the stringencies of war have gone and guilty men can be named in public."

Almost as unsettling is Peek's condemnation of the officers in the camps who, with a few exceptions - one or two colonels and all the doctors - shirked their duty to look after their men by rarely appearing among them, speaking to them rudely when they did, while enjoying relatively good rations, wearing uniforms instead of loincloths, reading, playing bridge and even fishing. Of one such officer, he writes: "To what extent is this colonel's obsession with his precious self-dignity responsible for the camp's abysmal squalor, the hundreds of deaths already and the hundreds more which will surely happen? [To his men] he is, despite his Military Cross, a moral coward at the lowest level, putting his personal dignity before their desperate needs."

The needs were desperate. Almost everyone had diarrhoea all the time, there was no toilet paper, the latrines overflowed, and men emptied their bowels squatting with their bare feet in the shit of their comrades. There is plenty of detail of how skin ulcers - which cost Peek's brother his leg - look, feel and smell, and how the men strove to preserve their modesty by mending their bedraggled loincloths (they had no other clothes except hats).

The PoWs felt a kind of pride in constructing the railway with primitive tools, while hoping the RAF would blow it to bits; they worried that after the war they would be branded as collaborators for having built it. The prisoners admired the intelligence and grace of working elephants and calculated that each PoW worked as well as one-14th of an elephant. It was a very British time. When Peek, after months of separation, finds his brother, facing leg amputation under the crudest conditions, they clasp hands. "Hello, Ron. It's been a long time, but I'm here at last." "Hi, Den. I knew you'd come." Many officers, some of them clinging to their swagger sticks, Peek contends, sucked up to their captors, but "we know of no soldiers who actively collaborated with the enemy".

It was all so ghastly that a tiny moment could tilt one over the edge. Peek is bathing in rainwater off a roof with a rare bit of soap. A frog appears and some of the soap lands in its eyes. The creature desperately wipes them. "And I, although unwittingly, have done this to him. Tears spring from my eyes. I wept not just for the frog, but for all of us." Next time at the video shop, skip The Bridge on the River Kwai.

This review was first printed in The Guardian


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