Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan brings to life the entire experience of South and Southeast Asia during the Japanese invasion period, telling the story from an Indian, Burmese, Chinese or Malay perspective as much as from that of the British or Japanese. Effectively it is the story of the birth of modern South and Southeast Asia and the hopes and fears of the dozens of ‘forgotten armies’ marching through the jungle battlefields, so many dying for causes swept away by the reality that emerged in 1945. Even as the British successfully fought back in the bloodiest battles in South and Southeast Asia’s history, there was no going back to colonial rule.
This book spans a huge territory from India to Malaya: the heart of the British empire in the East. Of course, ‘British Asia’ was larger than this. It encompassed Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports of China; there were possessions east of Singapore: the territories of the ‘White Rajah‘ of Sarawak and the British North Borneo Company. The experiences of Hong Kong and Shanghai are central episodes of the war in China; and the fate of British Borneo became interwoven with that of the Netherlands East Indies. But these campaigns lie somewhat outside this story.
The authors focus instead on the connected crescent of land between Calcutta and Singapore: the pivot of the fighting of the Far Eastern war. The authors do so because this was the territory spanned by the people of these forgotten armies themselves, whose experiences give unity to this story. Since the immediate post-war years, the historical study of South and Southeast Asia has collapsed into a series of academic specialities and public memory has also fragmented. Burmese history, in particular, has been almost forgotten following the country’s retreat into virtual isolation after 1960. The story of India at war from 1939 to 1945 has been pushed to the margins by the telling and retelling of the story of independence and the partition of British India into the republics of India and Pakistan.
The memory of war in Malaysia and Singapore is troubled by many events that later national histories have tried to forget, and the full story of the resistance to the Japanese has been obscured by the shadow of the communist insurgency of 1948 — 60. Above all, it has been forgotten that the histories of these different regions were firmly intertwined, and above all during the Second World War. Japanese commercial communities across the whole region provided an unofficial fifth column for their army’s invasion of 1942, for instance. Indian lawyers, businessmen and plantation workers scattered throughout Southeast Asia by decades of migration became recruits to the Japanese sponsored Indian Independence League and the pro-Japanese Indian National Army. Punjabis and Baluchis from the far northwest of Britain’s Indian Empire fought in Burma and Malaya under the British flag.
The Overseas Chinese too fought Japan in Malaya and, with their financial muscle, in China itself. Japanese armies and their camp followers thrust together into one unit the British, French and Dutch colonies in 1941 and 1942. For some months in 1945, the whole area from the borders of Bengal and Assam almost as far as the Australian Sea was united by the Allies for the first and only time in a single, interconnected administration. The very term ‘Southeast Asia’ was coined to describe this huge crescent of land. The aim of Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan, therefore, is to reassemble and reunite the different, often unfamiliar but connected narratives of these epic events and to put the stories of the great men and the great battles of the period into the context of the histories of ordinary Asian men and women.