One Minute Book Review – The Forgotten Highlander by Alastair Urquhart

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This week something slightly longer than a one minute review.

The Forgotten Highlander. My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East is a memoir by Alistair Urquhart (1919-2016). It  touches on Urquhart’s childhood and post-war life but concentrates on the period in which he was a Prisoner of War of the Japanese. Born in 1919 in Aberdeen, he was 20 years old when he was conscripted at the start of World War 2 and was sent to Singapore as part of the 2nd battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. Present at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and survived 750 days as a slave labourer on the Burma-Siam Railway, the infamous ‘Death Railway’ where one man died for every sleeper laid (13,000 POWs and 100,000 native labourers). He also worked on the bridge over the River Kwai. He was then shipped to Japan in a rustbucket, the Kachidoki Maru, where prisoners were packed in so tightly that they could not sit or kneel, many unable to reach the rice thrown into the hold to them. Urquhart wrote that nothing he experienced in the camps, not the starvation, beatings, torture or massacres,  prepared him for the conditions on  this ‘hellship’. These POW transports should have been painted with a Red Cross to ensure that they were not targeted by Allied submarines but the Red Cross was reserved by the Japanese for use on armament transports.The Kachidoki Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine and Urquhart drifted for five days on a small raft in the South China Sea before being picked up a Japanese whaler and taken to Japan. He was sent to the mines 10 miles outside Nagasaki, and was present when the second atomic bomb was dropped.

The memoir also covers more briefly Urquhart’s journey back to Britain and his difficulties readjusting to civilian life. He suffered from the after-effects of tropical diseases, from claustrophobia and continuing nightmares (even to the time of writing his memoir) of such severity that he slept for many years in a chair, afraid that he would harm his wife in his sleep. Urquhart has nothing but praise for the work of the  medical personnel in the POW camps, special mention is made of Dr Mathieson, a Scot from Paisley serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Australian surgeon Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop.

The end of the memoir has some startling examples of military bureaucracy at its wrongheaded best. Unfit for work, Urquhart applied to the Royal Army Pay Corps who calculated his pay for the time spent as a POW but deducted ‘subsistence’  for the ‘handfuls of maggoty rice’ he had survived on as a POW (surely paid for by the Japanese army not the British). Urquhart mentions that, fortunately, he was not charged for loss of his rifle as had happened to other British POWs. In 1946, still unfit for work, he appeared before an army medical board of four ‘well-fed and comfortable-looking officers’ who demanded that he produce written records of all the diseases he had suffered in the POW camps! The Army offered demobilization only if he would agree that he was medically A1, similar treatment was meted out to other POWs. As a result he received no form of disability pension.(p.290) He was also required to sign an undertaking not to reveal to the public at large the extent of what he had seen and suffered.

The British army was not unique. Peter Ryan‘s Fear Drive My Feet (published in 1959 but written not long after his return from New Guinea) recounts similar  bureaucratic stupidity. Ryan enlisted in the Australian Army in 1941 aged 18 and served, often alone, as an intelligence operative behind Japanese lines in New Guinea for eighteen months. He was awarded the Military Medal and mentioned in despatches.  When finally he returned to civilization, ragged and legs covered in tropical ulcers, he was berated by a fine example of the military bureaucratic ‘base bludger’ for having lost his pay book.

Alistair Urquhart recognized that his life was a miracle of survival and he attempted to live his life to the fullest and where possible to help others in whatever way he could. He was spurred to write this memoir after watching a documentary in which a Japanese engineer stated that no one had died on the Burma-Siam Railway and that the prisoners had been well cared for.

    My business with Japan is unfinished, however, and will remain so until the Japanese government fully accepts its guilt and tells its people what was done in their name.
For as well as being a lucky man, I am an angry man. We were a forgotten force in Singapore that vanished overnight into the jungles of Burma and Thailand to become a ghost army of slave labourers. During the Cold War  those of us who survived became an embarrassment to the British and American governments,  which turned a blind eye to Japanese war crimes in their desire to forge alliances against China and Russia. (p.2)

Urquhart’s prose is plain and presents, unvarnished, the reality of the sadism and brutality of the POW camps and physical and psychological cost of survival.  I found this more compelling and affecting than Richard Flanagan’s harrowing novel The Long Road to the Deep North perhaps because this is not a finely crafted work of fiction drawing on reality, but one man’s lived experience.

Other reviews can be found here and here.

One thought on “One Minute Book Review – The Forgotten Highlander by Alastair Urquhart

  1. Pingback: February 2017 | Catherine Merrick

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