Robert Lyman, A War of Empires (Osprey, 2021)
The notion that the Burma campaign in World War II is forgotten has long been dispelled by a series of recent histories. It remains, however, a complex episode and difficult to unravel, with all its competing narratives across a wide range of players. Robert Lyman’s engaging and lucid A War of Empires is therefore a welcome addition to the Burma library.
Lyman is quick to point out that the army that defeated the Japanese in Burma was Indian not British, although the latter played their full part. It was certainly the hubristic British that neglected this portion of their empire when the Japanese army came calling in December 1941. Lyman calls this a ‘dereliction of duty’ for allowing the catastrophe that ensued as the Japanese cut the defending forces to ribbons all the way to the Indian border.
Enter Major General William ‘Bill’ Slim who took command of a Corps then 14 Army, preventing retreat from becoming a disgrace, then built up the Anglo-Indian forces physically and morally so that they could stop, turn, and then defeat the Japanese. They achieved this by reeling the Japanese into a rather foolhardy attack centred on Imphal, repulsed them, then launched a counter-offensive that drove the Japanese back down through Burma in 1945. Along the way, Lyman discusses the regeneration of the Indian army; the problems of command among the Allied commanders, bringing the Chinese and Americans into this equation; the nationalist aspirations of many Burmese and Indians duped into complicity with the Japanese; the long-range, behind the lines efforts of Orde Wingate’s Chindits; the crucial appointment of Louis Mountbatten as Allied Supreme Commander; the stunning stand of the Anglo-Indians at Kohima ridge; the conflict amongst the Japanese command as their fortunes turned; and Slim’s brilliant final campaign against the stubborn and fanatical Japanese resistance. And those are just the highlights in a comprehensive account.
Lyman sums up the Burma campaign in his closing chapter. He castigates the Japanese empire for its cruelty and wantonness in Burma, while arguing that independence from Britain was already in the future, though his evidence for this feels a bit soft. Lyman also argues that the Burma campaign was the birth of Indian independence in which the Indian army played a pivotal role – he concludes that this was an Indian victory won by an Indian army. Countering the usual argument that Burma was a sideshow, Lyman stresses the importance of the Burma campaign for the defeat of Japan.
A War of Empires is an outstanding military history of the Burma campaign. Lyman skilfully untangles the complex web of narratives overlaying what was anything but a straightforward fight. He also artfully balances the action on the ground with the wider competing political interests of Britain, India, China, Japan, and the United States. However, Lyman is not so much Anglo-centric as Slim-centric, though here too he points out Slim’s good fortune at key moments and notes the contributions of others who paved the way to victory. It is Slim’s story, however, that pulls all Lyman’s threads together. Lyman’s concluding analysis is provocative, and some might disagree with aspects of it, but few could argue against Lyman’s elevation of India into the spotlight. All in all, this is an excellent read and a splendid starting point for any student of World War II in the Far East.