lan Mart is a bookish, completely unmiitary young man who, fresh from Cadet College, is posted as a Second Lieutenant to an Indian Army Battalion in the autumn of 1941. The Japanese army is on the move, but are still believed to be just swarms of little yellow men who will melt away when faced with troops led by decent British officers. Mart is taken under the wing of Acting Captain Sam Holl:
“Holl rose from his chair. He seemed to go on rising for an interminable time, lurching from one side to the other, before he found his stature. He was a large-boned man, corded with muscle unsoftened by any spare flesh; his khaki bush shirt and slacks looked flimsy on him, and his rather small squarish head inadequate as a terminal for his torso. He had pale grey eyes, a thin mouth, and a thin pale feathering of hair, delicate and shallow as seedlings. His teeth were yellowish, with an exclamation of pure gold on the left hand side, and he sucked a great deal at them.”
The figure of Sam Holl struck an immediate chord with me, and I wondered momentarily where I had met him before. He is a more warlike version of Guy Crouchback’s brother in arms, Apthorpe. In Men At Arms (1951) and Officers And Gentlemen (1955) Evelyn Waugh gives us a pompous and priggish chap with completely bogus military and social airs and graces. He invites us to scorn Apthorpe and his pretensions while slyly revealing the pathos of Apthorpe’s real identity; probably an orphan, brought up by an elderly aunt; sent to a very minor public school, and packed of, virtually penniless, to serve in some down at heel colonial service. When Apthorpe dies in hospital as a result of Crouchback having smuggled him a bottle of whisky, the comedy turns to tragedy, and our mockery turns to shame-faced guilt.
espite Alan Mart being our eyes and ears as the real war gets nearer and nearer to the battalion, Holl is, literally and metaphorically, a towering figure. He has the worst aspects of the blinkered British imperialist, but he displays immense physical courage. His bluster, near alcoholism and debased view of native women contrast poignantly with moments of extreme social vulnerability:
“They stood in the moonlight. There was nothing left except to go to bed, but they hesitated.
‘Good night, Holl,’ said Alan.
‘Good night,’ and Holl turned. But after a few steps, he stopped.
‘You might call me Sam.’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. Good night, Sam.’
‘Good night, Alan.'”
Mart goes off to train as a Signals Officer, and treads in the footsteps of his Victorian forbears as he becomes an expert operator of the Heliograph. When he returns to Battalion, however, he finds he has a stack of boxes containing brand new shiny radio sets. In a stroke worthy of Joseph Heller, we learn that all the battalion vehicles have been painted out in wonderful desert camouflage designed to baffle Rommel and his men in the deserts of North Africa – the unit’s undoubted destination. Africa or Iraq here we come? Not a bit of it. The Battalion embarks in a shabby tramp steamer. Destination? The dense rubber plantations and jungle of Malaya.
hen Mart and Holl reach Malaya they learn many things, few if any of them to their advantage. The sparkling new radio sets abjectly refuse to work over any distance further than the line of sight and, more disturbing still, the despised little yellow men are resolutely disinclined to scatter at the bark of a British military command. Quite the reverse; they are numerous, well trained, superbly equipped, utterly remorseless and, seemingly, irresistible.
David Piper’s biography is covered comprehensively in the publicity for this series, so suffice it to say he writes of what he knows. I am reminded of the lines from the old hymn;
“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.”
Unlike so many of his comrades, he did survive the brutality of Japan’s POW camps which, although well documented, still take the breath away for their unrivalled sadism and absence of the tiniest evidence of humanity. Trial By Battle is a beautifully written account of men and war; there is no sweeping narrative, no epic battle scenes (but those described are terrifyingly vivid) and no broad historical context. Instead Piper zooms in on the fascinating anthill of conflict until we can see every detail, hear the snap of every bullet and squirm at the awkward pause in every conversation.