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- 01 November 2004
Dedicated to Kelda Harrison
LAWRENCE’S WAR MEMOIRS: PART 2
Now we moved to the edge of the forests and on down to the plains. Our next job was the best of all — for to carry it out I had the help of 26 elephants! Imagine what fun that was for a young man of only twenty one..
I must explain where the elephants came from. Before the war, Burma was a British colony and had forestry companies to harvest the teak trees, and elephants to haul them down to the river, where they were floated down in huge rafts to the saw mills.
When the war started, the Japanese had advanced very rapidly, all over the whole of south east Asia, taking our so called impregnable fortress, Singapore, on the way, and also taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners, who they put to work on the railways. It was the most humiliating episode ever, for the British Army, and most of those prisoners died on the infamous Railway of Death. They took Burma as well, and so captured another British Army. We only managed to stop them at Kohima on the edge of India. Or course they had also captured all the elephants.
As we advanced again, the ‘oozies’ managed to slip their elephants away and get them over to our side.
Our job was to build bridges over the ‘chaungs’ — shallow river beds, over which guns and tanks could cross. Very often the bed of those ‘chaungs’ was quicksand and if a lorry got stuck, it was soon lost completely!
To build our bridges we needed to use the teak trees. We cut them down and into lengths with our chain saws, then the elephants pulled them down to the edge of the river. And there, two elephants picked up the huge logs on their tusks with their trunks on top, and carried them into the exact position we needed. All we had to do was drill holes and spike them down. If an elephant made a mistake by even a few inches he would get a rough word from the oozie and a bang on his head. The elephant would cringe and you could almost hear him say “Sorry!”
On one occasion a lorry arrived and the driver asked me if it was all right to drive across? I said no, it wasn’t, it was quicksand. But when I was away he decided to have a go and when I came back his lorry was already deep in the sand. He implored me to get the elephants to help him out, but I told him the elephants didn’t like doing that and wouldn’t help him even if I asked them, and then we went on with our work.
When he implored me yet again, almost in tears, I relented and we hitched up two elephants and tugged him out. There were other drivers who took the same risk and it always ended the same way.
The elephants had their own camp and their babies with them, and they used to send an elephant down to our camp to collect the oozies’ rations. My men loved that and would feed the elephants biscuits, which probably weren’t good for them.
Once I went hunting on an elephant. It was very clever — if ever it went under a branch which would have swept me off its back, it carefully broke it off. And going down a slope it would keep its back level for me by bending its hind legs. I shot a deer, and once more we had fresh meat.
We couldn't work the elephants after about 3.0 p.m. as they had to break off and have a bath, their oozies scrubbing them with hard bristled brushes. Then they were shackled and sent off to forage for food. The oozies had been brought up with their elephants from when they were young boys until they were old men, each had his own elephant. In the morning each knew his elephant’s foot prints and traced him into the jungle and brought him back ready for work. Sometimes they had wandered five miles!
The elephants were part of an Army company commanded by Colonel Bill Seymour, known throughout Burma in pre-war days, as Elephant Bill.
I remember he came to our Mess when the war was over, somewhat the worse for drink, waving his revolver - which he let off into the wooden ceiling just where our doctor was sleeping! He said, “Have any of you got the guts to join me when this war’s over, I can’t find anybody else, the lily-livered worms! I’ve got the rights to extract all the teak from the Anduman Islands.”
Another officer and I said we’d join him. Years later we’d never heard anything from him and learnt that he’d come back to England and tried unsuccessfully to become a Conservative Member of Parliament. But he did write a very good book called “Elephant Bill” - by Bill Seymour. If your library can track down a copy, it’s well worth reading, Tells you all about the War of course, but also about his career as a young man in the Bombay Burma Teak Company.
Sadly we had to say goodbye to our elephants when we moved on to Mandalay — a big town in the north of Burma. We were there only a few days, exploring it with all its pagodas, their domes covered with gold leaf, which the Japs fortunately had not taken off. But they had cut the tusks off most of the elephants.
We next moved up to a village called Maymyo. This had been, in the old colonial days, a hill station where the wives of British officers and businessmen working out there retired during the hot season, up in the hills, where it was beautifully cool.
I cannot remember what we had to do up there, probably something on the roads, because they were being used to maintain the American forces on the China border. But I do remember that the headman of the local village came to see us one day. He had been educated in England, spoke perfect English, and invited us to attend a ‘pwe’ his village were putting on the next evening.
We sat down to a wonderful dinner with plenty to drink. Meanwhile the villagers were singing and dancing and all dressed up in wonderful period costumes. It was a play of some sort but of course we couldn’t understand a word of it. It was very colourful and bright, but as it went on all night and we’d all had too much to drink, we drifted home in the small hours.
I had learnt a bit of Burmese from a phrase book. And previously at one of our camps another officer and I had set out to find a Burmese village. This was when we were still in the teak forests and up till then we hadn’t seen a single Burmese person.
Eventually we came in sight of a small village in the jungle. As soon as we became visible all the women and girls rushed out of the village, so we only met with the men.
We offered them salt and soap, which we hoped was what they needed, and tried to converse with them. Once they realised we were friendly and not like the Japanese had been, they offered us fresh food and eggs. We thanked them ‘chezoo timbare’ and returned to our camp. While we were still there, every morning we would wake to find little gifts of food outside our tents.
We never met the women of that village but later when we did I was astounded at how beautiful the young girls were. But perhaps that was just because I was a young man and we hadn’t had any female company for so long.
One day I was sent to go to a village to ask the headman to show me how many logs were waiting in the river, for the moment when the saw mills would start up again. The village had a central area quite clear, round which all their houses were built.
When I came back from counting the logs, there, set in the middle of the village was a table set with a white table cloth and a single chair. And the headman indicated to me that they would be honoured, if I would take my lunch.
I sat down, beautiful girls brought me a central plate of rice, and then, arranged around it, about a dozen smaller bowls each containing something delicious to put on the rice: eggs, fish, vegetables, sauces etc. As soon as I had finished one bowl it was removed and replaced by another, so by the time I could eat no more, the table was still full.
In our Unit we had two cooks for our Officers’ Mess, which was quite generous because there were only five of us. One cook was called Daniel, he was a great fat man, but a good cook, and he was the senior. He spoke good English. The other cook was a Hindu named Babu Lal.
Several times during the campaign, Daniel somehow got hold of alcohol and became riotously drunk when he would attack Babu Lal with a large kitchen knife. Luckily Babu Lal could run much faster than old fat Daniel and so he always escaped. In the morning when he had sobered up, Daniel and he were bosom pals again!
Our next stop was on the banks of the Irrawady, a huge river, bigger then the Chindwin. Here we rafted our army across. Incidentally we found, when we first arrived, a Japanese soldier sitting in a foxhole with a large bomb between his knees and a hammer. He had been told to explode it when a tank came over but as no tank had been near him, there he still was — obedient to the last. We fished him out and destroyed his bomb and sent him back. We took very few Japanese prisoners, they had been trained that they must die for their Emperor and never surrender.
Later, when the war had ended we had great difficulty rounding up the Japanese and we had to get their officers and take them round in our jeeps, so that with loud hailers, they could tell their soldiers that the war was over, and they should leave the jungle.
Reluctantly they came. But once they were our prisoners they displayed a wonderful sense of discipline. I remember I had quite a bunch of them working in a quarry. They worked much harder than my men would have done and when one day I forgot to tell them to stop, they went on into the night. Their officer came to our Mess, where we were eating our dinner, and asked if he could tell them to stop, as their hands were worn out!
Their officer had also seen my tent and didn’t think much of it. In 24 hours his men had put up a beautiful bamboo bungalow, complete with veranda and a picture woven out of bamboo strips!
Now I must tell you about my adventures on the Irrawady.
In some places upriver there were lots of stores and the idea was, that we could save road transport by taking them down towards Rangoon on the rafts we had used to ferry the army across. Each day we loaded up a raft and sent it off. I was the last to go and by the time mine was loaded, it was getting near the rainy season and the winds were beginning to raise quite large waves on the river. I sent off the rest of my men with the Jemadar to the next camp and expected I would rejoin them in 3 — 4 days.
I had five men on board. There were two large outboard motors on the end of the pontoons and they were about 60 feet apart. When loading was all finished we had a small D4 bulldozer, as well. We only had about 4 inches of freeboard.
Off we went. One engine started but the other wouldn’t, so we went round and round in the middle of the river. You imagine what it was like — a huge raft sixty feel long and sixty feet wide, gyrating in the middle of the river! Then luckily the other engine started and we began to make steady progress. The trouble was, the old peacetime buoys which had marked the passage of the channel, were long since gone and there was no way you could tell which was the right way to go. You hoped, you had been able to spot the deeper channel but you just couldn’t tell. Several times we got it wrong and after a day pushing downstream, the water got shallower and shallower and we were grounded! All we could do, was for all six of us to get down into the river and push this enormous beast off, turn it round and then travel another day, going back to where we had gone wrong.
In places the Irrawady was so wide it was difficult to see both sides.
Having travelled 2 or 3 days like this, the monsoon was getting nearer and the waves were up to 6 inches and coming over the tops of the pontoon. Although we all worked the four hand pumps like mad, I could tell we were going to sink. I brought the raft in to the shore and there we finally disappeared under the water.
It was evening, so we all got off, rescued our food and clothing and prepared to pass the night on the sandy beach. The next day, realising there was nothing the six of us could do and no sign of Jake in his motor boat coming back to see where I had got to, I set off into the jungle looking for a village.
I found one and met the headman and managed to convey to him, I hoped, that I needed men and some buckets. He indicated that, that day, they were all out at work all over the place, but promised help in the morning. I had to be content with that and just hoped that I really had conveyed my meaning with gestures and my few phrases.
In the morning there emerged from the forest about a hundred men, all equipped with a bucket of sorts! I set them to work unloading the stores; then we had the tricky bit of getting the bulldozer off. We managed that and then set about dismantling the raft, girder by girder. Then we pulled the pontoons up a bit, opened their hatches and baled them out with the buckets! Finally we dragged the pontoons up completely, divided each one into its three parts, turned them upside down to drain and then started to rebuild.
They were quite good at rebuilding the raft, though not as good as my men would have been. Got the stores and bulldozer on again, and prepared to cast off. To thank them, all I could do, was write to the headman a note explaining to whatever official might read it how helpful he had been. Asked where was a good spot for fishing, I chucked in some explosive and left them all happily hauling in a vast quantity of fish.
We chugged on for what was left of that day anchored on the shore and congratulated ourselves on a good day’s work. The next day, off we went again. We hoped we would reach our journey’s end and had made good progress till the afternoon, when a storm came up, the waves rose and we went down again!
I knew what to do this time and proceeded to do just the same as before. Off we went again — desperate to get to our camp before it happened again. Jake appeared, half way there. “You’ve been away nearly two weeks! I was wondering what on earth had happened to you!”
We were very glad when at last we arrived. Looking back on it, we all secretly agreed we had had great fun.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
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