Sibylla Jane-Flower

The power of total contempt

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One Fourteenth of an Elephant: A Memoir of Life and Death on the Burma-Thailand Railway

Ian Denys Peek

Doubleday, pp. 522, £

As plans gather pace to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, there are certain to be renewed calls to record the reminiscences of ex-servicemen in this conflict ‘before it is too late’. Most of these efforts, however well intentioned, are useless from a historical point of view. The Imperial War Museum ran an admirable programme of recording second world war experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, thereafter acknowledging the decreasing value of oral history as memories fade.

The experience of those who survived captivity at the hands of the Japanese is a case in point. Evidence of a ‘collective memory’ becomes increasingly apparent in books and articles by former prisoners of war and in their contributions to news- papers and scripts. Ian Denys Peek makes clear in a note that his descriptions of events were not ‘dredged up’ after 50 years but were contemporary or near contemporary accounts of what happened to him. Herein lies the value of his narrative — one of the most compelling accounts of life on the Burma-Thailand railway.

Peek celebrated his 21st birthday in 1942 as a prisoner of war in Singapore. Born in England and educated at a public school, holidays were spent in Shanghai where his parents lived before moving to Singapore. At the time of the surrender Peek and his brother were private soldiers in the 1st Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF) in the company of many other professional people who regarded the Force in peacetime more as an agreeable club than an opportunity to gain promotion.

For two and a half years Peek survived in the jungle camps along the Burma-Thailand railway. (Here he calculated his logging capacity to be one fourteenth of an elephant’s.) His narrative is a valuable record of life in ‘the ranks’, though his priorities, interests and intellectual resources are a cut above those of the average British soldier. He describes in considerable detail the emotional development of the PoW, isolated from the world, in a small circle of like-minded friends held together by an imperative, ‘our total contempt for the Japanese — more powerful than mere loathing’.

Peek’s contempt extends to almost all in authority on the Allied side. He slates the designer of the ‘abominable’ army water-bottle (which he contrasts unfavourably with the Japanese version made of aluminium, shaped to be hung over a fire and with a practical screw top); and, rather intemperately, he resents the senior officers in his own camp having been able to retain their uniforms while he and his friends were dressed in decaying loincloths.

It has to be said that Peek’s decision to use pseudonyms for the characters in this book compromises the integrity of the historical record. No doubt it was prudent to do so in publications issued in the immediate aftermath of the war. But 60 years later the reasons seem less acceptable. Captain S. S. Pavillard, the medical officer of Peek’s battalion, was one of the remarkable characters on the railway and deserves to be identified by name.

There are instances that would have benefited from editorial hindsight. For example, Peek’s criticism of Lieutenant Colonel Harvey RAMC for the neglect of his hospital was widely shared by other PoWs. But Harvey had suffered a mental breakdown, a fact recognised by the medical officer who replaced him (Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop), who helped Harvey establish himself in Australia after the war. Peek is right in saying in his prefatory note that the absence of surnames should not affect the reader’s perception of his story, but this remains a source of regret to the historian.