Railway To Hell

The Thai-Burma railway was built by prisoners of war in appalling conditions. The dead were treated with a dignity denied the living.

Section of the Thai- Burma Railway along the River Kwai, Thailand, December 2009.As the Second World War intensified, two sets of exhausted and emaciated work parties came face to face. They met on 17 October 1943 at Konkoita, deep in the Thai countryside. Wearily, they lugged the last few remaining teak railway sleepers into place. They and their fellow slave labourers had just completed one of the most remarkable engineering feats in history. In a mere 16 months, a 258-mile-long (415km) railway line had been constructed, linking Non Pladuk, just west of the Thai capital Bangkok, to Thanbyuzayat in Japanese-occupied Burma (now Myanmar). It had been achieved at the most appalling human cost.

The building of such a railway had been considered many times before. The British explored the possibility in 1885, when they were colonial rulers of Burma, but deemed it impractical due to the mountainous terrain, dense jungle, endemic diseases and lack of adequate roads.

Japan carried out a survey in early 1942. It decided to proceed. The Japanese Imperial Army desperately needed an overland route to take ammunition and food from Bangkok to Burma and transport troops for its offensive on India, which was to prove its last major attack of the war. The Japanese also had a massive enslaved workforce at their disposal, following their successful invasion of the British colony of Malaya and Britain’s humiliating defeat at Singapore. More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and 200,000 Asian labourers were forced to work on constructing and maintaining the line. More than one in five of the POWs did not survive the ordeal. At least half of the Asian labourers are believed to have died.

The horrendous conditions these men endured make up one of the most notorious episodes of the Second World War. But there is another side to this story of immense suffering: one that has never been told. It is found in three ‘foreign fields’ that are, in the words of the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, ‘for ever England’. These fields are entered through lychgates and are bounded on all sides by neatly trimmed hedges. Dotted within them are leafy trees with overhanging branches that provide natural shelter from the scorching tropical sun. Under foot lies a beautifully tended green lawn. Stretching out ahead are precise lines of flowering shrubs, planted to flank row upon row of military headstones.

Within these ‘foreign fields’, 6,609 men from the British armed forces are buried. They died while constructing and maintaining the railway. Upon most of their headstones is a personal inscription, which turns a service number and name into a person. It gives a brief but intimate insight into a life prematurely ended by conflict and tells us how the bereaved attempted to come to terms with horrific loss.

Honourable death

During the construction of the railway, the bodies of the men who perished were interred close to where they fell, either in camp burial grounds or isolated sites up and down the line. It was a puzzle to POWs that the Japanese were largely indifferent to their suffering in life but respected them once dead. There are a few explanations. Prisoners who perished on the railway were considered to have died honourably in the service of the Japanese emperor, despite their labour being involuntary. As a result, they were entitled to a proper burial or cremation. The Japanese had strong beliefs about the existence of ghosts and did not wish to aggravate any returning spirits. The guards were also fearful of contracting disease. Many would not go near diseased areas, nor near the dead.

POWs carried out burials with pride and dignity. Individual men were often given simple ceremonies attended by campmates, with the Last Post played on the bugle. A wooden cross was erected over each grave, etched with the serial number and name of the deceased. Each death was registered in two sets of records, one held by the Japanese and one by the POWs. Immediately after the war, all these records were taken over by the Army Graves Units. In late September 1945, with the help of 13 former POWs who volunteered to remain in Thailand, a search began at Thanbyuzayat to locate the graves. It finished at Nakhon Pathom two weeks later, by which time they had recorded 10,549 graves in 144 cemeteries on or near the railway. The search party failed to locate just 52 of the graves they had been looking for. The task then began of exhuming the bodies and reburying them in one of three centralised war cemeteries.

Kanchanaburi is the largest of the three. It lies 80 miles north-west of Bangkok and contains all the graves of those who died along the southern section of railway. Nearby is the much smaller Chungkai war cemetery, holding mostly the bodies of men who died at a hospital there. The cemetery at Thanbyuzayat lies at the foot of the hills separating Myanmar from Thailand. It contains the graves of those who lost their lives along the northern section of the line. These cemeteries are cared for, in perpetuity, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Each grave is marked by a concrete pedestal bearing a bronze plaque. Low pedestals, rather than traditional tombstones, were considered to better withstand the climate, unstable ground and risk of earthquakes. The plaque bears the man’s regimental number, rank, name, unit, date of death, age at death and a religious symbol. It also carries the inscription his relative had chosen. During the war and for many years afterwards, as casualty records were compiled, the CWGC contacted the next-of-kin to ask whether they wished to add a personal inscription on their loved one’s headstone. They were allowed up to two lines of text, with 40 letters and spaces per line. Most supplied an epitaph.

Language of mourning

The next-of-kin frequently drew upon a very traditional language of mourning. Many headstones bear declarations that the deceased will never be forgotten. ‘Always remembered’, ‘Ever in our thoughts’, ‘Life’s greatest gift, remembrance’ are common. Often added onto these epitaphs are messages that acutely remind us how, for every fallen serviceman, a fatherless child, bereaved parent, or lonely widow was left behind. ‘In treasured memory of our darling. Mum and toots’ reads the gravestone of Lance Corporal Joseph Whittingham. ‘Toots’ was an informal term of endearment.

Whittingham had been taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. Before being sent to work on the railway, he had been treated for dengue fever, an illness spread by mosquitos, which leaves sufferers with severe headaches and swelling of joints. Aged 29, Whittingham died of acute enteritis over a year later, while working on the southern section of the line. Enteritis is caused by consuming water or food contaminated with bacteria or viruses. It results in vomiting, abdominal pain and severe diarrhoea. Diarrhoea was endemic on the railway. Hastily dug open pit latrines were filthy and sick men often failed to reach them before their bowels opened.

Hunger no more

Numerous other epitaphs show the relatives of POWs commonly turned to religion to find consolation in their loss. Religion in Britain held up well during the Second World War. Many perceived the war as a defence of Christian civilisation and culture. References to God, lines from hymns and verses from scripture all recur. Scripture is particularly poignant, given the conditions in which these men fell. ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more’, taken from the Book of Revelation, was apt for prisoners who never received enough food to satisfy the most basic of human needs. A cup of filthy rice was the daily staple, seldom accompanied by anything other than watery soup. ‘Come unto me, all ye weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest’, a verse from St Matthew’s Gospel, was germane to exhausted labourers on the railway, who were beaten by bamboo rods to force them to work harder and longer. ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends’, from St John’s Gospel, was a common choice. It is a nod to the strength of camaraderie in Japanese POW camps. Close friendships were a lifeline. Small groups of three or four mates shared food and workloads and nursed each other when sick and dying.

A Working Party on the Way to the Railway Site, 1943,  by Leo Rawlings (1985), based on an original  painted in captivity.

Alongside these traditional languages of mourning are numerous inscriptions reflecting long-established modes of seeing war. Epitaphs such as ‘He died for his King and Country’, ‘Supreme sacrifice’, ‘His Duty nobly done’ and ‘England’s heroes’ hark back to the Edwardian era and before, when Britons started to consecrate the death of rank-and-file soldiers and sailors as martyrs for their nation. The mothers, fathers, wives and siblings of these POWs also turned to the lines of poetry that had emerged from the trenches of the First World War to find consolation in their loss. By far the most popular choice was the central stanza from Laurence Binyon’s poem, The Fallen, composed in reaction to the high casualty rates suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in the opening weeks of the war. It affirmed the importance that the nation should never forget the sacrifice of the 1914-18 generation: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.’

Continuing traditions

These conventional languages of mourning challenge historians’ understandings of war commemoration in the 20th century. Of the First World War, history professor Jay Winter writes that mourners turned to a ‘rich set of traditional languages of commemoration and mourning’, but the Second World War, with its death camps and nuclear bombs, put an end to this. So extensive and so hideous were the cruelties of the 1939-45 war that, Winter argues, they created a rupture in the languages of mourning. But the inscriptions in the cemeteries in Thailand and Burma suggest mass atrocities did not inevitably lead to the limits of language being reached. It is particularly significant that relatives of POWs so commonly turned to traditional epitaphs, given that their loved ones, in Japanese captivity, had endured some of the worst abuses that even the Second World War had to offer.

While the theme of sacrifice is common, a few families wanted to make it clear just how much their loved one’s service for the country had cost. ‘He gave the greatest gift of all, his unfinished life, for our to-morrow’, wrote the parents of 23-year-old Private Philip Tate. He had been captured on 20 December 1941 in Malaya. He was moved to Singapore and in October 1942 was treated for dry beriberi. Beriberi was one of the most common dietary deficient diseases among POWs of the Japanese. It resulted from a prolonged lack of vitamin B1. Patients with dry beriberi were extremely thin. Legs and arms ached or became numb due to nerve damage. Tender and painful muscles eventually made it difficult to walk.

Just a few months later, Tate was sent to the railway. He slaved at Kinsaiyok and Konyu, both short distances from the notorious ‘Hellfire Pass’. This railway cutting got its name because the fires used to light up work sites at night, along with the noise from the drilling of rocks and hundreds of skeletal prisoners, formed the very image of hell. Tate died of avitaminosis, or vitamin deficiency, after being evacuated to Chungkai hospital. Lacking so many essential dietary elements, it was often impossible to diagnose a specific vitamin-deficient disease as the cause of a POW’s death. The words on Tate’s headstone, ‘his unfinished life’, remind us of his premature passing, but his age was nothing unusual. Three out of every five of these POWs who died on the railway were aged between 20 and 29.

The youth of the prisoners may explain why many inscriptions dwell on these men’s separation from their loved ones during those final hours. The pain of parents losing a son was made all the greater by their absence from their child’s deathbed. ‘We often think of you and wonder why you had to die without a last good-bye’ wrote Sapper Harry Sunderland’s parents of their 23-year-old son.

Sunderland was in ‘F’ force, a 7,000-strong labour force of Australian and British prisoners that was destined for the most harrowing ordeal on the Thailand-Burma railway. It was sent there in April 1943. First, these men had to endure a gruelling train journey from Singapore, packed tight into baking hot metal rice trucks. Then they marched by night, for 17 nights, over 185 miles to their work camps, through mountainous jungle, often up to their knees in mud. Around 17 May, ‘F’ force arrived at Songkurai camp, near the Thai-Burmese border. Initially, the camp consisted of just three bamboo-framed huts, none with adequate roofing. In the words of one of its inhabitants, it ‘was a sea of mud ... the sanitation was indescribable’. From there, they were forced to work in quarries, cuttings and embankments.

A cholera epidemic hit Songkurai on 21 May. Of all the diarrhoeal diseases on the railway, cholera was the worst and the most feared. It was regarded as the plague had been in the Middle Ages: an epidemic with no cure that obliterated whole populations. Cholera acted quickly. The POWs suffered from uncontrollable attacks of the most violent vomiting. They often lay in their own excreta, as severe cramps in their leg muscles left them unable to move. In just a few hours the body became wasted, as though it had been starved for weeks. Sunderland died of this bacterial infection on 18 June 1943. Of the 1,600 British POWs who were marched into Songkurai, 1,200 eventually died, most of them from the cholera epidemic that raged through it.

Unearthly existence

These are some of the common themes that run through the inscriptions on these 6,609 graves, but a handful of epitaphs stand out for the exceptional messages they convey.

The symbols or words we often use to commemorate the war dead could be accused of sanitising conflict. Hushed voices, well-tended grass, ordered lines of graves and gently flapping flags seem to bely the agonising and chaotic conditions in which combatants often perish. The inscription that Kathleen Heigh chose for her husband ensures such a charge cannot be levelled at Kanchanaburi war cemetery. It is unflinching and forthright in its recognition of the unimaginable pain that Private Thomas Heigh endured. ‘A happy release from an unearthly existence of torment and hunger. R. I. P.’

Heigh survived construction of the railway, although he, like so many other POWs in South-east Asia, had been infected with malaria during it. Carefully kept hospital admission records show he was treated at the malarial clinic at Non Pladuk camp for four days at the beginning of 1943. Once infected, men often endured repeated bouts of shivers, fevers and delirium. For those who survived the war, many continued to suffer from recurring attacks for decades afterwards. Heigh was not one of them. He succumbed to the disease while working on the Mergui Road. 

The Mergui Road is the little-known savage final chapter of the POW story in Thailand and Burma. In the final months of the war, 1,000 POWs, whose bodies were wrecked from three years of captivity, were ordered to cut a road through disease-infested virgin jungle from Prachup Khirikan in Thailand to Mergui on the South Burma coast. It was intended as an escape route to enable the broken Japanese army to retreat from Burma. While work was being done in the dry season, conditions were not too bad. When the rains started, the story of the railway was repeated, with 240 men dying in exactly the same circumstances and from the same diseases as others had two years earlier. Heigh was one of them. He died on 9 August 1945. Perhaps the timing of her husband’s death made it even more bitter for Kathleen. On the same day, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time over Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Fallen brothers

A tiny number of epitaphs highlight that these men died as prisoners of war. Among them is an inscription that tells a particularly devastating story of grief, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, but without the merciful end.

Signalman Robert Basnett spent his final weeks at Kinsaiyok camp, one of the worst on the railway. He died there of dysentery on 15 September 1943. Dysentery was a constant, painful and often lethal problem in the POW camps in South-east Asia. Caused by consuming food or liquid contaminated with bacteria or amoeba, it results in severe abdominal pain and diarrhoea. It can lead to rapid loss of fluids, dehydration and death.

Signalman Basnett’s headstone reads: ‘His brothers Arthur & Leslie, died as prisoners of war. “We’ll meet again.” Mum & Dad.’

Captured at the fall of Singapore, Robert Basnett was the last of these three Liverpudlian brothers to be taken prisoner and the last to die in captivity. Eighteen months earlier, his youngest brother, Private Leslie Basnett, had been captured during the retreat to Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. Leslie died from a brain tumour three years later as a prisoner of war in Poland, at the age of just 24.

On 9 December 1941, the middle brother, Private Arthur Basnett was wounded and taken prisoner during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. He died of dysentery, along with pneumonia, four months later at a POW hospital in Kowloon on the Chinese mainland. Images from Spielberg’s film come to mind, of Mrs Ryan falling to her knees as an army officer and chaplain approach her veranda to inform her of the deaths of three of her four sons. No military rescue was possible for the Basnett brothers, though. Their parents turned, instead, to the idea of a reunion in the afterlife for consolation.

Unfathomable grief

The coincidence of brothers dying in captivity seems too cruel to happen even once. But other parents in Britain and Ireland had to endure this unfathomable grief. In the same plot in which Signalman Robert Basnett is buried is the headstone belonging to Sergeant Edward Pugh, which reads ‘His brother Martin is buried in Row G:21 their memorial is in Gisleham Church, Eng.’

Sergeant Pugh, of the Royal Engineers, was, like so many of the men, captured at the fall of Singapore. He died suddenly during the night on 10 December 1942 at Tonchan Central camp, a few kilometres away from Hellfire Pass. He had previously been treated in hospital for dysentery but he died from cardiac beriberi. Cardiac seizure is the main danger of beriberi. As well as causing nerve and muscle damage, a lack of vitamin B1 often adversely effects the heart’s ability to contract. In its fatal form the patient can be left gasping for breath and suffering the most intense sharp stabbing pain in the chest, losing consciousness only in the last moments of life. Edward’s younger brother, Private Martin Pugh, was also captured at Singapore. He died of cholera at Kinsaiyok, just over seven months after his brother.

Today there still stands a little tablet to the two brothers in the late-Saxon Holy Trinity church in Gisleham in Suffolk, where their father was the priest. It reads ‘Their graves lie among the forest of Siam, their memorial is the praise we offer in this house – Sursum Corda’ (‘Lift up your hearts’).

As well as the Pugh brothers, the Driver brothers of Cambridge died in these atrocious conditions, as did the Duke brothers of Dublin, the Gosling brothers of London, the Heal brothers of London and the Herwin brothers of Norfolk. A total of six sets of brothers perished on the railway.

Known unto God

Finally, we come to the 56 headstones out of these 6,609 graves that bear no name. They feature the line that the poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling (who himself lost a son, John, on the Western Front), composed for the graves of unidentified First World War soldiers: ‘Known unto God’. These headstones portray a profound sadness. The inscriptions chosen by grieving relatives might be distressing to read, but more upsetting is the idea that some bodies were never identified and could never be fully commemorated by their families.

However, these graves symbolise something else about these men. Even though they were constantly exposed to malnutrition, exhaustion and disease, the POWs working on the railway made sure that the bodies of many thousands of the men who died in its construction could be found after the war and could be identified and reburied properly. Despite their profound suffering, these men managed to preserve a precious dignity not just in life but also in death. That is not just impressive, but also inspiring.

Clare Makepeace is the author of Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (Cambridge, 2017).

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