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Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 Hardcover – March 31, 2005

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Editorial Reviews


This is a spectacular book: in its scope, encyclopaedic knowledge, understanding of southeast Asia, and the light it throws on a neglected subject, the struggle for British Asia...The battle for British Asia has been largely ignored compared to the war on the western front. It is also a history that has been overwhelmingly told in British terms. The authors deploy their intimate knowledge of the region to provide us with a very different story. Southeast Asia is a region of enormous complexity, a rich tapestry of races and cultures. As the Japanese forces carried all before them, the authors describe the way in which people were mobilised and how the various responses became powerful determinants of the final outcome. (Martin Jacques The Guardian 2005-01-22)

[This] work casts new and important light on a shadowy aspect of the Second World War, which deserves to be better understood. (Max Hastings Sunday Telegraph 2004-09-12)

This book looks at the waning days of the British Empire in its Asian crescent, stretching from India through Malaya and down to Singapore, as social, political, and military cataclysms shook the region during World War II. Bayly and Harper evoke a drama involving millions--'forgotten armies' of soldiers, laborers, native guerrillas, political activists, and refugees propelled throughout British Asia during the war, thus uniting what had been isolated and moribund colonial enclaves. As war engulfed these enclaves, the entire colonial society was routed, killed, or captured. This laid bare forever the myth of European mastery and transformed the way natives of the region saw themselves. The subsequent Japanese occupation inspired a deeply rooted culture of resistance and shaped the ensuing nationalist struggles for independence after the war. The authors have performed a valuable service by giving us a comprehensive, multifaceted account of these events. Both erudite and engrossing, this work is highly recommended. (Edward J. Metz Library Journal 2005-02-15)

A work at once scholarly and panoramic, it is as precise in dissecting, say, the logistical problems the Japanese Army confronted during the 1944 campaign in northern Burma ('the worst defeat in Japan's military history') as it is arresting in examining such sweeping events as the 1942 trek of some 600,000 Indian, Burmese and Anglo-Indian refugees from Burma through the high passes of Assam into India, fleeing the advancing Japanese. Hundreds of monographs have examined aspects of this story, but Bayly and Harper's is the only history that matches the scope and nuance of novels like J. G. Farrell's Singapore Grip, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, Anthony Burgess's Enemy in the Blanket, Orwell's Burmese Days, and Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace. Their 70-page prologue is a triumph of scene setting...The ignominious British and Australian rout down the length of the Malay peninsula (the retreating soldiers sardonically adopted the theme from the Hope and Crosby movie The Road to Singapore as their marching song) and Singapore's subsequent fall have already been described, memorably, in Farrell's novel and in a host of military histories, most notably Alan Warner's Singapore 1942, but Bayly and Harper's account is both vivid and authoritative. One of their greatest contributions lies in their stinging appraisal of the debacle. (Benjamin Schwarz New York Times Book Review 2005-04-17)

Bayly and Harper's often-overlooked topic is the fate of Southeast Asia--particularly India, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore--during the war. The authors focus on the experiences of the people of those countries, caught between the warring imperialists, callous British and brutal Japanese...Forgotten Armies is superb at evoking the wretchedness of this region, at conjuring the hardships its people suffered (including the deaths of some 3 million Indians in the terrible Bengal famine of 1943-44) and at demonstrating how Burmese, Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean nationalism were galvanized by these experiences. Bayly and Harper also deserve credit for presenting a complete history of the war in Southeast Asia: They are just as scrupulous--and just as good--at explaining the strategy of the British and Japanese commanders as they are at describing the lot of average soldiers and the misery of the civilian populations. In this important work, a reader will meet a vast range of characters whose stories are rarely heard in the United States, including Japan's brilliant Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who overcame the supposedly impregnable British bastion at Singapore; the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandras Bose, who threw his lot in with the Japanese only because he hated the British more; the tens of thousands of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese; and the courageous Indian troops who repelled the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima in northeastern India in 1944. (Kenneth M. Pollack Washington Post Book World 2005-06-05)

A panoramic chronicle of the war in South Asia ranging from swank prewar Singapore to famine-ravaged Bengal, where three million people died in 1943-1944...This is a brilliant marriage of social and military history and a work of extraordinary literary merit. (Benjamin Schwarz The Atlantic 2005-11-01)

The aim of this important and fluent book is to recover the history of "the connected crescent of land between Calcutta and Singapore" --including eastern India, Burma, and Malaya--during the years of war and (for much of it) of Japanese occupation. The book's emphasis is on the experiences of indigenous peoples, civilian as well as military, as much as on their colonial rulers, and as much on political, social, economic, medical, and cultural developments as on the military campaigns themselves. In all this, it is strikingly successful...Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have unearthed much new material...and achieved immediacy through truly prodigious research in archives in Britain, Malaysia, and Singapore...This is an outstanding book, and a very significant addition to our understanding of this period. The authors are to be congratulated on the scope and depth of their erudition, the skill of their writing, and the subtlety and sophistication of their analysis. This book is likely to remain the standard work on the subject for many years to come. (David Omissi American Historical Review)

This book's theme is in its subtitle -- a nuanced study of the collapse of the century-and-a-half-old British imperium in South Asia, out of which came the South Asian world of today...Reynolds has researched this fascinating story with meticulous care. It is hard to believe there are any relevant documents or secondary sources he has missed. The evidence is marshalled clearly and the result is a first-rate case study, not only of the tension that lay, barely concealed, under the surface of the Anglo-American alliance, but of the problems that powerful covert action agencies can pose for their creators. (Raymond A. Callahan International Historical Review)

Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper...have produced a moving and harrowing account of Britain's darkest hour in Asia, as Malaya, Singapore, and Burma fell to the Japanese in the early years of the pacific war. Forgotten Armies tells the story of this fall in both a scholarly exacting way, drawing upon hundreds of diaries, letters, archives, and interviews, and with great narrative flare...This is a book that should be read by all students of modern Southeast Asian history. Aside from its meticulous indictment of colonialism and imperialism, its elegiac honoring of the forgotten victims of war and its compelling narrative quality indeed, this is a scholarly book that I trust would appeal to general audiences demonstrate how Japanese ideologies of "race," "language," and "nation" were influential in the rise of pan-Islamism, Malayan nationalism, and Burmese nationalism. (Andrew C. Willford Indonesia)

Compellingly written, profoundly well-researched...It sets out to convey a story largely unknown to Western readers and it vividly accomplishes this using source material that allows Asian voices to speak for themselves. (Steven Schwamenfeld Chinese Historical Review 2007-04-01)

Truly magnificent...Forgotten Armies is the finest history of this region (and our country) that I have read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. (Kam Raslan Malaysia Star 2007-08-26)

Forgotten Wars movingly brings out the travails of ordinary people who got caught up within a vicious cycle of political turmoil, economic deprivation,and violence. This is a “must read” for those interested in histories of British imperialism and decolonization in Asia and those who would like an introduction to the comparative regional histories of nation-states in Southeast Asia after 1945. (Haimanti Roy Journal of British Studies 2008-04-01)


This is a masterful account of the fate of British Asia during the Second World War. Far more than military or political history, the book presents a fascinating account of how individual lives and social relations changed from the heyday of the British raj to the rise and fall of Japan's Asian empire...The principal players are Britons, Japanese, Indians, Burmese, Malays, Chinese, Koreans, and other ethnic groups who established sharp social and racial distinctions among themselves and developed their own "forgotten armies." In the final analysis, as the authors show, it was the ordinary people of Asia who were emerging, by war's end, as the new masters of their own destinies. By focusing sharply on the "periphery," Bayly and Harper make a major contribution to the study of imperialism. (Akira Iriye, Charles Warren Professor of American History, Harvard University)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 616 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; New edition edition (March 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067401748X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674017481
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,023,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 62 people found the following review helpful By MarkK VINE VOICE on March 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Few events in the twentieth century did as much to shape the world in which we live than the fall of the British Empire. Every corner of the globe bears some stamp of its once-mighty presence, yet only now are we beginning to understand its true impact and legacy. In this book, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper focus on British rule in southern Asia - India, Burma, Malaya, and Singapore - during the Second World War, showing not just how that conflict accelerated the collapse of their empire in the region but how it set the parameters of the subsequent course it took in history.

The authors chart this progress from events immediately prior to the Japanese invasions of 1941-2, depicting a region at the crossroads of change. On the surface, British rule continued in the routines of rule that had existed for decades, with colonists engaged in their intricate social rituals at the top of a racially stratified society. Yet beneath these placid assumptions, a growing nationalism was beginning to erode the sureties of the British presence. Bayly and Harper's coverage of this is one of the many strengths of the book, as they describe the numerous racial groups and the complicated politics of their interactions with impressive breadth and confidence.

Japan sought to exploit this nationalist sentiment by posturing as liberators seeking to create an "Asia for the Asians." Yet the success of their conquest was due more to British weakness than the success of any Japanese appeal. Stunned by the rapidity of the Japanese advance, British forces collapsed in a matter of weeks, irreparably damaging the imperial prestige upon which much of their rule rested.
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81 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence A. Strid on June 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book,from the standpoint of the authors doing a comprehensive job of detailing the history of the Japanese occupation of British Southeast Asia in WWII. The authors limit their narrative to the area of the "crescent" running from northeastern India down south to Singapore. This was a neglected theatre of the war in history, and the interplay of the Japanese conquest, the legacy of British colonialism, and the power plays of the various nationalistic and communist elements in the area are laid out with great detail. However, the emphasis is less on the actual battles and military manuvers of the allied and axis forces, with the greater detail being laid on the effects of the Japanese occupation on the economy, nationalistic attitudes, and political fortunes of the civilian populace. This is definitely a work of history, and it doesn't necessarily read like a novel, unlike some other historical works from the same era. If you are a student of WWII history and want expansion on the Pacific theatre that you weren't aware of before, then you will enjoy this. If you are a more military-minded reader of history and want to read about detailed battles and campaigns, then you will probably want to look at other books instead. Having said all of that, from an academic standpoint this is an important work on a neglected area of WWII history, which explains in great detail why this area of the world is what it is today.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on May 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Imagine British Asia on the eve of World War Two. Singapore, Burma, India. The Japanest struck swiftly and desicively, capturing Singapore in record time and sinking two of Englands greatest warships. The war as it developed in the jungles of Southeast Asia employed many fascinating characters and peoples. The Japanest claimed they were creating a 'co-prosperity' sphere where Asians would work together towards the common future. However the truth of the matter is more complicated. Despite the Japanese claim that imperialism was 'racist' the Japanese turned out to be as imperialistic and as condescending as Europeans had been, as they stripped countries of natural resources to feed their ambitions.

The British employed many Indian troops and other native troops to stem the Japanese tied. Recovering from the loss of Singapore, the defeats of the Dutch in Indonesia and the threat to both India and Australia the English waged an unending guerilla war in Burma, made famous not only by 'Bridge on the river Kwai' but also by the Chindits and Orde Wingates irregulars.

This is an excellent panorama, employing whit, history and stories of the characters and cultures bisected by the war. Most of all we are given a snapshot of Asia in a time of change. The war changed everything, it brought ambitions to colonized peoples, and created the circumstances of Vietnam.

Seth J. Frantzman
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Rodney J. Szasz on March 6, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Japanese rampage in the Pacific and the initial defeat of both the American and British forces in the region heralded the eventual death knell for all Empires involved in the Pacific war. The military political part of this story has been told many times. The cut and thrust of combat is not what this book is intended to do -- it rather covers those peoples and groups, whose absolute numbers were large, but whose history is often not factored into the momentous events in the region at this time.

The Overseas Chinese and their suppport for China made them an obvious target for the Japanese, their suffering (massacres) and response -- from quiet resistance to active and robust guerilla efforts in Malaya -- are something often left out of normal narratives on Malaya, which usually end after the fall of Singapore. How did the Malays, indigenous Indians, and Chinese react to the Japanese triumphs? How did events play them off against each other?

Ethnic Indians in Burma largely made up the civil service and trade industries before the war, they were mostly driven out by the Burmese who exacted a terrible toll for percieved injustice of this class foisted on them by the British. Their bones lined the escape routes out of Burma -- victims of Burmese pogroms. It is therefore ironic that Indian soldiers captured during the initial onslaught would forswear their alleigence to the King for one to the Emperor -- on the promise for eventual Indian independence. It is this devil's bargain that the authors detail very well: the training, demise, renewal, deployment and utter destruction of the Indian National Army. Ironically again, this Japanese-trained army was defeated by an overwhelmingly Indian denominated and increasing Indian-led army at the end of WWII.
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