For smooth Ad free experience

A March Towards Death
A horrible retreat with another horrible aftermath. The retreat of the Allied forces was plagued with starvation, disease and the bodies lay clogged in the tracks of the retreat path. A horrible consequence of war.
British soldiers on Burma campaign; Source: Amitav Ghosh

Happened on 14th May 1942

Conflict is like a hungry serpent that gulps in everything in the sight, your willingness to participate is inconsequential. Doesn’t matter if a brawl in a classroom or a full-fledged war, you end up being a part of it. This was a situation of the colonies of Britain during the World Wars. The English were on a war against the Axis powers as a part of the Allies. Its colonies all across the world not only had to fight troops to fight from its side but also became a battleground.

India and its neighbour Myanmar, previously known as Burma, were stuck in a tug of war between Japan and Britain. While the English held control of these areas, the Japanese had ambitions to conquer them.

The picture cannot be sorted out this easily into two parts. While Burma was declared an entity separate from India in 1935, the on-ground situation was rather volatile and it was slipping from the hands of England due to anti-colonial resistance.

With a comprehensive, foolproof strategy the Japanese initiated an attack that was to last for about six months. While they entered the war to get hold of Burmese natural resources, insurgent groups like the Burmese Independence Army fueled their ambition, making this a political mission.

Their campaign began with carnage. Japanese aerial attacks reduced the capital city of Rangoon to rubble. With the first big win in their bags and the stars aligned, their undefeatable mission moved forward.

This destruction forced the civilians and the Allied army to retreat. With all their supplies cut, no way to contact their fellow soldiers and nothing to survive on, this retreat became an endgame on 14th May 1942.

A refugee crisis was boiling in full sway as the situation kept on worsening. This retreat was the longest in the history of the British army. It’s said that more perished in the way than they would have on the battlefield. It’s easier to defeat an enemy with arms and ammunition but it's impossible to emerge victorious from nature's hellhole.

It was as if geography had cursed these troops. The terrain was rugged, the weather was dangerous and the forests were unwelcoming.

These soldiers had to cross the jungles of West Burma, an endless sea of thick and humid forest situated in the harshest tropics of the continent.

In such conditions where humans could barely survive, diseases like dysentery, malaria and scrub typhus became bloodthirsty predators. The soldiers of the British army were dying like flies and their ranks were thinning down rapidly. A bleak situation of disorder and anarchy arose with everyone trying to preserve their life by hook or by crook.

Alongside these soldiers, Indians living in Burma were also on run. Half a million Indians were left homeless in this war and embarked on this perilous journey but only a handful could survive.

Humans endure and so did these people. Somehow, these soldiers and civilians managed to reach India. While troops of the British were able to get aid, the callous colonial officers denied any help to the refugees.

When we think of war and its perils, we usually imagine the glory of the war zone. The real brutality of displacement, perpetual violence and loss of humanity is almost ignored. History has proved that remembering it is a crucial lesson.

Palak Jain Author
Right from the dark academia tag on Tumblr to Post-Colonial perspectives, I am a History Honors student at Delhi University, who is interested in everything about the subject. When I am not reading or watching animated movies, I like to spend my time (unsuccessfully) learning languages.

You might be interested in reading more from

Warfare and Military

Fetching next story