The Battle of Kohima, though fought on a smaller scale than its Russian equivalent, is rightly remembered as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’. It was a vital turning-point in the Second World War. An Anglo-Indian force – initially totalling just 1,500 men – endured a gruelling siege by a Japanese army ten times the size, yet fought them to a standstill, turned them back, and ended up chasing the Japanese out of India and into Burma.

BBC journalist Feargal Keane’s account of the battle is not just a blow-by-blow military history. It is rather – as might be expected from a broadcaster who made his name with his emotional ‘human interest’ interviews – the story of the battle as seen through the eyes of its participants.

In April 1944, the Japanese 31st Division, commanded by General Sato, attempted to seize a wooded hill, the Kohima Ridge, key to the position occupied by the large garrison opposing a Japanese invasion of India at Imphal to the south. If Kohima fell, Imphal also would fall; and if Imphal fell, then British India was lost.

Savagery of war

For a fortnight, an Allied force of barely brigade-strength tenaciously resisted the attacks, until reinforcements arrived and the tide of battle turned. Now it was the turn of the Japanese to stand on the defensive – as they did, with fanatical persistence.

Road of Bones: the siege of Kohima, 1944.

The epic story of the last great stand of empire.

Finally, however, they cracked, and their retreat along the road back to Burma became a rout littered with Japanese corpses – the ‘Road of Bones’ of the title. By 22 June, the Japanese invasion of India had been thwarted.

Keane’s book reads almost as gruellingly as the savage hand-to-hand combat he describes. We read of doctors killed by shellfire as they tend the wounded, and of how those on both sides fought on grimly against hopeless odds, being too frightened of the enemy to surrender.

The author would not be Fergal Keane if he did not conclude on a tear-jerking note. In an epilogue titled After hatred, he tells of Hirakubo Masao, a Japanese veteran of the battle who came to Britain on post-war business and liked it so much that he stayed. He devoted himself to reconciling former enemies, and – battling the understandable prejudice of veterans who had suffered the horrors of Japanese PoW camps – largely succeeded.

Reconciliation

Keane attended Masao’s funeral in London and writes: ‘I remember the atmosphere of gentleness in the chapel, so far removed from the place that had sent Hirakubo Masao on his long journey of reconciliation. His son Masahiro read from the Book of Wisdom: “Though in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality”.

There were a handful of British Kohima veterans in the congregation. Many more would have come, Philip Malins, one of their number, told me, but they were getting too old and frail to travel far. ‘We are dying out,’ he said. ‘Soon there will be none of us left.’

Review by Nigel Jones

HarperCollins, £25

ISBN 978-0007132409