Road of Bones

Road of Bones by Fergal Keane

Book: Road of Bones by Fergal Keane Read Free Book Online
Authors: Fergal Keane
that it had been used to carry the lieutenant through the hills, ‘making him the laughing stock of several villages in the process’. He told the Naga headman that because he was over forty he could not walk the difficult terrain. The headman was himself over sixty. It was an image of simpering weakness that could undermine the image of V Force among the local tribes. Remembering poor old Rawdon Wright and his brave progress across the hills, Graham Bower was furious and decided to teach the newcomer a lesson. ‘We had not been so bitter or angry for years,’ she wrote. Having learned that the lieutenant was also terrified of the ghosts that were reputed to stalk the hills, she arranged for two Nagas to terrorise him with fearful noises throughout the night. He left the following morning, whey-faced with exhaustion and fear.
    Both Ursula Graham Bower and Charles Pawsey decided to stay on the wild frontier and take whatever the war might bring. Although as different in personality as it was possible to be – she the feisty extrovert, he the eternal reticent – they were driven by something more than duty to the empire. One could describe what they came to feel for the Nagas as loyalty, except that it was more intimate than that. By different paths they had come to love the Naga people and would stand or fall with them when the hurricane struck. It was a love that would be reciprocated at Kohima in courage and blood.
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    * Set up in 1942, the plan was for V Force to operate in six areas along the 800 mile frontier between India and Burma, with headquarters at Cinnamara in Assam. Its existence was predicated on the assumption that the Japanese would eventually attack. In the event, V Force was to remain behind and carry out hit-and-run operations. Several other clandestine groups, including Z Force and Force 136, as well as the Special Operations Executive, also operated in the frontier area.
    † The Tochi Scouts were made up of around twenty white officers and 2,000 native troops. The Canadian correspondent Gordon Sinclair wrote in his book
Khyber Caravan
(reissued by Long Riders’ Guild Press, 2001) that they were ‘the only branch of the service who did, and do, wheel into action on their own responsibility without the okay of politicians’.

FIVE
Kentish Men
    In old age it could still fill them with pride and reduce them to an agonising grief. Only in the company of those who had been with them could they hope for true understanding. That would be the nature of Kohima for the survivors of 4th battalion, Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Yet at the time they joined up not one among them could have imagined fighting a war in the jungles of north-eastern India. Germany and Italy were the only enemies then and the war was just a few miles away on the other side of the Channel.
    Citizen soldiers. It is an overused phrase, but it is hard to think of another that could properly describe the men of 4th battalion, a Territorial Army formation made up of men who had joined up before the war, and others who had been transferred from local militia after limited conscription was introduced in April 1939. The formation of which they were a part traced its roots to the eighteenth century, when it was raised as a regiment of foot during the Seven Years War. In time, and with the depredations of war, the battalion would absorb fresh drafts of men from all over Britain, but at the outset it was overwhelmingly Kentish in character, and most of its officers and men amateur soldiers.
    The coastline of their county, with its long sandy beaches, towering cliffs and sheltered coves, had witnessed the landing of the Roman conquerors and now beckoned to Hitler’s armies a few hours’ sail away in France. The officers and men of the 4th West Kents shared an attachment to this landscape, a county still dominated by green fields and hop farms with the conical towers of brewers’ oasthouses. According to tradition, men from the west

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