Why We Tell War Stories: A Case For Remembering

Hannah Watson

An old secondary school teacher of mine used to pose the question...

...“When does it become OK to eat your sandwiches at Auschwitz?” If her thought experiment seems shocking, I suppose it was designed to be. Intended to get a class of sixth form students thinking about the nature of history and our changing relationship to the past, her conclusion was that time erodes everything. Put another way, my teacher was making the case that even historical events of the utmost significance lose their power, one way or another. In our lifetimes, we may never feel comfortable setting out picnic rugs at sites that feel sacred, monumental, or devastating. In five hundred years, however? My teacher took the cynical view. As passionate young students, we tended to disagree. Why am I reflecting on a question posed by my teacher in a beige-walled classroom over a decade ago? In recent months, I’ve often found myself wondering about which moments in history are worth fighting to remember. Or rather, I should say, fighting not to forget. To explain: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about another event in the history of the Second World War – the Burma Campaign. Won by the so-called “Forgotten” Fourteenth Army, the campaign is widely considered to have been fought in one of the most brutal and trying theatres of war. Ask my peers today, however, and for most the war ends with victory in Europe. Ask school pupils to point to Burma, or Myanmar as it is known today, on a map, and most would struggle. This hole in the public consciousness is for very understandable reasons. The scale of the war in Europe and the Middle East, its proximity to home and Churchill’s Germany-first focus when defending the Allied cause all build a case. So too does the British public’s ambivalence to the defence of its Empire – and that is before the full horror of the Final Solution and the significance of the fight against Nazism were even grasped. It follows that the sacrifices of the war in the East rarely occupy the public imagination today, as they rarely did in the post-war years. And that is if people know of them at all.
Why We Tell War Stories: A Case For Remembering
Gurkhas proved to be some of Britain’s most loyal allies in the Second World War.

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Why We Tell War Stories: A Case For Remembering
The Jungle War is published by The Gurkha Museum, Winchester.

The Jungle War

A new children’s book published by The Gurkha Museum aims to change that, with a retelling of the Burma Campaign for readers from 8 to 14 years of age. The contention that the Forgotten Army should be remembered is the driving force behind the project, and I had the privilege of writing The Jungle War: the Second World War Adventures of Lieutenant Jim Chance, supported by a working group from the Gurkha Museum and Gurkha Welfare Trust. This was history as “faction” – the main characters invented, but the details drawn from memoirs and the events as they played out. The project had a firm deadline for completion – the arrival of my first baby, a little boy. I hoped one day he would enjoy the retelling for himself, but his imminent arrival posed another question. The last veterans of the Second World War would be long gone by the time that children like him were old enough to grapple with their legacy. When it came to remembering the Forgotten Army, were we fighting a losing battle? The answer to that question lay in the events themselves. War stories grip the imagination for a reason, and the events of the Burma Campaign proved no different. Coming from a generation that studied Hitler’s rise to power for our Second World War syllabus and little else, uncovering the history behind The Jungle War was an education for me, too. The memoirs I mentioned from which the book drew inspiration: James Lunt’s A Hell of a Licking, Patrick Davis’ A Child at Arms and Gurkhas at War by JP Cross and Buddhiman Gurung were compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure. I felt along with the book’s British and Gurkha characters the desperation at being left on the wrong side of the Sittang Bridge as it blew, pondered with Bill Slim how the Indian Army might regroup to defend Burma, and marvelled at the strange magnetism of Orde Wingate, mastermind behind the much-debated Operation Longcloth. The story was as good as any a young person might find on bookshop shelves – better, even, because the terror, the turmoil and the sacrifice were all real.
Ancestry UK

With bitter conflicts raging around the world today, there has arguably never been a better time to look back in order to look forward.

The Gurkha Museum, publishers of the book, are experts in doing so. It’s clear that the soldiers whose stories the museum preserves have always drawn an enormous amount of strength and solace from the contributions of their forebears. That’s the case for veterans like Hari Budha Magar, who wrote the book’s foreword. Now a world-record breaking mountaineer, Hari started his career as a Gurkha soldier, sensible no doubt of his wife’s grandfather, Naik Jasbir Pun, who fought in the Burma Campaign. He was captured by the Japanese, but survived. The book, as Hari writes, helps to commemorate all those who did not. Whether we are soldiers serving in a long line of brave men, or those who benefit from their bravery, war touches us all. And now a generation of children growing up on lessons about the Romans, Tudors and Victorians will now have the chance to learn about the Forgotten Army, and the full context of Allied victory in the Second World War. So what of my secondary school teacher, and the provocative question she posed over a decade ago? It’s a cheat, but I rather want to suggest that she was worried about the wrong thing entirely. Sites of great historical significance may become tourist attractions, then picnic spots, then cease to be remembered at all. But while children are being taken to visit them, and tucking into their foil-wrapped sandwiches as they do so, I think we should be glad that our young people are there at all. At a launch event at the National Army Museum earlier this year, a kind gentleman bought six copies of the book and asked for them to be made out to family members. The inscription he asked for? This is your great-grandfather’s story. It was a brilliant reminder of why the book was worth writing. Here’s to more young people running around museums, reading war stories and engaging with the past, no matter how tricky. For one more generation, perhaps, the Forgotten Army will be ‘forgotten’ no more.
Why We Tell War Stories: A Case For Remembering
Why We Tell War Stories: A Case For Remembering

Hannah Watson

Author of the Jungle War. The Jungle War is available to buy on Amazon.co.uk, and is published by The Gurkha Museum. Proceeds support The Gurkha Museum, The Gurkha Welfare Trust, and The Kohima Educational Trust.
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