Flight by Elephant

If Andrew Martin is known in this country, it is for his remarkable series of mysteries starring railway detective Jim Springer, a Yorkshireman whose last outing brought him to British India of the early 1920s. Now Martin has wandered away from fiction to present an actual historical episode: The evacuation of British and Indian troops and civilians from Burma in 1942 as the Japanese advanced from the south. Flight by Elephant: The Untold Story of World War II’s Most Daring Jungle Rescue is a true account of one particular escape, a tale of endurance and heroism on the part of men, one woman, one baby, one dog, and a number of elephants.

The exodus from Burma was, according to one writer quoted by Martin, “the first time the British had been refugees, and they were not very good at it.” Certainly, they were not good at it, but it wasn’t the first time that this truth was demonstrated. The British retreat from Kabul 100 years previously during the first Anglo-Afghan War had already set the highest standard of incompetence. As in 1842, so it was in 1942: The British couldn’t quite believe this was happening to them. They had considered Burma, sometimes referred to as “Further India,” as not terribly desirable except as a buffer between the productive Indian tea plantations of Assam and the rest of the Eastern world. Japan’s accommodation with Thailand, its occupation of Singapore and Malaya, and the movement of Japanese troops into Burma came as a most dreadful surprise. The British began their exit by ship, aircraft, automobile, and train, but the tardiness of their departure and the lack of infrastructure in parts of the country meant that large numbers of British and Indian troops, officials, workers, and their families had to make their way out on foot.

The least promising escape route was through the Chaukan Pass near the northern tip of Burma. It meant a journey through the trackless “green hell” of the jungle and fording and re-fording the country’s meandering rivers, now swollen and raging from ice melt and the monsoons that began that year in mid-May. This exit was considered so clearly a death trap that the British authorities issued communiqués forbidding it, communiqués that the people whose ordeal Martin has chosen to follow never received.

This party was made up of several groups of refugees who came together over time, the most prominent among them being Sir John Rowland, Burma’s chief railway commissioner. Sixty years old, he was a man with the habit of command, and his journals fume with irritation and impatience with the disobliging weather: “Another perfectly damnable day. It rained heaven’s hardest most of the morning, all the afternoon and evening.” As Martin observes, “[Y]ou really want to shake Sir John by the shoulders and say, ‘It’s a monsoon, man!’ ” The refugees also included a medical doctor, an anti-malaria inspector, a white-bearded employee of Lever Brothers, an eccentric botanist and explorer known by the sobriquet “Old Kingdom Come,” a maverick Anglo-Irishman with his pregnant Shan (a Burmese minority) wife and their eight-month-old baby, miscellaneous British and Indian railway and government officials and functionaries, a handful of army officers, numerous Gurkhas, and a large complement of Indian servants and porters.

Soon enough it became clear that many of the refugees were not going to make it without aid, and two British men, an Indian elephant tracker, and a pregnant spaniel (whose own story is a wonder) were sent ahead to secure assistance. That assistance came in the shape of Gyles Mackerell, a fifty-three-year-old tea planter and ex–fighter pilot with a particular affinity for elephants and easy relations with their handlers, the opium-smoking mahouts. Born in London, the son of a doctor, Mackerell was the product of the sort of education from which so many servants of Empire were forged: “a minor English public school where the sinks had two cold taps, where a lecture on the Benin Massacre was classed as ‘entertainment,’ where visiting military men donated leopard skins and trophy animal heads for the adornment of the library rather than books.”

Mackerell helped organize relief stations manned by members of the Indian Tea Association and supply dumps supported by them, these providing refugees with food and the two other essentials to survival: cigarettes and tea. (“The British faced in the Japanese, a tea-drinking enemy, but…considered tea to be on their side.”) More important, Mackerell led his elephants deep into the jungle and across rivers that only these great and noble beasts could ford — and even they were mightily challenged.

For some reason, no doubt connected with economy, there is not a single photograph in this book, though apparently they do exist, as do films made during the journey, some of which can be seen here. Martin refers to them and draws on them, conjuring marvelous scenes. Here is one elephant, bearing two very sick men and its mahout, confronting the horrible Dapha River:  “Its mahout was having difficulty persuading it to step into the river, which was running fast. It did enter the water, but kept stopping, seeming to reflect, seemingly sighing at the absurdity of the feat it was being asked to perform…. The elephant teetered…stabilized itself, sighed again, closed its eyes and with an air of distaste lowered itself into the water and began to swim.”

Of all the dangers and horrors encountered and described with gusto — malaria, dysentery, boils, weeping sores, starvation, mosquitoes, sand flies, impassible rivers, mudslides, and hideous precipices — of all these bad things, the leech, that “living ooze,” is by far the most diabolical. The ground seethes with them; they drop from above; they penetrate everywhere: One man “woke up one night after dreaming of eating a succulent bit of steak, to find a leech attached to the roof of his mouth.”  Others discovered the nightmarish creatures settling in for a blood meal in their urethras.

This is not a sophisticated book: It is a long and exuberant relation of terrible tribulations, drawn from the journals and letters of the people who endured them, from photos and films, and from Martin’s capacity for empathy. It is rich with detail and strewn with such entertaining snippets as the Gurkha, who, after the Japanese invasion, made his way by foot “from Rangoon to Assam using what turned out to be a street map of London.” Martin has a novelist’s flair for sketching character from small detail, and his impish wit and appreciation of absurdity is a constant joy. I would call Flight by Elephant a “boys’ book,” and by that I mean its great and simple appeal is to boys of every age and gender.