Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for Trial by Battle by David Piper!

Here’s a little info about the book:

October 1941. Twenty-one-year-old Alan Mart is posted to India and taken under the wing of the dogmatic, overbearing Acting-Captain Sam Holl. Following the Japanese advance on Singapore, the men are deployed to Malaya. What follows is a quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare and the indiscriminate nature of conflict.

Based on David Piper s own wartime experience in South East Asia, this new edition of a 1959 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds new light on the dramatic true events that so influenced its author.

And about author David Piper:

David Piper (1918-1990) was best known as an art historian and museum director. He served with the Indian Army during the Second World War, and was a Japanese prisoner of war for three years from 1942-1945. Piper based Trial by Battle on his wartime experiences, publishing it under the pseudonym Peter Towry in 1959. In later life he achieved widespread acclaim as the director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Ashmolean Museum.

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of Trial by Battle:

The title couldn’t be more apt. This is the story of Alan Mart, plucked from the beginning of an academic life at the age of twenty-one, drafted and sent to serve in the Indian army, it’s his first time outside of Europe. In a matter of months the raw recruit, a newly passed out second lieutenant, will be leading men into battle, some younger than himself, against the Japanese in territory and terrain completely alien to them all. War is madness, but some of things that occur in war, perhaps by necessity, are even more mad. Trial by Battle manages to convey the sense that so much of the military response to the Japanese joining the war is reactive and off the cuff rather than planned. Mart is thrown into the maelstrom with minimal experience, his story must reflect the plight of many young men at the time.

Trial by Battle is the second novel in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics collection, the first novel from the series From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron was reviewed here last week. Set in a different theatre of war, this novel explores the lives of the British officers commanding a battalion of Indian soldiers. This novel is very different to Baron’s stylistically and the two stories are set half a world apart, and yet they have more than battle in common; the sense of boredom before action, the enclosed almost exclusively male military world and the fact that personal lives on put on hold. There’s a sense of enforced camaraderie, Mart and Holl would never have met without the war, if they did it would be unlikely that they would spend time together. Yet they are now responsible for each others lives and the lives of their men, there is a grudging respect that develops, even a friendship.

Again this is an experiential novel, Piper writes about India and Malaya, he saw action in the east himself before getting captured by the Japanese and spending 1942-45 as a prisoner of war. The story opens with a raw recruit from Cambridge (Piper was a Cambridge man) arriving at his new battalion, a callow young officer, fresh to the rank, fresh to India. He seems so unprepared for the job that readers will fear for him from the very start.

This story relates the claustrophobic feel of war, the forced intimacy and the sense of living within a bubble where nothing exists except through the filter of battalion life. It’s a visceral read; moody and sweaty, gradually becoming more tense as involvement in the war nears. In addition to the terror of going to war, the experience of many of the British and Indian soldiers who fought in the eastern theatre was alien because the environment they fought in was new and unknown to them before they were thrown into a jungle conflict with the Japanese (it would have been the same for Australian and New Zealand troops too).

In his introduction Alan Jeffreys, series curator, tells us that there were 200,000 men in the Indian army in 1939 with 1912 British and 344 Indian officer but by the end of the war there were two million men, 36,438 British and 15,747 Indian officers.
Trial by Battle was originally published in 1959, under the pen name Peter Towry (Piper’s middle name), but the novel has lost none of its impact. William Boyd is among it’s modern fans describing the novel as ‘extremely well written’ and the book was championed by Frank Kermode at the time, he thought it was probably the best novel to come out of the Second World War. V.S. Naipaul was also a fan.

October, 1941. The adjutant takes a newly arrived second lieutenant, Alan Mart, to meet his new commander, Lieutenant (acting-Captain), Sam Holl, the man who will hopefully mould him into a British officer, a leader of men. Holl insults the scrawny kid, apparently twenty-one, by suggesting he isn’t up to it, it’s not a great start. Holl offers him a drink but refuses one for himself, he’s on the wagon since an incident at the tennis club where he insulted the CO’s wife. Mart tries to settle in, he misses Cambridge, his girl is there now, her last letter lets him know it’s not the same place without him. Mart is confusion when a young Indian boy enters his quarters and won’t leave, he doesn’t speak any Urdu and the boy keeps rambling on. Eventually Holl arrives and sets Mart straight, this is his orderly, Sundar Singh. Mart protests that the lad can hardly be fourteen, but Holl thinks more like sixteen, seventeen, they just keep signing up, claiming to be eighteen. These young men take the place to the veterans transferred from the regiment to form a new outfit. Hill insists the Indians make damn good soldiers when properly led. Both Holl and Mart wanted to be in tanks but were knocked back. Mart’s failing that he couldn’t ride a horse. So they are now in the infantry. Holl seems to be here because he blotted his copy book back home and India is just far enough away.

When he’s on the sauce Holl is a storyteller. A baker’s son, whose father scrimped and saved to get him into a good school but they sacked him for seducing the housemaster’s daughter and she dumped him when she found out what his dad did. A prelude to a disreputable adulthood. Mart knows to take the things Holl says with a pinch of salt. Holl may be a drinker but he’s a good soldier and he cares about his men:

“The weeping grief of it is,” said Holl, “given only time, I could make this unit of poxy sweepers into a masterpiece. And the weeping grief of it is, if they don’t give us time, you and me going to personally conduct a battalion of innocent Brown souls into massacre. And that’s a sin I’m not prepared to die with, not on my lily-white soul.”

Mart is looking for a new posting back in Europe, after a training spell at Simla he hopes to get a transfer. Then Japan strikes at Pearl Harbour and Mart is recalled to the battalion they are going over seas. Holl and Mart get themselves into hot water before they leave, the two might be up for court martial if they weren’t going to war. Serious though it is, this incident is the one moment of real humour in the novel and a demonstration of the bonds developing between the two men. Rumours abound about their destination: Rangoon, Singapore? They sail, only then does the CO opens the orders – Malaya. After days at sea they finally land:

“That same night some one hundred and forty miles north of them, the Japanese tanks skittled eighteen miles through the carefully prepared British position at Slim River.”

No one in the battalion is familiar with jungle warfare, they don’t know the country, meanwhile the Japanese are using bicycles to move men to the battlefield, to infiltrate and to spy. As they acclimatise the British dig in, Trial by Battle is getting ever closer. . .

This novel is brilliant at exploring the relationship between the raw naive recruit, Mart and the cynical, barbed old soak, Holl. Trial by Battle is also about the relationship between Mart and his orderly, Sundar. We see the men worn down by siege, patrols, isolation, bombing and death around them. The brutality and randomness of war (who lives in a moment and who dies seems so arbitrary), the confusion, sense of dislocation, fear, sense of duty and personal qualities. It’s a powerful portrait of men running around in ever decreasing circles. I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as From the City, From the Plough but I was moved by the plight of Mart, Holl, Sundar and the battalion – the hell they went through. Gritty and realistic, a waking nightmare.

Paul Burke 4/4

Trial by Battle by David Piper
Imperial War Museum 9781912423088 pbk Sep 2019