Saturday, 19 April 2008


The name of the river is also incorrect.The Thais call the river ‘Khwae Yai’which merely means ‘the large tributary’, and is not a name as such.The word for ‘tributary’ is pronounced ‘Kway’. In 1942 ,says Dutch survivor Neil Evers, the river was known as the Mae Klong.and was only renamed Khwae Yai well after the war. Near the railway bridge at Kanchana Buri ,is an area where Thai farmers brought their buffalo to drink and bathe.Now the Thai word for ‘buffalo’ is ‘kwai’ , and this may be the origin of the title of Boulle’s novel.Did he mix up the two Thai words?

As mentioned before,there were two bridges ,not one,and the railway bridge was destroyed by allied bombing in 1945 - not by a British commando unit as portrayed in the film.The bridges and the railway were fully operational from October 1942 until February ,1945.They were then subjected to relentless allied bombing. from February 1945 onwards, finally being put out of action in June of that year.



All these figures are rough estimates..They all have the symbol next to them,meaning plus or minus.The plain truth is that nobody really knows exactly how many people died building the railway.The Japanese kept accurate records of their British, Australian and Dutch prisoners , plus the number of deaths and when they occurred, but they destroyed all records of their Asian prisoners.However,it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of the railway workforce was Asian ,vastly outnumbering all the other nationalities.They included Malayans (Tamils ,Malays and Chinese) ,Burmese , Javanese , Singaporean Chinese and Aminese. They had a higher mortality rate than the white men.. About half this Asian workforce perished ,whereas only about one-fifth of the white men died.But these Asians have been forgotten.They do not figure in the film or in the book. No well-trimmed cemeteries exist for them ! No memorials commemorate their sacrifice!

Sunday, 13 April 2008


Nevertheless, when one reads more about these terrible events, it is clear that Lean’s film and Pierre Boulle’s novel on which it is based , contain a number of inaccuracies that have helped perpetuate a number of historical myths and misconceptions .Fact and fiction have become closely interwoven to such an extent ,that it is extremely difficult to disentangle the two. It is important to do this because public perceptions of what happened here have been largely formed by the book and the film. For instance, the film portrays the building of the bridge at Kanchana Buri as a specifically British Army undertaking. This is clearly not so.There are many Dutch graves at Kanchana Buri of Dutch people captured when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).These casualty figures for the construction of the railway are the ones cited by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

British 30,000 6,5040

Australians 13,000 2,710

Dutch 18,000 2,830

Asians 100 – 200,000 90,000

Other nationalities. 1,700 544

______________ ____________________



The psychological battle between the two officers is very much part of the general insanity of behaviour that war always brings with it.Colonel Nicholson ,the Alec Guinness character slowly descends into total madness before our eyes.Completing the bridge becomes a personal obsession and he totally fails to see that he is aiding and abetting the enemy . The haste of the Japanese to build the bridge , the tight schedule they are under,is also well portrayed. The destruction of the completed bridge now makes you shake your head with disbelief. A beautiful structure,the fruit of months of backbreaking toil disappears in an instant . “Madness! Madness!” says the British army doctor ,and you have to agree with him.


The ‘Death Railway’ was built to facilitate the Japanese conquest of British India. The invasion of India , ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Britain’s eastern colonies , would be the death blow to Britain’s Asian Empire .To do this ,the Japanese had to move men and munitions from Singapore to the Indian frontier with Burma.By mid-1942 , they had lost control of the sea , so it had to be done by land.. They planned a railway to run through 415 km. (258 miles) of mainly dense jungle and rugged terrain , from Nong Pladuk near Bangkok to Thanbyuzayat in Burma This line could link up with the Malayan and Burmese rail systems to form a continuous rail link from India to Singapore.The Japanese were working to a tight schedule.The sooner the railway was completed,the sooner the invasion of India could start.The work was started in June,1942 and completed in October,1943.After the fall of Singapore and Indonesia,they had many prisoners of war. Let them build it! According to the Japanese Bushido military code ,the Allied soldiers had behaved dishonourably and shamefully , by choosing to surrender rather than fighting to the death. Therefore they were not worthy of respect and could be treated like animals..The Japanese were not signatories of the Geneva Convention and thus did not feel bound by its terms.The Japanese watchword was “Speedo” This meant completing the bridge as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost in human life.

I have recently watched Lean’s film again , and regard it as a classic.


The sense of shock to the visitor is absolutely God’s name,could people be so brutal to each other? How could human life be held so cheaply? Neil Evers, a Dutch survivor writes about a shed on the camp which the Japanese always guarded carefully and which was always kept locked. After liberation ,this shed was found to contain medicines,bandages and medical materials.These had been supplied by the International Red Cross and were clearly dated , yet the Japanese had decided to deliberately withhold these supplies from the prisoners..It is almost impossible to comprehend the mentality of people who would do this .But that is what happened.


The numerous cemeteries are immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.Small, flat ,black gravestones lie in perfect rows on beautifully manicured lawns.Some of the epitaphs rend the heart.On one is inscribed , “ If I could have just one wish ,Johnny,I’d want you back with us again” ,written by a grieving mother.” Another says “My son has found an eternal resting place”There is also a separate cemetery for the Japanese.Only small Asian men with grey hair,trilby hats and large cameras visit it.A few miles up the road is ‘Hellfire Pass’.where the Australians were.They were given the task of cutting through solid rock, using the most basic of tools.They worked eighteen-hour shifts and forty per cent of them perished.You can still see drill bits,nails and saw blades embedded in the rocks. In the museum nearby, there are photographs of skeletal survivors , ribcages clearly visible , looking more dead than alive. They are smiling bravely, glad no doubt to have survived their dreadful ordeal. Many are resting on crutches ,displaying the stumps of amputated legs.