Road of Bones, By Fergal Keane

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Sixty-five years after the end of the Second Waorld War, the soldiers who fought the battles and survived are inevitably fading away, taking with them their experiences. Many of those battles were fought far from home, making their stories seem anachronistic when the public mood is against sending troops overseas. What drove those men to distant shores and inhospitable jungles? What was the rationale of the war, particularly in the East?

In his sweeping account of the battle in Kohima in 1944, Fergal Keane does justice to the memory of the men who fell and who survived. Keane's project began when a friend asked him if he would interview his father, Colonel John Shipster, for a personal memoir. The more they talked, the clearer it became how important it was to piece together the story of the British Empire's last stand in Asia.

Keane is not the first to write about Kohima, now capital of the Indian state of Nagaland. Recent books include Leslie Edwards's clinical account, Kohima: The Furthest Battle, Michael Lowry's Fighting Through to Kohima and John Colvin's No Ordinary Men. But Keane's is a vivid account, which brings to life the brutality of that war.

There is a certain ambiguity about the war in the East. In Europe, Britain had a clear case: Winston Churchill was legitimately defending British lives and sovereignty against Nazi Germany, and helping allies. It was different in the east. To be sure, British lives were at stake, but the troops weren't there out of a moral imperative to protect Asians from Japanese aggression. There, Britain was a colonial power, seeking to reclaim territory it controlled, and defending its economic and imperial interests. As Keane shows, for Britain's key ally, the US, helping Britain regain its lost empire was not a priority.

The allies had other tactical differences. By 1944, Americans had begun inflicting serious blows on Japan, and were headed for victory in the Pacific. They wanted to open the road to China through north Burma, but Britain was keen to move south, to regain Asian colonies. Britain had assembled a massive force in India, recruiting thousands of soldiers, training them quickly, and preparing them for the Burmese border.

The Japanese had delayed an invasion of India. By early 1944, they had amassed their own troops, with units of the Indian National Army drawn from British Indian troops who had surrendered at Farrer Park in Singapore in 1942, and soldiers the INA had recruited from Indian communities in South-east Asia. For the British, the INA soldiers were traitors; for Indians, they were patriots.

Over a few months in 1944, the Japanese and British armies fought a war so fierce that when Keane asked Col Shipster what was his greatest achievement, he said that he had survived. Its meaning became clear to Keane once he started researching original accounts and official documents, read memoirs, listened to veterans, and wrote this engrossing narrative of a ghastly battle.

The Imperial Japanese Army had taken the world by surprise when it launched its Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, inspired by the "divine wind". In a few hours the Japanese had rendered the US Navy inoperable, and within days, sunk The Prince of Wales and Repulse off the Malayan coast. Singapore, the impregnable fortress, fell with embarrassing ease, by February 1942. Japan continued to surprise the British. Its 31st army met little resistance when they reached Kohima in 1944. How far the Japanese intended to extend their reach is debatable. Keane helpfully dispels two myths.

First is the enduring British belief in the loyalty and bravery of Indian troops under British command. Many Indians were indeed brave and loyal, but many others made different calculations: some felt loyal to India first; some didn't want to suffer in Japanese prison camps. So many of them joined the INA. Second is the role of the INA: Indian history books paint a glorious picture of selfless soldiers joining the Japanese, driven by patriotism, marching towards Delhi. While the INA troops saw some action, it was limited; some did perform well, but many, Keane rightly contends, did not.

Keane focuses on men from Kent: their escape from Dunkirk; their fights on other fronts; their posting in Kohima. They held firm, helped by Indian troops, holding back the aggression of the far more numerous Japanese.

Keane meticulously describes the horror of screaming Japanese soldiers. He is restrained: given his own distinguished record as a war correspondent, he knows horrors don't need burnishing, and stays faithful to accounts he has heard and read. He does not adorn the book with imagined history, as Peter Ward Fay did in his lively but unusual history of the INA, The Forgotten Army.

Keane explains the politics within army units, the class structure that pits officers against men. He tells the story of a son keen to prove his worth, ashamed of a flawed father, and of the remarkable district commissioner, Charles Pawsey, who chooses to stay with the Naga people during the siege.

For the troops, it is a bleak scenario: their strength dwindles and the area they are defending shrinks as the Japanese advance. The forest cover disappears due to relentless bombing. But through sheer tenacity and (towards the end) literal arm-to-arm combat, they hold firm.

Their commander, William Slim, wrote in his candid memoir Defeat into Victory that: "I was, like other generals before me, saved from the consequences of my mistakes by the resourcefulness of my subordinate commanders and the stubborn valour of my troops."

Keane begins with a moving account of a Japanese officer, after the war, visiting the families of the men lost under his command. He paints a harrowing picture of starving, diseased Japanese troops. Towards the end, they have run out of artillery, medicines and food. They retreat, turning the path into the road of bones. Over a thousand British and Indian troops died; the Japanese toll was many times higher. That retreat turned the tide. Britain under Slim began regaining territory. Not for long – but that's another story.