Trial by Battle – David Piper
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.
As part of my review for Trial by Battle by David Piper I am most grateful to Tom Piper for writing this Guest Post about his father and how the war affected him. Tom went on to design the Poppy installation at the Tower of London. This is a wonderful piece and something I will long treasure. On a persona note, my grandfather who passed away at the age of 104 two years ago was taken prisoner by the Japanese and survived the POW camps unlike many of his comrades. Some of my grandfather’s stories were extremely upsetting and have lived with me all these years.
Trial By Battle. Pacifism and Poppies.
Guest Post by Tom Piper
My father, David Piper, died in 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, and so lived to see the ideal of a united and peaceful Europe gain further momentum. Always a keen European, before the Second World War he had taken teenage cycling holidays in Germany, then gone to Cambridge to study languages. Here he helped put on and perform in a pacifist play ‘The War in Troy will not take place’ by Jean Giraudoux, where he met my future mother. Like so many of his generation he was forced to decide whether his pacifist principles still held true as the War broke out and Germany invaded Poland. He decided to join up, spent what must have been a final agonising three days with my mother before leaving for Burma and then Singapore, where he proposed by letter. In his post war life he shunned attention and quietly supported my mother, who campaigned against the nuclear bomb, even though he probably owed his survival to the Japanese surrender it had precipitated.
His novel, Trial by Battle, originally published under the pseudonym of Peter Towry, is a thinly veiled autobiographical account, of how an urbane intellectual can be transformed by the horrors of war into a man capable of killing and being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. The book differs from his actual experience in that he was captured during the fall of Singapore. He had initially escaped, wading for two days through mangrove swamps to the supposed safety of a remote village, only to be sold to the Japanese for a packet of cigarettes. That episode and his near death in a prisoner of war camp, gave him a profound awareness of the fragile chance nature of life and a deep appreciation of how miraculous it was that he survived and was reunited with my mother after an absence of 5 years.
I read the book and his wartime diaries ‘I am Well, Who are You?’, in my twenties at the same age he had been when he went to war. It was almost impossible to imagine what he had been through and it certainly explained why he never spoke about his wartime experiences. His writing seemed to act as certain therapy, but my older sisters would attest to how difficult, despite the joys of marriage and parenthood, he found the return to civilian life. His father advised him not to burden his family with his experiences and he made a pact with my mother that she would deal with all the difficulties of everyday social interactions. He began writing in the late fifties, the door to his room open to hear his three girls playing, perhaps only able to begin to deal with this experiences once new and vibrant life was so evident. No doubt today we would say that he was suffering from PTSD.
I was born as a bit of an afterthought to the family in the mid sixties which coincided with his move to head the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. By all accounts this immersion in a vibrant university town in the late sixties was a transformative moment in his life, the austerity and trauma of the immediate post war years began to fade, although his physical heath never really recovered. He was diagnosed with emphysema in the mid seventies, but went on to run the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and publish many art historical works. Before I read the war books I was blissfully unaware of so much of his history, all I had to worry about were the peaceful preoccupations of life, love and following a career of my own which in my case veered away from Biology to the precarious prospects of theatre design. I am still shocked to think what he endured at such a young age.
Throughout my teenage years my peers and I regarded the poppy as a militaristic symbol that you only wore if you were a paid up member of the Conservative Party. We were protesting against the Falklands, following the activities of the women of Greenham Common and supporting CND. So years later it was with some trepidation, when initially approached by the Tower, that I decided to get involved with the Poppies project. I suppose subconsciously my father’s appalling experiences made me feel that I couldn’t possibly have the authority to be part of creating a memorial to those who had lost their lives fighting. I had been spared that fate through the many sacrifices of my parents’ generation. My father’s extraordinary novel was born out of direct lived experience. Would it be possible for me to create an authentic work without having experienced war? But in many ways this is the curse of the theatre practitioner. We are always trying to put ourselves into other people’s heads to imagine their lives and feelings and make a space that allows their stories to be told.
So for me ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, became another form of storytelling, theatre even. Those volunteers who came to ‘plant’ the poppies, as well as the viewers standing above the moat, became involved in a shared dialogue of discovery of their own families’ losses from the First World War right through to current conflicts. Paul Cummins’ idea of a single poppy representing a single life transformed the symbolism of the poppy in my eyes. It no longer represented a generalised idea of sacrifice but, rather, every viewer could invest a poppy with their own relative’s history. We were bearing witness to the lost energy and spirit of all those individuals who died, we were grateful for their sacrifice and trying to give dignity to their memory. The more theatrical metaphor of the poppies cascading like blood from the window and flowing to break in a wave over the entrance way helped enhance the true horror of the vast numbers involved, a sea of blood created out of 888,246 lives.
I remain a pacifist and a European, taking the legacy of my parents’ struggles forward in my own way and am proud that I was able to be part of something that seemed genuinely to have moved the nation. It caused us collectively to pause and think: why do we go to war, was it worth it and should we not do all in our power to avert it? In the same way that my father’s book should not be seen as a glorification of war, I wanted the public to see the poppies as the terrible tragedy of those lost lives. I can only hope, as we seem to drift towards a small minded nationalist populism, that the sacrifices and warnings have not been in vain and that my children and their generation should not have to undergo a trial by battle.
Originally published in 1959 Trial by Battle by David Piper is an outstanding rediscover by The Imperial War Museum as part of their Wartime Classics Series now available as part of the commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.
The story is set in the sweltering heat of jungle warfare and based on the authors own experiences in South East Asia during the war. During October 1941 a young Alan Mart is based in India when the Japanese army start the offensive on Singapore. Between December 1941 and May 1942 What was then the British Empire suffered a huge series of defeats from Hong Kong to Burma all fell and then the Japanese overran Singapore.
We follow Alan Mart as he is taken under the wing of Sam Holl and to show Alan how the Indian Infantry Battalion will be run. The they are posted to the Malayan jungle to fight the Japanese.
Some of the most vicious campaigns in WWII was the in the unforgiving steaming jungle. This story is so real and visceral that when you have read Trial by Battle it will linger with you for some time afterwards. It was William Tecumseh Sherman who said “War is Hell” speak to any surviving member of the army who fought in the jungle they will confirm that it was indeed the closest to hell you will get. I highly recommend Trial by Battle this will give you a real first-hand account of war in South East Asia.
Thank you to the Imperial War Museum and also Anne Cater (Random Things Tours) for the review copy of Trial by Battle by David Piper.
Trial by Battle by David Piper was published by Imperial War Museum and was published on 5th September 2019 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.
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