Why have we forgotten one of WWII's most important battles?
By LYDIA WALKER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 22, 2019
Earlier this month, international leaders congregated in Normandy to celebrate its wartime anniversary, which included a commemorative parachute jump. D-Day was one of the many smaller wars that made up World War II, yet the battles, images and people of that invasion have become central to our memory of the war. By contrast, little such fanfare will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Kohima today, even though its landscape, too, is saturated in history.
The bloody three-month long siege of Kohima took place in the Himalayan foothills of Nagaland, in northeast India, the region which hangs over what is now Bangladesh and borders what is now Myanmar. Though the allied victory against the Japanese was a major turning point on par with the Battle of Stalingrad, we won't see world leaders travel to Kohima for its remembrance. This battle has been comparatively forgotten because of where it occurred and who fought and lived there.
But it shouldn't be. Instead, we must remember how the British Indian army was aided by American air and rail support, as well as intelligence provided by the local Naga population, to achieve Allied victory. Such international recognition of the battle is vital because it reminds us that World War II was truly global, with pivotal conflicts outside of the European and Pacific theaters. Recalling the battle of Kohima also forces us to confront the legacy of colonialism, and consider how to memorialize a war that was fought by empires in places that were colonies, such as northeast India, places where the narrative of good vs. evil that permeates so much of our remembrance of World War II is far blurrier.
After the Japanese captured Rangoon, now Yangon, in March 1942, they advanced farther into British Burma, cutting off Allied supply lines to China. The defeated British, under Gen. William Slim, and Americans, under Gen. Joseph Stillwell, retreated into India in May. In the process, Indians living in Burma who could not afford to leave by boat walked nearly 1,000 miles to the northeast, through Naga territories. Their slow, difficult and unprovisioned passage meant that they often needed aid from Naga villagers.
The defeated British strengthened, reformed and retrained its army in northeast India. The Americans returned their attention to China, using long-range penetration units in Burma to reopen supply routes.
Victorious in Burma but frustrated by Allied aerial and land supply routes into China, the Japanese decided to brave the difficult jungle and mountainous terrain and invade India. Catching the British off-guard, the Japanese army laid siege to the Naga capital of Kohima and its surrounding villages in early April 1944. The siege dragged on until June.
From a Naga perspective, the battle involved villages captured by the Japanese and then retaken by the British, forced and voluntary civilian population removals and work as laborers, interpreters and partisan fighters. Eventually, with superior air power and fierce fighting, the Allied forces drove the Japanese out in late June. At the same time, the Japanese attacked and laid siege to Imphal, in neighboring Manipur, a two-day march south of Kohima, where the Allies also defeated the Japanese and forced them to retreat.
In recent years, the battles of Kohima and Imphal were voted Britain's greatest battle by the National War Museum, beating out Waterloo and the Normandy landings. However, despite specialists recognizing the critical nature of these conflicts, Kohima does not loom large in histories of World War II.
Instead, it has been omitted from much of public memory, rarely taught in schools around the globe. This lack of recognition mirrors the international perceptions of the region in which it occurred. The British colonial army that fought there, officially the 14th Army, was nicknamed the "Forgotten Army," and the China-Burma-India theater is often called a "forgotten war."
This lack of recognition in the West has been intentional. After all, Kohima was an imperial victory. It was an uncomfortable reminder that Britain's army in Asia was a colonial army and that the British were fighting in India because it was a colony.
Independent India has also forgotten the battle. This, too, has been intentional, because India has an ambivalent relationship with World War II, which split its independence movement: some sat it out (often in prison) while others allied with the Japanese. In addition, the fact that the British colonial army was a multiethnic army, including Indian, Nepali and African soldiers, did not fit easily alongside India's own national identity building project after independence in 1947.
There is a concerted effort in Nagaland today to memorialize World War II and to celebrate the efforts of Nagas who supported the British. The Kohima War Cemetery, physically located on the British district commissioner's tennis court, where some of the fiercest fighting took place, functions as a pilgrimage site for British veterans' groups. Veterans and their descendants travel to Nagaland on the anniversary of the Battle of Kohima and meet with local dignitaries.
These ceremonies reveal the continued presence of past imperial connections that link the Naga Hills to memories of global war under the shadow of former empire. But the connections happen at the personal level and do not reflect relationships between governments or broader international acknowledgment.
Interestingly, while the West continues to forget the Battle of Kohima, many Japanese are drawn to Northeast India to see where their grandfathers died. There is also a new Japanese war memorial in Imphal.
Commemorations allow for a celebration of sacrifice that transcends and elides past hatreds, sometimes in the service of reconciliation, sometimes to rewrite uncomfortable pasts.
As the debates that surround what parts of the American Civil War we memorialize show, memory and its neglect are political acts. Remembering the Battle of Kohima – the American airmen; the Indian, Nepali and African soldiers; the British officers; the Naga partisans and the Japanese with their Asian anti-colonial nationalist allies – memorializes not only their lives and deaths, but also the tangle of world war, decolonization and ongoing struggles for recognition.
To remember Kohima, we must acknowledge not only cooperation between multiethnic armies and allies which brought victory, but also that this victory was an imperial one. If this legacy is too painful or awkward to acknowledge and interrogate, we cannot accurately commemorate those who fought and died at Kohima or understand the global scale and impact of World War II.
Walker is a fellow in international security at Dartmouth College and a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is writing a book that features the history of Naga nationalist claims-making in the context of 20th century global decolonization.