Kohima, Nagaland, North-East India
High among the backstreets of a city in the hills of north-east India, in a compound that serves as the back yard for a ring of brick and concrete bungalows, and under a rusting water tank that serves the same, the brass plaque engraved with a kilted scottish piper in relief and an inscription apparently taken from a 1970s Proclaimers song is totally unexpected. I had found the memorial by accident and now I wanted to make sense of it.
To get away from the traffic and urban sprawl of Kohima we had taken the steeply curving road behind our hotel and then climbed a series of alleyways and steps through the old Naga village. Stopping to get our bearings at a viewpoint on a ridge on the city’s east side I pieced together the geography and suddenly realised this was the direction in which my great-uncle’s battalion must have come. I looked round for confirmation and spotted with excitement the sign for the memorial on the corner of the house opposite, pointing down a narrow lane.
The lane opened out to the compound fifty metres further on, a rubble-strewn piece of waste ground on which a boy was kicking a ball against a wall while two younger children chased each other around the steel transmission mast cum viewing platform in the centre. Other residents squatted outside one or two of the surrounding cottages, shelling peas, chopping wood and sharing in a loud conversation. Somewhere a fire crackled and I could see and smell woodsmoke. Our appearance was briefly noted and then ignored.
The plaque was attached to a stone obelisk, about a metre high, and mounted on a concrete shelf formed by steps built against the wall that supported the water tank. The lone piper stood on a rocky platform, against the background of a Saltire. The inscription ‘Lochaber No More’ was the traditional lament he was playing to the memory of the ninety-six soldiers whose names were listed below.
Members of the Cameron Highlanders regiment, they had died in the battle to relieve Kohima from besieging Japanese forces, and in the ensuing chase south to the Burmese border, in the spring of 1944. Many of the soldiers listed had been killed in the attempt to capture this hill, in fact the very spot on which I was standing. It was then a tribal village but also a crucial vantage point overlooking a British hill station encircled by the 31st Division of the Japanese Army, intent on breaking through to India.
To get the view for ourselves we climbed the watchtower, briefly losing our bearings as the steps circled round the outside of the structure, helter-skelter fashion, to a wide concrete platfom just below the top. At five thousand feet, Kohima could be cool in the evenings and, away from the shelter of buildings, a cold breeze blew across the terrace. The panorama that greeted us of the city spreading its tentacles in all directions and of the enfolding mountains and valleys was nonetheless impressive, marred only by the transmission masts on each of the neighbouring hills and the woodsmoke and smog of the traffic below in which the slanting rays of the setting sun were being refracted.
Roughly a mile in front of us, just below the setting sun and against a backdrop of silhouetted peaks, an undulating jumble of boxes made up the centre of the city. Just above it was the former administrative centre of the old hill station, an area known as Garrison Hill, which was the focus of the fighting. Dividing the two was the main road in and out of the city, joining the strategic railway terminal of Dimapur, about forty-five miles to the north, and Imphal, the gateway to Burma, in Manipur State, about ninety miles to the south. Kohima had the misfortune to lie between them.
The battle lasted two months, from the beginning of April to the beginning of June 1944, and was a turning point of the war in South-East Asia. The battalion of Cameron Highlanders that succeeded in taking this hill formed part of a three-pronged offensive by the British Army’s 2nd Division, units of the Indian Army and other Commonwealth forces that finally forced the Japanese to retreat.
The battle was one of attrition, reminiscent at times of the trench warfare of World War One. Whole days were devoted to attacks, then to consolidating defensive positions, enduring and sometimes retreating in the face of counter-attacks, and then attacking again in order to gain a few metres, or sometimes no ground at all. Often pinned down by snipers, troops dug in and manned trenches in a shift system, using them to eat and sleep in, and as toilets, before taking their turn to fight. On Garrison Hill, where just a few hundred men were completely besieged for the first eleven days of the battle, fighting by the end was almost hand-to-hand, with soldiers throwing grenades at each other across a tennis court.
Shielding our eyes we could just make out a series of grassy terraces on Garrison Hill, the only open ground in the city apart from the football stadium to its right. It had been landscaped but otherwise left undeveloped after the battle, retained as the cemetery that the area had become. It now contained more than 1400 war graves, plus monuments to Indian and Nepalese troops, whose bodies were cremated, as well as most of the other regiments involved. The site was crowned by a white stone cross which rose from the area that had once been the tennis court, the lines of which had been recreated in concrete.
We poured tea from a flask, very welcome from the cold, unwrapped a banana cake and began to disentangle the former landscape from the city that now covered it.
My great-uncle, Walter Laidlaw, was injured in the fighting involved in the taking of the hill and probably didn’t make it to the top. A sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders, he was a career soldier, born in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, who had served in India and Sudan in the 1930s. Re-enlisting at the outbreak of war in 1939, he fought in northern France and Belgium before being evacuated from Dunkirk. Part of the Allies’ plans for re-taking Burma from the Japanese, Walter returned to India with his battalion in 1942 but spent two relatively quiet years in the country before the Japanese invasion of Assam demanded his urgent attention.
At the beginning of April 1944, as Japanese forces were engaging with Indian units to the south of Kohima, Walter and his colleagues arrived in Dimapur after a five-day train journey. Within a week, with the town surrounded on three sides and fierce fighting in progress on its southern and eastern flanks, Walter arrived at the village of Zubsa, within sight of the saddle on which Kohima perched high above, having walked the last four miles because the Japanese had blown up a road bridge. He was, however, fully recovered from the nausea that came with travelling over thirty miles pressed like a sardine in the back of a shaking, fume-ridden lorry that snaked through a steep-sided valley.
I scanned the horizon for the road leading out but the smog had obliterated the view down the valley which was, in any case, in deep shade. From Zubsa the Camerons, and two other, English, battalions left the road and descended the valley below them before climbing the steep slopes on the opposite side to reach the ridge to the north of Kohima. From there they began the so-called ‘left hook’, in reality a long, slow and attritional fight to gain the Naga village on a hill overlooking the town from the east, a relatively small distance now covered by the blocks of housing, hospital compounds and university buildings to my right. Other battalions were to loop round to the south-west while a third force took the direct line up the main road and the steep slopes below the town itself.
The initial climb involved some 5,000 feet of descent and ascent to reach the ridge, most of it in darkness, so as not to alert the Japanese to their presence, and in single file, because of the lack of anything but animal tracks through the thick vegetation. All the time the men were acutely aware of the drop below and of the danger presented by a missed footing here or there. The men carried their own weapons, ammunition, food rations and trenching equipment but heavier equipment was brought up on mules led by porters from the local Naga tribes. The same men acted as guides for the battalions while on the hills and would later bring down the wounded on makeshift stretchers: pairs of blankets sown together lengthways through which bamboo poles were inserted.
The Nagas were the aboriginal residents of the hills and had co-existed uneasily with the British in the region for over a hundred years, ever since the latter had expanded into Assam in the early days of the Raj and begun to look for a way south, across the hills to Manipur and onwards to Burma. The Nagas had a reputation as fierce warriors and headhunters while the British had firepower and the force of numbers, so both sides were prepared to leave well alone as long as their respective interests were undisturbed.
But trouble occasionally flared up, as at Khonoma, a village just the other side of the jagged peaks in front of us, beneath which the sun was beginning to fall. Here, in 1879, the local British commander had made the unwise decision to try to quell a rebellion with just a handful of troops. His headless body, and those of his colleagues, were only found weeks later, once the subsequent siege of the stockade at Kohima had been relieved by a larger cavalry force. There had been other rebellions since, one as recently as 1931, and the British authorities were forever having to reprimand individual tribes for infighting and the taking of heads, a tradition which probably persisted into the 1970s.
By the outbreak of the Japanese War, however, the two sides not only co-existed but had begun to co-operate, many Nagas being fearful of the prospect of Indian Independence and what it might mean for their way of life while those who were most regularly in contact with the British derived economic benefit from the relationship. They worked as porters and guides for British Special Forces in the run-up to the war and as eyes and ears in the jungle for the British administration generally.
For Walter Laidlaw it meant a safe but less comfortable exit from the fighting than he might have hoped. A week into the ‘left hook’ his battalion had advanced no more than a couple of miles along the ridge and were pinned down by sniper fire below Firs Hill, the name given to a promontory overlooking their objective, just another tantalising mile away – I hazarded a guess that it was just the other side of the State Museum which we had visited the day before and which I could make out in the distance.
The early monsoon rains had arrived during the morning, black clouds pouring sheets of rain down on their positions and turning tracks to mud. It also limited visibility, which meant that the guns below couldn’t risk firing on the Japanese positions to soften them up in case they hit their own men. While waiting to move forward, however, the Camerons were under instruction to avoid unnecessary fire so as not to give away their positions. The frustration of waiting, under fire but without being able to return it, proved too much.
Turning to his neighbour in the trench, Walter warned him to locate the sniper from his muzzle flash following the distraction he was about to provide. So saying, he raised his bottom into the line of sight and received a bullet in his buttocks. The sniper was immediately spotted and silenced.
Walter’s wound was dressed but needed further attention and overnight he was one of twenty men who are recorded as being carried off the hill, each stretcher being borne by four Nagas. The passage down the hill to Zubsa took three agonising hours, after which the wounded were loaded into swaying lorries to retrace the thirty-six mile journey back to hospital in Dimapur. The pain he must have endured can only be imagined.
Climbing back down to the memorial in near twilight, and then wandering back through the streets of the former Naga village, I reflected on the inscription, ‘Lochaber No More’. The pipe tune to which it referred was traditional, possibly dating back to the Stuart monarchy in late seventeenth century Scotland. But the title, and the song from which it derived, were more recent. Written in 1724, it describes a Highland soldier’s sadness at leaving his home and his lover to fight abroad, with the possibility that he might not return. It is in this sense of loss and longing that the tune is played at military funerals, tragically affirming the soldier’s fears:
These tears that I shed, they are a’ for my dear,
An’ no’ for the dangers attending on weir,
Tho’ bourne on rough seas to a far distant shore,
Maybe to return to Lochaber no more.
(Allan Ramsay, Tea Table Miscellany, 1724)
Compared to the fate of some of his colleagues, however, Walter was lucky. Such was the continued Japanese resistance that it took the British another six days to reach and then to be able to attack the hill on which the Naga village stood. The Camerons led the advance which was once again undertaken by night and with stealth, eventually gaining the summit in the early hours of 5th May.
They then became bogged down on the hill, around the foundations of the very houses we were passing and down the steps we were negotiating. Over the distance it took us half an hour to descend they continued to meet resistance for another eighteen days before meeting up with the rest of the 2nd Division advancing from the west and so finally securing Kohima. The Camerons were then relieved and able to enjoy two weeks away from the fighting before Walter re-joined them for the push to Imphal.