The Colonel of Tamarkan

The Colonel of Tamarkan

Back in 2008 I went to Thailand and after doing the usual lovely bits of the backpackers trail my friend Jane and I spent a few days visiting the bridge over the river Kwai.

I’d watched the famous film Bridge on the River Kwai and become interested in the prisoner of war experience on the Thai-Burma railway when reading The Great World by David Malouf (see my blog Going Down Under). I became particularly fascinated when I discovered my grandfather’s regiment were on their way to Singapore when my grandfather disembarked and decided to fight in North Africa instead (it took me ages to really believe that it was possible to do that, but he explained that the chaos of the war made it very straightforward). The rest of the regiment continued on and tragically many ended up on the Thai-Burma railway after the capture of Singapore.

It was incredibly moving getting the train over the bridge to the end of the line and then walking the track in the heat of the day through the rock faces cut by the prisoners. The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum was extremely thoughtfully done and the exhibits were harrowing. It was hard to reconcile the viewpoint looking out over the peace of the jungle with the horror of what happened here. Walking around the cemetery in Kanchanaburi emphasised the scale of what was lost and I took photos for my grandfather of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders buried here, where he could have so easily ended up.

Whilst we were there I bought The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai by Julie Summers. The book is a biography written by the granddaughter of the officer in charge of building the bridge and is a fantastically written book about a truly amazing man. It is thoroughly researched and includes fascinating photos and maps. It covers the war itself and his life afterwards, reaction to the film (seen as very distasteful by the men who had survived) and how he settled back into normal life after the war. One of the bits that has stayed with me is his polite declining of a meal cooked by one of his family many years later as it included rice, which he still couldn’t stomach after surviving on poor quality rice for the years on the railway.

If you’ve seen the film, do read this book. The real story is even more gripping than the film, and a true tale of human endurance.