Bill Slim and the “Forgotten Army”:
William Slim was a lower middle class man from Bristol who rose from being a temporary NCO during WWI to getting a commission into the Indian Army during the 20’s to commanding his very own brigade during the early years of WWII until finally arising to becoming a division commander, corps commander and ultimately, army general.
In 1942, Bill Slim became commander of the Burcorps in Burma. The Japanese appeared to be unstoppable and soon enough, what had started as defensive campaign turned into the longest retreat in British military history. The British and Indian soldiers in Burma were under-equipped, under-trained, and suffered from serious moral issues. They kept succumbing not only to battle wounds but also tropical diseases and had no way to escape but to walk with their two feet all the way back to India. Imagine being fatigued, not allowed to sleep as you tried to make your way to India as soon as possible before the Japanese could cut your escape route off. Imagine how much you fear to be surrounded by the enemy who seemed to come out of nowhere and infiltrated through your lines. But imagine how much of a difference the spoken word can have. Imagine how you’d feel if you in the middle of all this tropical hell, you were spoken to by a superior in a caring, straight forward and casual way. If you were an Indian soldier, he’d speak to you in your language. Same thing if you were a Gurkha. The British army walked over a 1000 miles back to India only to be received as cowards and as a burden by the British garrison in Assam, India.
Over the next two years, these men as well as completely new divisions and outfits would be trained by Bill Slim in India. They would receive what they didn’t receive in pre-war Burma: Training in jungle warfare. They would learn not to fear the enemy; the enemy was supposed to fear them. if they were being surrounded by the enemy, they were supposed to consider the enemy as being the one surrounded. Never again would there be any frontal attacks, instead it was outflanking through the jungle that was on the schedule. Later training also emphasized co-operation between air support, tanks and infantry. Bill Slim even revolutionized the concept of air drops, using that as a means to supply surrounded units in his tactic of “admin boxes”. The men were given new uniforms, new equipment, new rations and whatever else they needed, yet they were still under supplied. The war in India and Burma was truly forgotten in the home front and the 14th Army, which Bill would establish and build up from scratch, came to be known as “The Forgotten Army”. But this forgotten army was truly a multi-national one. From the ordinary British soldier from the British isles to the Indian soldiers from all over India to the Gurkhas from Nepal and Africans from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rhodesia, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland and Tanganyika. All these men would learn to fight, suffer and die next to each other in a campaign that few people cared about. But all of them had one thing in common: They all respected and cared for their general. Bill Slim knew what they had to go through because he often visited the front line and always had a chat with a soldier or two whenever he could. He knew that if he could bring up morale, perhaps the ordinary soldiers could overcome their shortage of everything else. And boy, did they.
Starting with Arakan in 1944, the men under Bill Slim fought and defeated the Japanese. The Japanese had expected an easy victory, expecting the same soldiers they had fought in Burma but this would not be the case. They were met by men who knew their tactics, who could outflank them and who were not afraid of being surrounded by them. Arakan was followed by the battles of Imphal and Kohima in Assam, India which led to the destruction of a large part of the Japanese forces built up in Burma. Operation U-Go, the Japanese invasion of India was stopped in its track and the Japanese were beaten back after ferocious fighting. The 14th Army chased the Japanese to the Chindwin in Burma where they stopped in preparation for the new Burma campaign. Bill Slim would finally get his revenge for the retreat two years ago. In a brilliant battle plan named Operation Extended Capital (which had to be modified from the original Operation Capital due to the changes in circumstances), he used surprise, ruse, timing and maneuver into something which became his masterpiece. One of his corps was to take Meiktila, crossing the Irrawady in the south while the other corps would cross the Irrawady in front of Mandalay to make it seem like they were the main attack. By taking Meiktila, the 14th Army would be on the flank of the Japanese and this would mean the end of operations there. This plan succeeded beyond belief and after that, the road to Rangoon was practically open.
Bill Slim was in many ways the most down to earth general in WWII. He knew and understood the ordinary soldier because he knew where most of them came from. He had personally spent time amongst workers and miners in Bristol as well as worked in a poverty stricken school where he first got his insight into a different world. He never made himself out as being anything but Bill Slim, treating everyone with kindness, humor and patience. He rarely got angry and he was incredibly self-deprecating, blaming all mistakes on him and him alone. Not even in his post-war memoir did he choose to say anything bad about anyone, even those who hated him. He loathed publicity and remained as modest as he could be. He was beloved by his men and never cared about gaining glory or recognition. Despite this, Bill Slim was given the title of Field Marshal, was knighted several times, received the title of “Viscount Slim” as well as the Distinguished Service Order. But in the very end, it wasn’t the titles, the knighthoods or the medals which became his most important title. In the very end, it was the affectionate nickname of “Uncle Bill” given to him by his men which held the most truth to it.
Personally, there is something in this story which not only is inspirational but also seems like a life lesson. Bill Slim was a modest, simple man who found himself in an extraordinary situation after the other. But he never gave up and realized that if you go that extra mile, the people who look up to you will as well. There is also an element of unfairness in this as well, seeing as how the 14th Army sacrificed so much only to live forever in the shadow of all the other theatres of war in WWII. The fact that the 14th Army didn’t even receive a proper welcome home or a parade is inexcusable, according to me.