18 December 2012
The Death Railway
Some of you may have read The Bridge on the River Kwai, a French novel written in 1952 by Pierre Boulle, or more likely seen its adaptation in the fantastic 1957 eponymous movie with Alec Guinness. And if not, then you probably already heard the theme music of the film.
The bridge was a strategic point of this 415-kilometre railroad linking Bangkok, in Thailand, and Rangoon, in then Burma, for the Japanese army during World War II, as the Japanese empire expanded into Burma and Asia. The bridge, initially wooden and then in steel, was therefore unsurprisingly bombed by the Allies towards the end of the war after serving for twenty months.
This 1-metre gauge railway was called the Death Railway for a reason: 180,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 prisoners of war were forced to work on its construction. 90,000 and 16,000 died respectively as a direct result of the strenuous rhythm and appalling conditions (most of the work was done by hand, including cutting into the sides of mountains) imposed by the Japanese army – the railway was completed in 16 months instead of the expected 5 years…
A good number of British, Australian and Dutch prisoners were included in the lot of the dead, for whom a cemetery exists today, not far away from the famous bridge, in the town of Kanchanaburi, in central Thailand.
Interestingly enough, the river's name was not initially called Kwai but Mae Klong – it was a mistake by the French novelist. So in the 1960s, the authorities renamed that section of the river to Kwai (actually Kwae Yai, the "big Kwae").
It was a special sight for me as I saw Thai soldiers walk along the tracks, as if directly coming out of the movie. The heat was unbearable – but I couldn't resist feeling a shiver run down my spine as I was reading the plaques of the dead soldiers whose ages were close to mine…