Alms for Oblivion by Peter Kemp

From my Notion book template

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Alms for Oblivion is the final book in Peter Kemp’s war memoirs. It covers his time in the far east (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia) slightly before and after the surrender of Japan. He spends much of his time trying to prop up the French and Dutch colonial empires, often using Japanese troops who had not yet been released from their army service.


It was the best written of his books, it had to most geographical information of any of them. I did spend a lot of time pondering how much of his impressions of the local population were true vs a heavily biased British viewpoint. I was the most surprised by the lack of self reflection of how he went from law student to Lt Colonel in charge of a (sort of) country in a very short period of time. The post war colonial world was also very, very fractured, more so than I would have thought

How I Discovered It

I read the previous two books in the war trilogy

Who Should Read It?

Anyone who read the previous books

How the Book Changed Me

No changes – perhaps a further enforcement of the view that societies are very complicated things and the thought that disparate groups would unite in the face of a common threat is actually an attribute of very advanced societies.

Summary + Notes

For me it proved a first-class travel agency, sending me at His Majesty’s expense to countries that I could never otherwise have hoped to visit.

Juliet was a trim and self-possessed young woman with soft brown hair, faultless curves and inviting dark blue eyes. Most of her advice on the Far East proved inaccurate; she did, however, give me a few tips of more lasting value, and she was a sparkling, even bewitching companion and partner in pleasure.

A heavy rucksack, I told the training staff, was a white man’s burden that I was not prepared to tote; a small haversack such as had served me well in Albania and Poland was the most I would allow to aggravate my prickly heat; anything bulkier must be carried by mule, pony, bullock-cart or local labour—or abandoned. I never had cause to change this view.

I could only recall the bitter words of Colin Ellis’s epigram: ‘Science finds out ingenious ways to kill Strong men, and keep alive the weak and ill, That these asickly progeny may breed: Too poor to tax, too numerous to feed.’

In the excitement and fatigue of the last few days I had forgotten that this was indeed my thirtieth birthday, 19th August 1945.

The soil is poor and so, therefore, are the people, who supplement their income by breeding water buffalo, oxen and pigs for export to other parts of the country. But poverty has not brought discontent; most of the land is owned by the peasants who till it, and those twin vultures, the absentee landlord and the money-lender, cannot prey here as in India and in Lower Siam.

The Chinese, on the other hand, though not loved were tolerated; they owned all the hotels and eating houses and, together with the Indians, all the shops.

I received also a great deal of information that turned out to be false. The problem of sifting true from inaccurate reports was one that I was never able to solve the whole time I was on the frontier; I was at the mercy of my agents, who turned out as often as not to be double agents.

Another of his duties was to supervise the disarming of some eleven thousand Japanese and the shooting of their horses, which were in terrible condition, having been shamefully neglected by their masters. He was astonished, therefore, to see the Japanese soldiers in tears as they shot their horses, and then to watch them remove their caps and bow for two minutes before filling in the graves, which they covered with flowers.

Although the capital of the Laotian province of Cammon, Thakhek had a very large Annamese population, which in fact outnumbered the Laos; in the countryside, on the other hand, there were comparatively few Annamites, for they tended to congregate where there was some form of industry to give them employment. There was no love lost between the two races. The majority of Laos stood by the French, whereas the Annamites detested them and, having collaborated actively with the Japanese, were now organizing themselves into a Communist movement, with the declared intention of expelling the French from the whole of Indo-China; this movement was the Viet-minh. Now the Annamites, having obtained large supplies of arms from the Japanese, would, after the departure of the latter, control Thakhek. Tavernier’s troops were too weak and poorly armed to drive them out; indeed, they would be lucky to hold their own.

When the Japanese occupied French Indo-China in 1940 they did so with the acquiescence of the Vichy authorities who at that time ruled the colony; the French Colonial Army had orders not to resist. Until March 1945 the Japanese were content to use the country as a base, leaving the administration in the hands of the French, whose soldiers retained their arms.

The headman, who spoke pidgin French, procured us the men we needed; but it took time to assemble them, for hurry is a word unknown in the Laotian vocabulary.

During our talk the Annamese insisted on producing for our close inspection the very messy bodies of their dead—as Smiley commented, they must have been unattractive enough when alive.

A few days of rest, decent food and, above all, freedom from fear, worked amazing changes in their appearance, especially among the women. After observing the effects of a little make-up and a lot of ingenuity on one or two of the girls, I began to regret that present circumstances did not allow me to cash in on my position as their liberator and protector.

Although since the last century, when they had annexed Cambodia, the French had been the immediate object of Siamese fear and suspicion, always there had been the remoter but much more formidable menace of China.

The American attitude was summarized by the late Mr. Chester Wilmot, who wrote, ‘Roosevelt was determined that Indo-China should not go back to France.’ Mr. Graham Greene, who visited the country early in 1954, wrote of American intervention: In 1945, after the fall of Japan, they had done their best to eliminate French influence in Tongkin. M. Sainteny, the first post-war Commissioner in Hanoi, has told the sad, ignoble story in his recent book, Histoire d’une Paix Manqée—aeroplanes forbidden to take off with their French passengers from China, couriers who never arrived, help withheld at moments of crisis.

We were shortly to witness even worse. Like ourselves the French had been accustomed to thinking of the Americans not only as allies but as friends; it never occurred to any of us simple officers that the most powerful country in the free world would deliberately embark upon a policy of weakening her allies to the sole advantage of her most dangerous enemy. We have learnt a lot since, but in those days it all seemed very strange.

At the end of the month the Chinese arrived in strength. Almost their first action was to invite all the French officers to a dinner-party. At the Chinese headquarters in the Residency, where the tricolour was flying in their honour, Fabre and his companions were courteously shown into a room and immediately surrounded by Chinese soldiers with levelled tommy-guns. They were relieved of their arms, equipment, money and watches and ordered to quit the town instantly, on pain of arrest. After some argument Fabre himself was allowed to stay, together with his wireless set and operator; but he had to send the rest of his force ten miles away, for he had been ordered to avoid incidents with the Chinese.

Banks assured them that he was determined to put an end to what he called French aggression; also that Chinese troops would shortly arrive to disarm the French and take over the administration of the country pending the establishment of a ‘national and democratic government’ in Indo-China, free from the rule of France.

I reflected that if it were true, as we had heard, that the Viet-minh had Japanese deserters in their ranks, it was lucky for us that none of them was behind those guns.

Cox was a clever and experienced officer who had served with Force 136 in Burma; his gift for extracting the maximum amount of quiet fun out of life made him a delightful companion. Maynard was a young man of twenty-two whose ingenuity and enthusiasm more than compensated for any lack of maturity. Powling, a tall, quiet, very young soldier, most efficient at his job, unfortunately died the following January from virulent smallpox.

The girls were not prostitutes; they would take no money from us, but gave themselves over with uninhibited abandon to the pleasures of the night. Their attitude was not untypical, in my experience, of the Siamese outlook on sex which seemed to be compounded of equal parts of sensuality and humour.

Nothing so concentrates a man’s mind, observed Dr. Johnson, as the knowledge that he is going to be hanged.

My intention had been to apply at once for the demobilization to which I was now entitled. But while waiting in Bangkok I was offered and immediately accepted the command of a mission to the islands of Bali and Lombok in the Netherlands East Indies. There the Japanese garrisons had not yet surrendered, and the situation in both islands was obscure; SEAC therefore decided to send in a small advance party of British troops before committing the Dutch forces of occupation.

Tolerance and mercy are qualities seldom found in twentieth century revolutionaries.

whenever I have to give orders to clear out a nest of snipers that’s been harassing my men I seem to feel the hot, angry breath of Socialism on the back of my neck. So

I had never met Japanese in battle, the most I had had to do was keep out of their way. Now in my unearned hour of triumph I felt ashamed to watch this veteran sailor, who had spent his life in a service with a great fighting tradition, weeping openly over his humiliation at the hands of a jumped-up young lieutenant-colonel who had never even fought against

Lying between eight and nine degrees south of the Equator Bali naturally enjoys a warm climate and an even temperature throughout the year; there is in fact less than ten degrees variation between the warmest and coolest months. Sea winds preserve the island from the burning heat of other equatorial lands, but from November until April the north-west monsoons bring heavy rainfall and the discomforts of a high humidity; the pleasantest months are from June to September, when a cool, dry wind blows from Australia.

In their fear and hatred of the sea the Balinese are exceptional among island peoples. At Sanoer I saw men wading in the lagoon a few yards off shore with casting nets, or putting to sea in canoes with triangular sails and curiously carved and painted prows, to hunt the sea turtles that are a favourite delicacy at banquets; but most Balinese avoid even the coast and the beaches. In the words of Covarrubias ‘they are one of the rare island peoples in the world who turn their eyes not outward to the waters, but upward to the mountain tops.’

Every adult male Balinese, he says, was obliged to contribute a tax to his rajah in the form of work; if a man died without leaving a son old enough to take over this work, his widow and female children became the rajah’s property. Old women were employed in the palace, the middle-aged put to heavy manual labour; but the young girls—often before the age of puberty—were forced to become prostitutes and pay as much as nine-tenths of their earnings to the rajah. In Badung, the old principality of Den Pasar, Dr. Jacobs met several of these prostitutes under the age of puberty. Each rajah owned between two and three hundred of these unfortunate girls—a considerable source of income.

It is true that Hindu gods and practices are constantly in evidence, but their aspect and significance differ in Bali to such an extent from orthodox Hinduism that we find the primitive beliefs of a people who never lost contact with the soil rising supreme over the religious philosophy and practices of their masters. . . . Religion is to the Balinese both race and nationality.

Certain acts or conditions of individual members can make the whole community sebel, or unclean, and therefore vulnerable to evil forces. Such acts extend beyond the unpardonable crimes of suicide, bestiality, incest and the desecration of a temple, to quite innocent or unavoidable breaches of taboo; a menstruating woman, for instance, is sebel and must be secluded, and parents who have twins will render their village sebel. To such a people, in the words of Mr. Raymond Mortimer, ‘sin is not a disregard for conscience but a breaking, no matter how unintentional, of a taboo; and the resulting pollution can be removed only by ritual cleansings and sacrifice.’

There are four main castes, of which more than ninety per cent of Balinese belong to the lowest, the Sudras. The three noble castes are the Brahmanas, the priests; the Satrias, the princes, and the Wesias, the warrior caste. All three claim divine origin—from Brahma, the Creator—which is probably why the common people hold them in such respect. The Brahmanas are theoretically the highest, although the Satrias are inclined to contest their superiority; their influence is religious rather than political, but they serve as judges in the courts; their own laws forbid them to engage in commerce. Brahmana men carry the title Ida Bagus, and the women are styled Ida Ayu, both meaning ‘Eminent and Beautiful’. The two principal titles of the Satrias are Anak Agung, ‘Child of the Great’, and Tjokorde, Prince. Most of the nobility, however, belong to the Wesias and carry the title, Gusti; they have considerable political influence.12

There do not seem to be any ‘untouchables’, as in India, but certain professions are ‘unclean’ and will pollute a village if practised within its boundaries; among them are, strangely enough, pottery, indigo-dying and the manufacture of arak—a powerful, fiery spirit distilled from the juice of the sugar palm.

Only the laws of marriage are inflexible between the castes. A man may marry a woman of an equal or lower caste, but never may a woman marry a man of lower caste; even sexual intercourse between the two is forbidden, and in former times was punishable by the death of the guilty pair.

The most terrible of all punishments for a Balinese is expulsion from the village, when the offender is publicly declared ‘dead’ to the community; when the Dutch abolished the death penalty this became the capital punishment. ‘A man expelled from his village cannot be admitted into another community, so he becomes a total outcast—a punishment greater than physical death to the Balinese mind. It often happens that a man who has been publicly shamed kills himself.’

‘Childlike’ is the label attached in this hideous age to a people unresponsive to the language of the demagogue, the high-pressure salesman and the advertising hound; it is a label that bears no resemblance to the character of the Balinese, although they prefer their traditional way of life to that of the modern world, which, they would certainly agree with Pierre Louÿs, ‘succombe sous un envahissement de laideur.’ They have neither the ignorance nor the innocence of childhood, although they give an impression of its simplicity. They are, as I have said, the most skilful agriculturists in Asia, they are painters, craftsmen, poets, musicians and dancers; and their art has aroused the envy of a civilization to whose arrogance, ugliness and brutality they are largely indifferent.

The enthusiasm of the Balinese for this sport is as intense as that of the British for football or the Spanish for bulls; in ancient times, indeed, men would sometimes gamble away their whole fortunes in cockfights, even staking their wives and children. It was for this reason that the Dutch government intervened.

Moreover, unlike the Common Law of England, Balinese law does not hold a husband responsible for his wife’s debts.

Leaving the Buffs by the car Shaw and I approached the Pemudas; we put on the most nonchalant air we could muster, but for my part I know that my stomach felt full of butterflies and, as the Spaniards so prettily express it, my testicles were in my throat.

‘No, and I don’t suppose they care either. It must be all the same to these highlanders whether the Dutch, the Nips, the British or their own people are in power. Nobody seems to have bothered about them; they look as if they live pretty near the starvation level, and I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize a social conscience if they saw one.’

by the early symptoms of the tuberculosis which eighteen months later almost ended my life. Apart from the usual persistent cough, to which I paid no attention, I became noticeably neurotic, short tempered and snappy, with spells of overpowering lassitude that seemed to deprive me of all my energy and will. At the time I put everything down to war-weariness and alcohol.

Why they made no attempt to kill us all is something I can only attribute to Hubrecht’s personal popularity with the Balinese, and to the well-known Oriental affection for lunatics and children.

It occurred to me now that I was just two months short of my thirty-first birthday and for ten years I had been almost continuously at war; I wondered how I should make out in peace.

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