Trial by Battle by David Piper – a Wartime Classic from the Imperial War Museum


This reprinted book from 1959, part of the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series, is a vivid novel of India and Malaya in the Second World War. It also depicts some characters who deserve to be memorable: the young and thoughtful Alan Mart, and the older, melodramatic Sam Holl. Caught up in fighting which breaks all the rules of warfare, their actions and reactions in an impossible situation enlarges on their personalities as shown in their preparation for battle. This is a book which contains memories and fears, but also dated attitudes to race. Observations on the build up to battle and the alternating fear and bravery of the actual fighting show that this was a situation that the author had first hand experience of, which he has fictionalised so skilfully. Alan Mart is a character who is naive, easily confused and full of contradictions, offered opportunities and conflicted about his role and responsibilities. Acting – Captain Sam Holl is a significant character, with a tendency to alarming behaviour when drunk, a determined leader, and an effective teacher of skills such as horse riding. He will prove to be emblematic of hope and determination in the most extreme of circumstances, as well as frankly behaving badly. This is an important book which reveals much about the youth of those who fought in this war and the way that expectations were overturned. Despite tragic events, the colour, sound, taste and other sensations make this such a vivid book. It feels a privilege to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book opens with Alan’s introduction to Sam Holl, following his arrival from Cadet College. Holl proves to be a huge and powerful man in every sense, revealing a firm grip and that he has been banned from drinking alcohol. Alan is given a quick picture of life in this particular section of the Indian Army, where tennis parties still take place and women are still present. Alan is confronted by the limitations of the accommodation, and comes into contact with his orderly, a youthful looking Indian boy. He feels guilty that he has a personal servant and there is a lot of description of this subservient young man. As Alan produces a letter from his girlfriend, Lettice, he is mentally returned to Cambridge and his former existence as a student there. He continues to think of her throughout the novel, and the sensations of taste and sight which he associates with his first love. He is introduced to the risky business of horse riding by the determined Holl, and is sent on a training course to use an innovative radio system. As he meets new people he is amazed at the strange realities of the army as an organisation, a feeling of frustration with the sense of misinformation and confusion inflicted on so many people. 


This is the reality of war as seen at first hand. There is confusing detail in this book of the skirmishes and small battles of jungle warever, but that is the nature of an accurate portrait. The Introduction gives details of the author’s actual war experience and his postwar achievements, drawing attention to the fact that many people did not survive to enjoy such an opportunity. This book is a tremendous achievement and deserves much attention.