Alistair Urquhart (2010) The Forgotten Highlander

The preface on the front cover says ‘My incredible story of survival during the war in the Far East’. In simple sentences the narrative follows the journey of a teenage boy, lucky to have a job during the hungry Thirties, working in a warehouse in Aberdeen. He’s twenty when he’s one of the first drafts of men joining the Gordon Highlanders during The Second World War. His innate fitness and ability also means after basic training he’s also one of the first picks to be sent on a troopship abroad—destination unknown. He finds himself in Singapore. The state of his kit tells you everything you need to know about the British Army in Singapore. He’s given a  1907 pre-First World War rifle. Ex-pats run the show and humble Privates were not paid enough to visit the city, outsiders in the exotic world of cocktails parties and dance halls. Promotion to an administrative post, does not bring a pay rise, well, not immediately, this is the British Army after all. What it does show is the bungling nature of his seniors. Alongside him worked a Tamil, with access to the garrison’s strength and manning levels. Urquhart also believed he worked for the Japanese. By coincidence the Tamil worker did not turn up for work when the first Japanese bombing raid on the island took place. Troopship still delivered Australian soldiers to defend the island even when it was obvious with no air cover and the Japanese already landed it was obvious the battle was lost. But this is not the place to re-hash forgotten battles. This is where the book gets interesting. This is, on the other side of the world, Primo Levis attempt at understand ‘If this is a man’.  

 Let’s look at another cocktail party. Beriberi and Pellagra, the so called ‘happy feet’ deficiency of Vitamin B, which is not surprising on a diet of watery rice, resulting in a build-up of nicotinic acid, characterised by dermatitis, diarrhoea, mental disturbance and heart failure. But the real fear for prisoners like Urquhart was another feature of those diseases—blindness. Dengue Fever a debilitating viral disease of the tropics, transmitted by mosquitoes and causing acute fever. Dysentery an inflammation of the intestines also causing diarrhoea and fever.  Malaria, mosquitoes, diarrhoea and fever. Ringworm also known as the ‘nut cracker’. Pus filled sores that never healed, led to amputations of the legs and death.

Initially, some of the guards were Sikhs, or Malays, but later when working on the Death Railway over the notorious bridge over the River Kwai, it was Koreans, regarded as a kind of dog race by their Japanese masters. They, in turn, treated their prisoners as work and torture fodder. Weighing less one-hundred pounds, on one of his frequent trips to the overflowing latrines, a Korean guard attempted to rape him. Brought before the notorious ‘black prince’ their Japanese work commander for assaulting a guard he didn’t expect to live. He was put in a hole in the ground designed not to allow the prisoner to sit or stand and reflect the tropic heat – it was a slow death. After a few days he was let out. Medical treatment was below primitive, but the medical officers in this book were the real heroes, the real humans that restored dignity, if not often life. Cholera was associated with the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Highly infectious, even the Japanese (and SS guards) were- with good reason- scared of it. Urquhart is left in a makeshift shelter with twelve other to die. Unlucky thirteen, his number is not called. He’s moved to a recovery camp and shipped back to Singapore to work as a slave unloading cargo ships in the dockyards for the Japanese. He’s selected for transport to the Japanese mainland. Worse was to come in the holds.

‘Some voyages took weeks with only a handful of prisoners surviving. Men drank their own urine. Sick prisoners were trampled to death or suffocated. The sane murdered the insane and wondered when it would be their turn to go mad. Cannibalism as well as vampirism was not unknown…’          


Urquahart’s ship was torpedoed. He survived. Out of the hundreds- of- thousands like him he survived. If this is a man?


Alistair Urquahart is a human miracle of survival.           Elsie

incredible story.