Review BUGLES AND A TIGER and THE ROAD PAST MANDALAY by John Masters, both published by Phoenix, part of Orion Books

I am indebted today to “English Sailor”, who watched my YouTube video about John Masters (it’s here – – if you want to see it), and suggested these two books.

It is vanishingly rare for me to find books that really compare with the superb war memoirs of George MacDonald Fraser, QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE. Fraser was the brilliantly inventive creator of the FLASHMAN series, and wrote his own war memoir as a way of honouring the men with whom he fought in the Burma campaign. I was utterly gripped by that book when I first picked it up, and was unable to put it down until I had finished it. In my opinion, it was one of the best books explaining the reality of life for an infantryman in, as he described it, one of the last great Edwardian armies. If you have not read it, I heartily recommend it – not for its precise historical accuracy, but because it gives such a perfect feel for how soldiers lived, fought and died in those hideous battles against the Japanese. 

These books are its equal. 

First of all, BUGLES AND A TIGER is the story of Masters’s early life, his training at Sandhurst, and his departure to the Indian army, and his career as a soldier on the Afghanistan frontier. It is a touching portrayal of life in the army, but it is also an affectionate memoir of the Gurkhas, because he was an officer in the 2nd Battalion, 4th Prince of Wales’s Own Gurkha rifles. 

This book tells of the life of an officer of the period, the routine of battalion life, and  the life of a young man at the end of the colonial era. It is very much a coming of age book, but his coming of age was in a distinct period when everything he knew would soon be changed forever. Not that this book is mawkish. He doesn’t hanker after the past. He joined the army, it would appear, because many in his family had served in the Indian army – as did so many seeking adventure or riches for two centuries. 

But his own coming of age was not to be spent on the frontier with Afghanistan. He soon became aware of the escalation of hostilities in Europe and the rise of Hitler. He knew this must affect him, and the army had planned for the outbreak of war over many months. At the end of this book war is approaching fast, but Masters was content that his men were ready.

THE ROAD PAST MANDALAY takes us on into the war itself. This is the memoir of his time first in the desert (Iran, Iraq and Syria), and then with the Chindits in Burma, far behind the enemy lines. 

Initially this is a tale of attacks against Vichy French and French colonial forces, closely followed by the consolidation of captured towns, and quick raids in other directions. 

Yes, French. The Vichy French governor of Syria refused to give General Wavell any assurances that the French forces would obstruct German infiltration into the country. Since Syria had borders with Palestine, Iraq and Turkey, as well as the Mediterranean, Syria posed a threat. To prevent Germany from taking over Syria and possibly bringing Turkey into the war on her side, Wavell ordered that Syria must be over-run, in the same way as the British Navy attacked and sank the French fleet at Oran, Algeria, to prevent the German war machine from being able to take it over. 

It is clear that Masters was a good, determined and effective officer, but that he was enormously fond of the men who served under him, and proud to serve with them. The early stages (Book One: Action West) tell of his relationship with his superior officer as well as his men, and it is a gentle story. Yes, there were injuries, but the main thrust of the story was the gradual introduction to serious fighting. 

The next book Changing Course tells how he was pulled from his battalion and sent to Staff College. He was to be trained for higher command. 

But in the third stage of his story the tale takes a harsher turn when it takes us through his three month campaign with the Chindits. 

For those who don’t know of the Chindits, it was one of those irregular groups on which Churchill was very keen. After the (not terribly successful) early days of the Long Range Desert Group, which later was to become the SAS, the idea of commandos and guerrilla fighters became ever more popular – if not with the General Staff, certainly with the politicians and public. Orde Wingate was a man rather in the mould of David Stirling (the man who created the LRDG), but with some character defects that became obvious later. It was Wingate’s idea to send small columns of men deep behind enemy lines to attack communications, resupply, and create alarm in enemy forces. And in this, they were enormously successful, but at a heavy cost. 

Masters was poached to join the Chindits, and was given command of the 111th Indian Infantry Brigade.

The book is a great read because it was written by a fabulous writer. It is well-paced, and gives a brilliant insight into the mind of a commander in war – and it’s worth remembering that Masters was only twenty-nine years old when he was commanding his column. He was clearly an ambitious soldier, but it’s equally clear that his men liked and trusted him. Another book, THE CHINDIT WAR by Shelford Bidwell, which I have on my shelves, quotes “another Gurkha officer, by no means an uncritical admirer, recalls Masters as ‘witty, flamboyant and amusing’, adding: ‘A very good leader, an excellent soldier, loved by the Gurkhas and … ruthless.’”

But this book is not only the story of Masters’s campaign with the Chindits – it is also the story of his falling in love with the woman who was to become his wife – an affair that was frowned upon because she was married. But they were married, and had a happy marriage. 

These two books give a superb insight into the lives of so many people who endured extraordinary times: the men and women who fought or supported the military. But they are much more than that. For me the most astonishing thing is that they give so much information about countries which are still in the news today: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Burma – countries which the West is still actively engaged with now. I can only feel that if more of the politicians and military who planned the actions in those countries in recent years had read these two books, they might well have done rather better.

In any case, many thanks to “English Sailor”, and of course these two books are very highly recommended.

For a copy of BUGLES AND A TIGER:


One Response to “Review BUGLES AND A TIGER and THE ROAD PAST MANDALAY by John Masters”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    It’s review time…


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