editor's choice

IWM classics: Trial by Battle


We’ve already waxed lyrical about the IWM’s republishing of four Second World War literary classics this month. By doing so, it’s giving voice to men and women who wrote so beautifully and poignantly about a great, brutal war. David Piper’s extraordinary Trial By Battle is the second book we’re reviewing and it is quite wonderful.

Originally published by Piper in 1959, under the pseudonym Peter Towry, the novel is based on the author’s own experiences of war. Piper served with the Indian Army, before joining the 4th Battalion, 9th Jat regiment, which was sent to Malaya early in 1942, just before the disastrous Fall of Singapore. Churchill considered that engagement to be one of the worst military capitulations in history, resulting in Japanese forces taking more than 130,000 soldiers prisoner. Piper was interned in a Taiwanese camp from 1942 to 1945, when he finally escaped.

The protagonist of Trial by Battle, Second Lieutenant Alan Mart, is a loosely disguised Piper, a naive, entitled young man just out of cadet college, who enters the war unprepared for what will come, just as many of his peers did. Mart is ‘trained’ by commanding officer Lieutenant–Acting Captain Sam Holl, who despite being outspoken and an unhealthy liking for alcohol, over time earns Mart’s respect, his dedication to his men, irrespective of colour or race, unquestionable. Mart and Holl’s changing relationship is revealed against the backdrop of war, as is Mart’s with his teenage Indian orderly, Sundar Singh.

Piper describes the misery, fear and uncertainty of a campaign in chaos, carried out in the sweltering heat and challenging foreign terrain of the Malaya jungle, and the humiliation of its failure despite the Japanese being way outnumbered. He presents the difficulties of men from different backgrounds and ethnicities serving together under such pressured, difficult circumstances, the challenges of which also serve to bind them together as they face the same enemy. He evokes the spirit of these men, their comradeship, their will to live, even when the future seems hopeless. Piper did, in fact, escape from his POW camp, but was sold back to the Japanese in exchange for a packet of cigarettes, thus revealing the true value of life at the time.

Trial by Battle is authentic, unflinching and, at times, uncomfortable reading. It’s phenomenal. Please read it.


Trial by Battle | David Piper | Paperback | £8.99 | Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics  | September  2019 |

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See also: ‘IWM classics: From the City, From the Plough‘, review







From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron. Based on Baron’s own experiences during the Second World War, it follows a fictional infantry battalion from training in England to the Normandy Campaign. Piper was a widely acclaimed author and screenwriter. This was his first novel.




Trial by Battle by David Piper. See above. An authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare in Malaya. Based on Piper’s time serving with the Indian Army in Malaya, where he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as a POW. Highly acclaimed by William Boyd, VS Naipaul and Frank Kermode, among others. Piper was director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.




Eight Hours from England by Anthony Quayle. A candid account of SOE operations in occupied Europe. During the Second World War, he was a Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines in Albania. Quayle was a renowned actor and filmmaker.






Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt. A murder mystery about opportunism and the black market set against the backdrop of London during the Blitz.  Hewitt was a British author and playwright who wrote more than 20 novels in her lifetime.





Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending a review copy and jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.


Also of interest:Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo’; ‘Karl Tearney’s healing a “torn mind”‘; ‘Mary Monro’s Stranger in My Heart‘; ‘’Lisa Ko’s The Leavers’; ‘20 books this summer challenge‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original Penguin Ten’; ‘Book covers we love – Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday’.


This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.



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