The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 15

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The soldiers in the River Kwai camp had a high opinion of Colonel Nicholson—and who would not have after his heroic resistance? Besides, the sort of work they were doing did not involve much thought. So after a short period of indecision, during which they tried to get to the bottom of the C.O.'s real intentions, they had set to work with a will, eager to show their skill as builders now that they had proved their cunning as saboteurs. In any case, Colonel Nicholson had taken steps to avoid any chance of misunderstanding, first by delivering an address in which he explained quite clearly what was expected of them, and secondly by inflicting severe punishments on a few recalcitrants who had not fully understood. This action had seemed so well intended that the victims did not hold it against him.

"Believe me, I know these fellows better than you do," was the Colonel's retort to Clipton, who had dared to protest against the set task, which he considered too heavy for men who were undernourished and in a poor state of health. "It's taken me thirty years to get to know them. Nothing's worse for morale than inactivity, and their physical welfare depends largely on their morale. Troops who are bored, Clipton, are troops doomed in advance to defeat. Let them get slack and you'll see an unhealthy spirit developing in the unit. But fill every minute of their day with hard work, and cheerfulness and health are guaranteed."

"Be happy in your work!" murmured Clipton disloyally. "That was General Yamashita's motto."

"And it's not such a bad one, Clipton. We shouldn't hesitate to adopt a principle of the enemy's if it happens to be a good one. If there wasn't any work for them to do, I'd invent some for them. As it is, we've got the bridge."

Clipton could find no words to express what he felt and could only sullenly repeat:

"Yes, we've got the bridge all right."

In any case, the British soldiers had already revolted on their own against an attitude and code of behavior which clashed with their instinctive urge to do a job properly. Even before the Colonel intervened, subversive activity had become for most of them a distasteful duty, and some of them had not waited for his orders before using their muscles and tools to proper purpose. It was their natural reaction, as Westerners, to make a loyal and considerable effort in return for their daily bread, and their Anglo-Saxon blood encouraged them to concentrate this effort on something solid and constructive. The Colonel had not been wrong about them. His new regime led to a rise in morale.

Since the Japanese soldier is equally well disciplined and hard-working, and since Saito had threatened to string his men up if they failed to prove themselves better workers than the British, the two stretches of line had been quickly completed, while the huts for the new camp had been erected and made habitable. At about the same time Reeves had put the finishing touches to his plans and passed them to Major Hughes, who was thus drawn into the scheme and given a chance to show what he was worth. Thanks to his organizing ability, his knowledge of the troops, and his experience of how manpower can be most effectively employed, the labor under his direction achieved tangible results from the very start.

The first thing Hughes did was to divide the personnel into different groups and allot a specific task to each, so that while one was occupied with cutting down trees, another would be trimming the trunks, a third making the beams, while the largest of all was engaged in pile driving, and many more were employed on the superstructure and platform. Some of the teams—not the least important ones, in Hughes's opinion—were made up of various experts in such tasks as the erection of the scaffolding, the transport of the materials, and the maintenance of the tools: tasks of secondary importance to the actual construction work, but to which Western foresight devotes— and not without reason—as much care as to the immediately productive work.

This division of labor was a wise move and proved most effective, as it always does when not carried to extremes. As soon as a stack of planks was ready and the first scaffoldings were in position, Hughes set his team of pile drivers to work. Theirs was an arduous task, the hardest and most thankless of the whole undertaking. In the absence of all mechanical labor, these new bridge builders were reduced to using the same methods as the Japanese—that is to say, they were obliged to drop a heavy weight onto the head of each pile and repeat this operation until it was firmly embedded in the river. The "ram," which dropped from a height of eight or ten feet, had to be rehoisted each time by a system of ropes and pulleys, then allowed to fall once more, over and over again. At each blow the pile would sink an infinitesimal fraction of an inch, for the ground was as hard as rock. It was unrewarding, soul-destroying work. There was no visible sign of progress from one minute to the next, and the sight of a group of more or less naked men tugging at a rope reminded one gloomily of a slave gang. Hughes had put one of the best lieutenants in command of this team—Harper, a man with plenty of drive, who urged the prisoners on better than anyone else by shouting out the time in a booming voice. Thanks to his encouragement, this punishing task was accomplished with zeal and cheerfulness. Under the astonished eyes of the Japanese the four parallel rows gradually crept forward across the water toward the left bank.

At one moment Clipton had almost expected the embedding of the first pile to be celebrated by some solemn ritual, but there had only been a few simple formalities. Colonel Nicholson had confined himself to seizing the hope of the ram and tugging manfully, to set an example, for as long as it took to come down a dozen times.

Once the pile drivers were well under way, Hughes launched the teams engaged on the superstructure. They in their turn were followed by others employed in laying down the platform with its broad tracks and parapets. The various activities had been so well coordinated that from then on work went forward with mathematical regularity.

An observer, blind to elementary detail but keen on general principles, might have regarded the development of the bridge as an uninterrupted process of natural growth. That was certainly the impression that Colonel Nicholson had of it. With a satisfied eye he witnessed this gradual materialization, without connecting it in any way with humble human activity. Consequently he saw it only as something abstract and complete in itself: a living symbol of the fierce struggles and countless experiments by which a nation gradually raises itself in the course of centuries to a state of civilization.

It was in much the same light that the bridge sometimes appeared to Reeves. He gazed at it in wonder as it simultaneously rose above the water and stretched across the river, reaching its maximum width almost at once, majestically registering in all three dimensions the palpable shape of creation at the foot of these wild Siamese mountains, representing in miraculously concrete form the wealth of fruitful imagination and labor.

Saito, too, was overwhelmed by the magic of this daily prodigy. In spite of all his efforts, he could not altogether conceal his astonishment and admiration. His surprise was only to be expected. Since he had not fully understood, and had certainly never analyzed, the subtler aspects of Western civilization—as Colonel Nicholson so rightly observed—he could not realize to what extent method, organization, calculation, theoretical planning, and expert co-ordination of human activities facilitate and eventually accelerate any practical undertaking.

As for Clipton, he was definitely convinced of his initial stupidity, and humbly recognized the folly of the sarcastic attitude he had shown toward the application of modern industrial methods to the construction of the River Kwai bridge.

He inwardly apologized for this, showing a characteristic sense of fair-mindedness mingled with remorse for having been so shortsighted. He was forced to admit that the methods of the Western world had in this case led to positive results. Starting from this premise, he pursued the argument a stage further and came to the conclusion that such "methods" are invariably effective and invariably produce "results." Those who set themselves up as critics of these methods never give them a fair trial. He himself, like so many others, had given way to the temptation of a cheap sneer.

The bridge, growing daily larger and more beautiful, soon reached the middle of the river, and then went past it. At this stage it became quite obvious to everyone that it would be finished before the date laid down by the Japanese High Command and would cause no delay to the triumphant advance of the victorious army.


Joyce swallowed the drink he had been given in one gulp. His arduous expedition had not told on him. He was still quite fresh and there was a sparkle in his eye. Before he had even taken off the outlandish Siamese disguise, in which Shears and Warden could scarcely recognize him, he insisted on reporting the main events of his mission.

"It's worth having a go at it, sir, I'm certain. It won't be easy—let's face it—but it's possible and definitely worthwhile. There's thick jungle. The river's a broad one. The bridge runs across a gully. The banks are steep. The train couldn't be cleared, except with a great deal of equipment."

"Begin at the beginning," said Shears. "Or do you want to have a shower first?"

"I'm not tired, sir."

"Give him a chance," growled Warden. "Can't you see he wants to talk, not rest?"

Shears smiled. It was obvious that Joyce was just as eager to make his report as he himself was to hear it. They settled down as comfortably as possible in front of the map. With characteristic foresight Warden handed Joyce a second glass. In the room next door the two Siamese partisans who had acted as the young man's guides were squatting on the floor, surrounded by some of the local villagers. They had already begun to describe their expedition and made flattering references to the behavior of the white man they had accompanied.

"It's been quite a stiff march, sir," Joyce began. "Three nights through the jungle, and hard going all the way. But the partisans were splendid. They kept their promise and took me to the top of the hill on the left bank, which commands the whole valley, the camp, and the bridge. A perfect observation post."

"I hope no one saw you?"

"Not a chance, sir. We only moved at night, and it was so dark I had to keep one hand on the shoulder of the chap in front. We lay up during the day in the undergrowth, which was thick enough to discourage any prying eyes. But it's such wild country, even that wasn't necessary. We didn't see a soul till we arrived."

"Good," said Shears. "Go on."

As he listened, Number One surreptitiously scrutinized Joyce to see if the opinion he was beginning to form of him was justified. To him the values of this reconnaissance were twofold; it gave him a chance of assessing the young man's abilities when left to his own devices. The first impression he made on his return was favorable. The cheerful appearance of the two natives was another good sign. Shears knew that imponderables like these should not be disregarded. Joyce was certainly a little overexcited not only by what he had seen but also by the change in atmosphere, by the comparative peace of these quarters after the countless hazards to which he had been exposed since his departure.

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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