The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 21

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He raised his arms in a gesture of impotent despair. The Colonel took him aside, away from the patients, into the anteroom which served as a surgery, and went on pleading his case, using every argument available to a commander who wants to persuade rather than give orders. Finally, since Clipton seemed far from convinced, he put forward his most cogent reason: if Clipton insisted on pursuing this course, the Japanese would take it on themselves to evacuate the hospital completely and would show no discrimination in the process.

"Saito has threatened to take drastic steps," he explained.

That was a white lie. Having at last realized that violence had no result, Saito had now stopped using it, and, in his heart of hearts, was delighted to see the best installation on the whole line being built under his direction, Colonel Nicholson had indulged in this distortion of the truth, even though it pricked his conscience. He could not afford to disregard a single factor which might accelerate the completion of the bridge—this bridge representing the dauntless sort of spirit which never acknowledges defeat but always has some inner resource to draw on as proof of its invincibility, this bridge which needed only a few more yards before it would straddle the Kwai valley in a single unbroken line.

Faced with this threat, Clipton cursed the Colonel but was forced to yield. He discharged about a quarter of the patients, in spite of the terrible moral problem that confronted him each time he had to make a choice. In this way he sent back to work a crowd of limping cripples, walking wounded, and malaria cases still shaking with fever but capable of dragging themselves along.

They did not complain. The Colonel had the sort of faith which moves mountains, builds pyramids, cathedrals, or even bridges, and makes dying men go to work with a smile on their lips. They succumbed to his appeal that they should pull their weight. They went down to the river without a murmur. Some of the poor devils, with one arm out of action thanks to a dirty or slipshod dressing, seized the rope of the ram with their only good hand and tugged at it all together with what remained of their will and strength, putting all their reduced weight behind it, contributing the additional sacrifice of this painful effort to the sum total of suffering which was slowly bringing the River Kwai bridge to a successful conclusion.

With this fresh impetus the bridge was soon finished. All that remained now was what the Colonel called the "trimmings," which would give the construction that "finished" look in which the practiced eye can at once recognize, in no matter what part of the world, the craft- manship of the European and the Anglo-Saxon sense of perfection.


A few weeks after Joyce's expedition, Warden followed the same route as the lieutenant and, like him, reached the observation post after an exhausting climb. It was his turn now to lie flat on his face in the ferns and observe the Kwai bridge down below.

Warden was anything but romantic. At first he gave no more than a rapid glance, just sufficient to enable him to recognize with satisfaction the construction that Joyce had depicted and to confirm that it was now complete. There were four partisans with him. He told them he did not need them for the moment. They sat down in their favorite position, lit their water pipes, and watched him quietly get down to work.

He first set up his radio aerial and tuned in to several stations. One of these, an absolute boon in occupied territory, gave him a daily intelligence report on the forthcoming departure of the big convoy which was to inaugurate the Burma-Siam railway. The messages he received were encouraging: the orders still stood.

After that he arranged his sleeping bag and mosquito net as comfortably as possible, carefully laid out the contents of his toilet articles, then did the same for Shears, who was to join him on this hilltop. Warden was a man of foresight, older than Joyce and more levelheaded. He was also more experienced. He knew the jungle from the various expeditions he had been on during his prewar vacations. He knew how highly a white man values his toothbrush at certain times and how much longer he can carry on if properly installed and if fortified by a cup of tea in the morning. If they were hard-pressed after the attack, they would have to jettison these goods and chattels of the civilized world; they would no longer be needed. But they would have helped to keep them fighting fit up to the moment they went into action. Satisfied with his arrangements, he ate some food, slept for three hours, then went back to the observation post and tried to think of the best method of carrying out his mission.

In accordance with Joyce's plan, which, after countless modifications, had been finally adopted by all three of them and on which Number One had now decided to take action, the Force 316 team had split up. Shears, Joyce, and two Siamese volunteers, accompanied by a few porters, had set off in a single file for a point on the river upstream from the bridge, so as to avoid launching the explosives in the vicinity of the camp. They had gone rather far out of their way, making a wide detour to bypass some native settlements. The four men were to move down to the bridge at night in order to prepare the material. (It would be a gross mistake to think that blowing up a bridge is a simple operation.) Joyce was to remain in hiding on the enemy bank and there wait for the train. Shears was to rejoin Warden and, with him, share the responsibility of covering the withdrawal.

Warden was to remain at the observation post, maintain radio contact, observe what went on around the bridge, and reconnoiter possible positions from which to give Joyce covering fire. The scope of his mission was not strictly limited. Number One had allowed him a certain amount of initiative. He would have to act for the best according to the circumstances.

"If you see any chance of following up with a subsidiary attack," Shears had told him, "then I won't try to stop you—provided, of course, that there's no risk of your being discovered. The principles of Force 316 still hold good. But the bridge is our number one target and on no account must you jeopardize our chances of success in that direction. I'm relying on you to be sensible and at the same time forceful."

He knew he could rely on Warden to be both sensible and forceful. Whenever there was time, Warden methodically weighed up the consequences of every gesture he made.

After an initial reconnaissance of the skyline Warden decided to place his pocket artillery—two light mortars —right on top of the hill and to man this post during the attack with the two Siamese partisans, so that the wreckage of the train, the troops trying to escape after the explosion, and the soldiers rushing up to help them would all be under constant fire.

This was perfectly in keeping with the implicit instructions contained in Number One's reference to the principles of Force 316. These principles could be summed up as follows: "Never assume an operation is complete in itself; never be satisfied while there's still a chance, however slight, of causing the enemy further alarm and despondency." (The typically Anglo-Saxon "finishing touches" were as much in evidence in this sphere of activity as elsewhere.) Now, in this case it was obvious that a hail of mortar shells falling on the survivors, like bolts from the blue, would be calculated to demoralize the enemy completely. The observation post, which commanded the whole valley, was almost miraculously placed from this point of view. At the same time, Warden saw yet another advantage in prolonging the attack: it would divert the enemy's attention and so indirectly help to cover Joyce's withdrawal.

Warden spent a long time creeping through the ferns and wild rhododendrons before finding gun emplacements entirely to his satisfaction. When he did find them, he called up the Siamese, chose two of them, and told them exactly what they would have to do when the time came. They were quick in the uptake and seemed to like the idea.

It was about four in the afternoon by the time Warden completed his preparations. He then started to think about the subsequent arrangements to be made, when he heard the sound of music in the valley. He returned to his observation, his field glasses trained on foe and friend alike. The bridge was deserted, but there was something strange going on in the camp, over on the far side of the

river. Warden at once realized that, in order to celebrate the successful conclusion of their labors, the prisoners had been allowed, or perhaps even obliged, to throw a party. A signal received a few days ago had notified him of these festivities, decreed by the loving kindness of His Imperial Majesty.

The music emanated from some instrument which must have been knocked together by a local craftsman, but the hand plucking the strings belonged to a European. Warden knew the barbaric tunes of the Japanese well enough not to be mistaken. Besides, the sound of singing soon reached his ears. In feeble, faltering tones, but with an unmistakable accent, a voice was singing an old Scottish ballad. The words echoed round the valley and were taken up in chorus. This pathetic concert heard in the solitude of his observation post moved Warden to the point of tears. He made a conscious effort to repel these gloomy thoughts and managed to drive them out of his mind by concentrating instead on the requirements of his mission. He lost all interest in what was happening inside the camp, except in so far as it affected the impending attack.

Shortly before sundown it looked as if a banquet was being prepared. Prisoners began to crowd around the cookhouse. There was a noticeable stir in the direction of the Japanese quarters as well, where several soldiers were rushing about, shouting and laughing. The Japanese, it appeared, were also preparing to celebrate the conclusion of their labors.

Warden's mind worked fast. His cool, calculating temperament did not prevent him from pouncing on the first opportunity that occurred. He made the necessary arrangements for going into action that very night, having suddenly decided to follow a plan he had thought of long before he reached the observation post. His profound understanding of human nature told him that in a God-forsaken patch of jungle like this, with a chronic alcoholic like Saito in command, and with soldiers subject to a regime almost as ruthless as that of the prisoners themselves, every Jap in the place was bound to be blind drunk by midnight. Here was an exceptionally favorable opportunity for him to take individual action with a minimum of risk, in accordance with Number One's instructions, and to lay a few of those subsidiary traps which give to the main attack that additional zest to which every member of Force 316 is partial. Warden weighed up the pros and cons, came to the conclusion that it would be criminal not to exploit this miraculous coincidence, decided to move down to the river, and started making up a small charge . . . for, even against his better judgment, why should not he, too, just for once, have a close view of that bridge?

He reached the foot of the hill shortly before midnight. The party had ended exactly as he expected it would. He had been able to follow each stage of it from the increasing din punctuating his own silent progress: savage yells, like a parody of the English singing, had stopped some time ago. The silence was now complete. He called a final halt and listened carefully, crouching with two partisans who had accompanied him behind the last curtain of trees not far from the railway line, which at this point ran along the river after crossing the bridge, just as Joyce had described it. Warden signaled to the Siamese. Carrying the sabotage material, the three men cautiously moved off in the direction of the railway.

Warden was convinced he could perform the operation in complete security. There was no sign of the enemy on this bank. The Japanese had enjoyed such complete peace in this out-of-the-way corner that they had lost all sense of danger. By now all the soldiers, and all the officers too, must have passed out, all of them blind drunk. But just to make sure, Warden posted one of the Siamese as a sentry, then methodically got down to work, assisted by the other.

What he had in mind was a straightforward, textbook operation. It was the first lesson taught in the Plastic and Destructions Company's special school in Calcutta.

It is quite a simple job to loosen the gravel which is used as ballast on a railway line from either side of the rails and from underneath them, so as to make a small cavity capable of holding a plastic charge fastened to the inside of the rails. The properties of this chemical compound are such that a two-pound charge, if cleverly placed, is all that is needed. The energy stored in that small amount is rapidly released, by the action of a detonator, in the form of a gas which reaches a speed of several thousand feet per second. The strongest steel is incapable of standing up to the splintering effect of this sudden expansion.

The detonator, then, is inserted in the plastic. (Pressing it in is as easy as sliding a knife through a pat of butter.) A length of so-called "instantaneous" fuse connects it to a wonderfully simple little mechanism which is likewise hidden in a hole made underneath the rail. This device consists of two blades kept apart by a strong spring, with a primer inserted between them. One of the blades is placed against the metal, while the other is firmly wedged with a stone. The detonating cord itself is buried below the surface. A team of two experts can lay this charge in less than half an hour. If the work is done carefully, the trap is invisible.

When one of the wheels of the engine presses down on the mechanism, the two blades are crushed together. The primer then sets off the detonator through the action of the instantaneous cord. The plastic explodes. A length of steel is reduced to powder. The train is derailed. With a little luck and with a slightly larger charge, the engine can be overturned. One of the advantages of this method is that the mechanism is released by the train itself, thus enabling the agent who has laid it to be a mile or more away at the time. Another is that it cannot go off prematurely if an animal treads on it. A really heavy weight, like a locomotive or a railroad car, is needed.

Warden, in his logical, systematic way, pursued the following argument: the first train will come from Bangkok along the right bank and so, in theory, will be blown up at the same time as the bridge and crash into the river. So much for target number one. The line is consequently cut, and traffic comes to a standstill. The Japanese then work like fiends to repair the damage. They are anxious to repair it as quickly as possible in order to open up the line again and avenge this outrage, which is also a serious blow to their prestige. They rush forward any amount of labor gangs and work without stopping. They toil away for days, for weeks, perhaps even for months. When the line is at last cleared, and the bridge rebuilt, another convoy comes along. This time the bridge holds together. But a little later—the next train to cross blows up. That is bound to cause an adverse psychological effect, apart from material damage. Warden lays a slightly larger charge than is strictly necessary, and places it so that the train will come off the rails close to the river bank. If all goes well, the engine and some of the coaches will land in the water.

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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