“Mommy, why do you like reading about war?”
I suppose the question shouldn’t have surprised me. My eldest is an observant, curious child, and she’d asked questions about my history books before. I’d shared little stories and anecdotes nothing too heavy or unsettling.
This…it wasn’t a question I was prepared for. I didn’t have a ready answer to hand – at least not one I could frame in a way that a seven-year-old would understand.
After some thought I told her, “I like to read stories about people who are brave, and people who are kind, even when things are hard.”
A simple answer, meant for a child, but true. I love reading history, but the stories that honor courage and kindness are the ones that resonate.
The story of James Howard Williams, or ‘Elephant Bill,’ is a perfect example.
James Howard Williams was born November 15, 1897 in Cornwall. He was known as “Jim” to his family, “Billy” to his friends.
Williams finished his World War I service in the “Bloody Eleventh” Devonshire Regiment physically unharmed. He found, however, that he couldn’t just resume his old life at home. He longed for a change.
He decided that an opportunity to move to Burma and work with elephants in the teak tree harvesting industry was perfect. Elephants! Williams had always loved animals- from dogs, to his boyhood pet donkey, to ‘Frying Pan,’ his wartime camel companion.
Williams took to the strenuous and dangerous life of the jungle. He befriended the elephants he supervised and learned all he could about their personalities and care from limited texts available and from their uzis (the native elephant handlers.) He became adept at dealing with elephant illnesses, and at times would use his skills as an amateur MD for people in the isolated villages. He established an ‘elephant school’ to train working elephants, and championed humane training techniques and conditions for the infants born in captivity. He even met his wife in the jungle- Susan Rowland was keeping house for her uncle, who happened to be the chief conservator of forests.
The onset of WW2 seemed distant from the Burmese jungle- until suddenly, it wasn’t.
Japan’s entrance into the war and aggressive push into Asia left Burma vulnerable. Williams and his growing family- he and Susan had a son and a baby on the way- were also vulnerable, facing an uncertain future.
During the course of the war, Williams would have to evacuate Burma three times.
The first time involved the wives and children of his company’s employees. Once he got them over the mountains to India, Williams returned to Burma, aiding other refugees and checking on the elephants and people he left behind. He hoped to take 200 elephants back to India with him, but the treacherous mountain roads were packed with refugees, and so he was forced to retreat to India again, on foot.
He offered himself to the Allied war effort, and became the leader of the No. 1 Elephant Company, operating under the SOE (the British ‘dirty tricks’ department) behind enemy lines. He and his compatriots rescued elephants from under the noses of Japanese troops and used them to build roads and bridges and to aid the Allies in every way possible, (while still doing all he could to protect the elephants themselves.)
As the Allies geared up for a huge offensive in March of 1944, Williams was told to be ready to withdraw his elephants- they were to be evacuated so that they weren’t caught and killed in the crossfire.
Williams, the refugee families of a number of Gurkha (Allied) soldiers, his elephants and his coworkers set off on his third evacuation, across unfamiliar territory with enemy troops closing in. The group totaled 64 women and children, 53 elephants, 40 Karen soldiers, 90 uzies and 4 officers.
After days of struggling through thick vegetation, plagued by Japanese patrols and suffering from illness and lack of food, the party reached and insurmountable obstical- a 270 foot sheer rock wall, blocking their path.
Moving forward was impossible; Williams decided to do it anyway.
Williams’ party labored for two days and created an ‘elephant staircase,’ cutting steps into the sandstone cliff, trimming back brush, expanding existing ledges, hoping the elephants would cooperate and climb it.
A few notes about the book
Generally, I prefer to read primary sources whenever possible- I like to ‘hear’ the voice of the person who lived the events telling the story. However, Vicki Constantine Croke’s list of sources and her careful citing was enough to silence even my inner skeptic, who likes to say things like, “Sure, but how do YOU know he felt that way, hmmm?” That being said, I’d still like to get my hands on James Howard Williams’ own books. (The library really needs to start asking me which books they ought to stock… :))
While the cover of the book highlights the WW2 part of the story, the reader has to wait until the third section of the book and past the 200 page mark to get to that era in Williams’ life. If you don’t mind the wait, the rest of his story is interesting, and I learned a great deal about elephants in those first 200 pages. (From her bio on the back, Vicki Constantine Croke writes many nature/animal oriented tales.)
Whatever source you use, the true tale of ‘Elephant Bill’ is well worth reading and remembering!
Many thanks for visiting, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!