Monday, August 11, 2014

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, by Vicki Constantine Croke

Random House, ISBN 9781400069330, July 2014

James Howard "Billy" Williams, twenty-three years old and recently released from military service after World War I, traveled from England to Burma to take a job as a "forest man" for a British teak company. Besides the experience and discipline of his war service, that main thing he brought to the job was his gift for understanding and handling animals--an important asset in an industry that depended on the labor of elephants to haul heavy logs, build bridges, and transport supplies and people.

He expected to enjoy working with the elephants; in fact, he fell in love with them. Over the next twenty years, Williams made himself a first class expert on elephants, their handling, their care, their medical treatment.

In the forests of Burma, there was no veterinary care except what he and the other elephant men could provide themselves. Williams became an advocate for their humane treatment, even establishing an "elephant school" and an "elephant hospital" to provide both more humane and effective training, and better care for elephants that were seriously injured. We also follow Williams' personal growth, his eventual marriage, and the births of three children.

And then World War II started.

Williams takes his teak industry elephants, including Bandoola, the big male whom he is closest to, and transforms them into Elephant Company 1, for the British Army in Burma.

Williams, his Burman and British colleagues, and the elephants themselves make fascinating characters. Much of what Williams learns about elephants by practical experience, observation, and sensitivity while living and working in close quarters with them for years, would only be confirmed and explained by science decades later.

Not all the drama is elephant-related. Over the decades of his career, Williams also encountered and coped with issues of British colonialism and how it affected the men he worked with and their families. The complex and sometimes strained relationship between Williams and Po Toke, the man who trained Bandoola and pioneered many of the ideas that Williams worked to advance regarding the training and handling of elephants, is compelling in itself.

This is a truly absorbing slice of history. Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.