In December 1941, the Japanese Army launched an offensive against the European colonial territories of south-east Asia. In their swift advance through the Malayan peninsula, the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, and then into Burma, Japanese forces captured more than 200,000 Commonwealth, Dutch and American servicemen.

By mid-1942, Japanese troops in Burma relied on increasingly vulnerable seaborne supplies. With Commonwealth forces regrouping on the Indian-Burmese border, the Japanese began to build a 250-mile rail link between Thailand and Burma which would enable them to supply their armies by land. It was constructed by thousands of prisoners of war, along with sometimes contracted but usually coerced labourers from Burma, Thailand, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).


Prisoners of war building a bridge on the Burma-Thailand railway near Ronsi, Burma. c. 1943
Prisoners of war building a bridge on the Burma-Thailand railway near Ronsi, Burma. c. 1943.

It was built in hazardous terrain, an inhospitable climate and with a punishing timetable. At the height of activity in mid-1943, more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war – predominantly British, Australian, Dutch and American – worked on the line, alongside some 200,000 Asian labourers, known as rōmusha.

Using no more than primitive tools and human endeavour, they raised embankments, hacked cuttings through rock and built bridges from forest materials. Throughout the construction, extreme demands were made on weakened men in a merciless routine. They suffered from malnutrition, disease, mistreatment and violence at the hands of their captors.

Prisoners of war in Tamarkan camp, Thailand. c. 1944
Prisoners of war in Tamarkan camp, Thailand. c. 1944. AWM P01502.003

Completion was originally scheduled for the end of 1943, but in February of that year the Japanese Imperial Headquarters brought the deadline forward by four months. This began what became known as the ‘speedo’ period, when labourers were forced to work around the clock through the monsoon season and the cholera epidemics which ensued. Working in a remote and difficult environment with appalling conditions and primitive medical facilities, the labourers suffered greatly.

Allied soldiers' graves in Chungkai War Cemetery, c. September 1945
Allied soldiers' graves in Chungkai War Cemetery, c. September 1945. AWM P02310.012

In all, more than 12,000 prisoners of war are known to have lost their lives. As many as 92,000 rōmusha are thought to have died. By the time the first locomotive travelled the length of the track in October 1943, it is estimated that one in three of those working on its construction had perished.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand contains the graves and memorials of more than 5,080 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom nearly 140 remain unidentified. Buried alongside them are more than 1,890 Dutch servicemen. Within the cemetery is the Kanchanaburi Memorial which bears the names of 11 Indian Army servicemen whose graves lay in Muslim cemeteries elsewhere in Thailand.

Chungkai War Cemetery in Thailand contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,420 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom more than 150 remain unidentified. Buried alongside them are more than 620 Dutch servicemen.

Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Myanmar (Burma) contains the graves and memorials of nearly 3,150 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom nearly 50 remain unidentified. Buried alongside them are more than 310 Dutch servicemen.