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Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also champi Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant “school” and “hospital.” In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.   But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Elephant Bill’s exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim.


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Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also champi Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant “school” and “hospital.” In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.   But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Elephant Bill’s exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim.

30 review for Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

  1. 4 out of 5

    Petra-X

    Elephant poo I've only just started on 'my' first elephant trek and have learned that an Asian elephant defecates 8-12 times a day. That is up to 200lb of poo! That's quite an impressive digestive system they have. There are four elephants in the party so that is up to 800lb a day. No wonder they are trekking and not staying in one place. Since African elephants are up to 25% bigger than Asian ones, you would think they might do up to 25% more poo, say 225lb. But you'd be wrong, they can produce Elephant poo I've only just started on 'my' first elephant trek and have learned that an Asian elephant defecates 8-12 times a day. That is up to 200lb of poo! That's quite an impressive digestive system they have. There are four elephants in the party so that is up to 800lb a day. No wonder they are trekking and not staying in one place. Since African elephants are up to 25% bigger than Asian ones, you would think they might do up to 25% more poo, say 225lb. But you'd be wrong, they can produce 100% more, up to 400lb per day. (view spoiler)[All the poo figures are maximums of course, they may do "much" less. But it's all relative isn't it? Just so long as they keep on movin' (hide spoiler)] Luckily for the world, all this poo, Asian and African is extremely high quality fertilizer and has lots of undigested seeds in which will grow producing even more fruit, trees and grasses for them, and us, to eat.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    This book was just incredible, I learned so much and in such a wonde3ful way. The author has such a natural way of telling the story of this amazing man. So many fascinating facts pertaining to elephants, had not a clue how complex and intelligent they are in actuality. The book also highlights the many extremes of life in a British Colony. The bug, the snakes. Williams bouts with malaria, the heat and yet they dined on white tablecloths and on real china. Life in Burma, at the logging camps and This book was just incredible, I learned so much and in such a wonde3ful way. The author has such a natural way of telling the story of this amazing man. So many fascinating facts pertaining to elephants, had not a clue how complex and intelligent they are in actuality. The book also highlights the many extremes of life in a British Colony. The bug, the snakes. Williams bouts with malaria, the heat and yet they dined on white tablecloths and on real china. Life in Burma, at the logging camps and the huge undertaking it was to cut as much teak as they could. Williams favorite elephant and faithful friend, Bandoola, an elephant thaw was trained in a new merciful way as opposed to the scarring, cruel ways of the past. I could say so much more about this book, Williams time in the war, and he and his animals part in the new wars. The Uzi's and how they kept track of their animals, the daily inspections, Williams learning curve in the Burmese language and in all things elephant. An amazing book, which I whole heartedly recommend.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    NPR environmental and animal journalist Vicki Croke’s new book about the British elephant mahout and teak man James “Billy” Williams in Burma in the interregnum between the 20th Century’s World Wars easily began as the best nonfiction I’d read all year. Elephants and Burma--what a combination of mysteries. No matter how many non-specialist books about elephants that I read, I always learn something new. I love knowing of elephant skills, abilities, capabilities. In her introduction, Croke tells NPR environmental and animal journalist Vicki Croke’s new book about the British elephant mahout and teak man James “Billy” Williams in Burma in the interregnum between the 20th Century’s World Wars easily began as the best nonfiction I’d read all year. Elephants and Burma--what a combination of mysteries. No matter how many non-specialist books about elephants that I read, I always learn something new. I love knowing of elephant skills, abilities, capabilities. In her introduction, Croke tells us: ”Williams had witnessed a life among the elephants that would be hard for those outside to fathom—in fact, he reported behaviors that many would not believe until they were validated decades later by biologists in the field. He had seen these creatures thoughtfully solve problems, use tools, protect one another, express joy and humor, stand up for something more important than their own safety, and even, perhaps, comprehend the concept of death. There was a largeness to them that was about more than their physical size, a quality triggered especially when their sense of decency or outrage was provoked. Could one really call it decency? Williams thought so. Courage defined them, He had witness their bravery—mothers defending babies, tuskers squaring off against each other, closely bonded females running toward danger, not away, to protect one another. These were simple lessons from the animals, like how to be content with what he had. And there were more complex ones, too: the realization, for instance that trust requires much more than affection; it depends on mutual confidence—strength, not niceness. Or that sometimes it’s not necessary to know what elephants or people are thinking, as long as one honors what they are feeling.” Croke explains the differences between African and Asian elephants, in size and temperament, and gets into details about living in the plains and mountains of Burma. Details of early teak harvesting are both sad and fascinating. It takes two or three years to harvest a tree, and “it could take anywhere from five to twenty years for a log to become a milled plank.” Demand for teak, a hard wood resistant to insects and weather damage increased exponentially in the first part of the 20th century, from “sixty-three thousand tons of teak a year in the late 1800s to more than five hundred thousand tons annually in Williams’s early years.” Additionally we learn that “a teak forest 10,000 square miles in extent may be capable of producing only seven or eight thousand trees a year.” Living as a teak forester sounds formidable, and lonely. The hardship of the sheeting rain of the monsoon and the isolation of the jungle life would keep most folks away, but Billy Williams had the consolation of working with the world’s largest land animals. Williams suffered innumerable bouts of malaria and other illnesses that nearly took him out, but he soldiered on without complaint and once recovered, raced back to his post and his elephants. The only thing that keeps this from being the best book I have ever read is the section on Williams’ involvement in WWII as it played out in Burma. Undoubtedly the Japanese had a strategy for domination that included rustling about in the jungles of Burma, but somehow that did not make any sense to me. No book can answer every question, but if the author makes the reader interested enough to seek out more information as a result of their reading, the book can be called a success. In this way, Croke's work makes one wish to know more. Many of us are more familiar than we’d like to be with the European theatre, but the war in Asia deserved a few sentences of intent and context. Once Croke began to talk about the war, the map of Burma given after the Introduction seemed too thinly marked. I could not find the locations she spoke of in terms of troop movements and distances became unclear. Details about the elephants’ involvement in bridge building required more than Williams’ diary would have provided. I understand the difficulties she must have encountered, but I would have preferred, then, not to have the title so focused on the participation of elephants in WWII. It was neither the most interesting nor the most complete section of the narrative. In any case, the elephants were involved in at least two long distance treks carrying refugees across vast distances and through difficult terrain, forgoing their usual regime of being river-washed and set free each night to forage and rest. Despite all the hardships of teak work and war, they made the best of their situation and came through when called upon for help. Williams himself earned commendation for his war effort which included mustering and handling the elephants behind enemy lines and we know from his own writings how much credit he gave the animals in his care, especially one exceptional bull called Bandoola, whom he loved. The resurrection of this riveting account of elephant teak and war work in Burma is due entirely to the research and attention of Vicki Croke, whose fluency makes the narrative absorbing. She has a sensitivity regarding animal and human behaviors that seems exceptionally perceptive. Despite my quibbles about the final third of the book, the story is packed with detail and photos of early teak work in Burma and is definitely one of the best books of my year. This extraordinary nonfiction title is well worth the investment to locate and read a copy and would be a great book to gift someone for the upcoming holiday season.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    Highly Recommended! Aptly narrated by Simon Prebble this audio edition is a must for nature/animal lovers and those who delight in hearing the personal stories of war. Thank heavens for writers like Vicki Croke who put wonderful stories like this to paper and keep a piece of history from being forgotten or buried. Yes, it’s another World War II story but a unique one, one I am glad to have read. Though Billy William’s Elephant troupe did become heroes during the war for their efforts in defeating Highly Recommended! Aptly narrated by Simon Prebble this audio edition is a must for nature/animal lovers and those who delight in hearing the personal stories of war. Thank heavens for writers like Vicki Croke who put wonderful stories like this to paper and keep a piece of history from being forgotten or buried. Yes, it’s another World War II story but a unique one, one I am glad to have read. Though Billy William’s Elephant troupe did become heroes during the war for their efforts in defeating the Japanese there is so much more to enjoy as we learn the background and eventual outcome of Elephant Bill’s lifetime devotion to these stunning creatures. Inspiring and informative indeed!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    James Howard “Billy” Williams was an avid outdoorsman. As a child growing up in Cornwall, England, he often set out alone to explore the countryside. He had a deep love for animals and an uncanny ability to connect with them. As a young man he fought in World War I in some of the most brutal battles in North Africa, Iraq, India, and Afghanistan. After four years of fighting, Williams returned to England where he hoped to forget the things he’d seen during the war. He longed for a peaceful life th James Howard “Billy” Williams was an avid outdoorsman. As a child growing up in Cornwall, England, he often set out alone to explore the countryside. He had a deep love for animals and an uncanny ability to connect with them. As a young man he fought in World War I in some of the most brutal battles in North Africa, Iraq, India, and Afghanistan. After four years of fighting, Williams returned to England where he hoped to forget the things he’d seen during the war. He longed for a peaceful life that would also include some adventure. When he learned that the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation was hiring men to oversee teak logging in the Burmese jungles, he jumped at the chance to work there. In the remote jungles, working with a company of elephants and their handlers, Williams found his life’s passion. Elephants were the backbone of the industry because they could haul the huge logs to the rivers where they then floated to mills. Williams easily bonded with the elephants whom he described as being extraordinarily intelligent, loyal, and courageous. During his twenty six years living and working in Burma, Williams became a renowned expert on the life and care of elephants. He was a true elephant whisperer and earned the nickname “Elephant Bill”. In 1944, as the Imperial Japanese Army pushed westward, a final decisive battle for Burma was imminent. The British Army entrusted Williams with the urgent task of evacuating the prized elephants and their handlers to the safety of India. Thus was set in motion one of the most daring escapes ever attempted in wartime history. Williams, along with four other officers, began a march through hundreds of miles of unmapped jungles and over a rugged mountain range whose peaks rose between 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Their mission was to lead 53 elephants, forty ethnic soldiers, 90 elephant handlers, and 64 refugee women and children to safety in neighboring India. Author Vicki Constantine Croke’s extensive research brings to life the astounding story of one of history’s unsung heroes. This wonderful book is a true story of bravery, friendship, love and the unbreakable bonds between people and animals which is unforgettable.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lisa See

    I've been to Myanmar, I like elephants, I very much admire Vicki Constantine Croke as an author, but I wanted MORE from this book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Disclaimer: Digital ARC provided via Random House and Netgalley. I can think of no higher praise than pointing out that after finishing this book, I ordered two other Croke books. Unless, the praise is that this book made me actually happy that the bus broke down because I could finish it. But I suppose, people want something more, so here it goes. Elephant Company tells the story of Billy Williams, a British man who after the Great War travels to Burma to work for a teak company. This Disclaimer: Digital ARC provided via Random House and Netgalley. I can think of no higher praise than pointing out that after finishing this book, I ordered two other Croke books. Unless, the praise is that this book made me actually happy that the bus broke down because I could finish it. But I suppose, people want something more, so here it goes. Elephant Company tells the story of Billy Williams, a British man who after the Great War travels to Burma to work for a teak company. This means months in the jungle facing illness, leaches, and lack of reading material. Williams does have something going for him, however. He loves animals. When he meets his first Asian elephants, it is, for him at least, instant animal love. While Williams loves all types of animals – dogs, cats, and donkeys – it is the elephant that he studios, learns about, understands, and defends. The elephants themselves seem to pick up on this, and over time Williams is allowed to do things to elephants that most other people would be tusked for. While divided into various sections, the book is basically two halves. The first half details Williams’ work in Burma pre-World War II, tracing in brief his boyhood England as well. The charm in the first half is not only the story of Williams but the amazing amount of detail given concerning elephant behavior. Williams kept journals and notebooks. Croke draws on these and uses her source material well. When Williams says it better, she quotes him. His illustrations of elephants accompany the stories of the elephant he meets. For instance, there is a mother whose son acts as her guide dog. But the first section is more than simply a study of elephants or a journal of a teak company worker. In part, it is the development of a man from a British company officer to something more. Perhaps the best known story about elephants and Burma is Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, an essay in which the famous author examines why he was moved to shot an elephant. Croke’s portrayal of Williams is a counterpoint to this. Not only does Williams develop distaste for hunting, but he also spearheads the development of an elephant school. The first half, therefore, is part a story about the development of an elephant campaigner. You would think this would make the first half of the book dull. It isn’t. The prose is beautiful, the illustrations chosen well. The reader makes discoveries about elephants alongside Williams himself. It almost reads a detective novel. If the first half of the book is a detective novel, the second half is the Great Escape with elephants. Williams and his family are caught in Burma when the Japanese invaded during World War II. Williams, with his pregnant wife Susan, helps to shepherd a group of evacuees. Then he starts an elephant company that will not only build bridges for Allied Forces, but that will also help ferry Karens (a minority group) away from the Japanese. It is the story of this trek, including the use of mind boggling elephant steps that somehow brings to mind McQueen’s daredevil motorcycle ride in the movie The Great Escape. Of course, the elephants climbing the steps is actually a true story – not a fictionalized account of a true story. I cannot thank Random House enough for letting me read this wonderful book. It is absolutely wonderful. If you loved elephants before, this is a must read. If you are interested in history, this is a must read – and then you will love elephants. Crossposted on Booklikes

  8. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    One might assume, based on title and subtitle, all 368 pages of "Elephant Company" is heavily entrenched in military jargon, battlefields, and horrific war imagery; typically not themes animal lovers and humanitarians gravitate toward. Such an assumption, however, is erroneous. And those who have previously shied away from reading this fascinating book about the brilliantly compassionate and brave – James Howard “Billy” Williams, might want to reconsider. Vicki Croke's extensively researched boo One might assume, based on title and subtitle, all 368 pages of "Elephant Company" is heavily entrenched in military jargon, battlefields, and horrific war imagery; typically not themes animal lovers and humanitarians gravitate toward. Such an assumption, however, is erroneous. And those who have previously shied away from reading this fascinating book about the brilliantly compassionate and brave – James Howard “Billy” Williams, might want to reconsider. Vicki Croke's extensively researched book is so many things: biography, wildlife-husbandry, geography, history, humanitarianism, adventure, culture, survival, friendship, love, compassion, family, and yes - war. But ONLY the last SIX out of twenty-six chapters are about the British Army’s Elephant Company and ‘Billy’s’ determination to build bridges and save the lives of expats, refugees, and his beloved elephants. “Here on the bank of the river was another of life’s lessons from the elephants that could be applied to people: Dominance is not leadership.” Beautifully and honestly told, and extremely well-written; Croke is an author with a great deal of veracity. She has a flair for engaging readers. Elephant Company emboldens the integrity of a textbook, but reads like a thrilling, culture-rich novel of human/animal adventure and dramatic sway. There isn’t a single chapter I didn’t find riveting and earnest; many of which include a few niggles of culture-eccentricity and dollops of humor. Some of my favorite chapters: Into the Jungle; School for Men and Elephants; Tiger Hour; and The Elephant Stairway. Truly, the actual ‘Elephant Stairway’ is amazing! Pachyderms are such intelligent, generous, playful, affectionate, hardworking creatures. Williams' rendering of Bandoola (Williams most beloved elephant) climbing the hand-hewn cliff stairway is beautifully captivating. He is one heck of an artist. And the photographs Croke chose to include further brought this amazing man’s story, and that of his elephants, to life. Loved every page – cover-to-cover – including the cover. Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II: Highly recommended reading for fans of amazing animal stories, history, Asian culture, British culture, adventure, humanitarianism, and/or or not – war.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Barbara H

    I anticipated reading this book for a long time after viewing several glowing reviews. It was also of particular interest because of my long -time attraction to these amazing animals. I have read many accounts of elephants, including personal journals and other systematic, extensive discourses. Croke did not disappoint me! I was totally captivated to read of Billy Williams, who in the 1920's, after serving in the army, went to wild, undeveloped Burma to work with elephants. The book is part biogr I anticipated reading this book for a long time after viewing several glowing reviews. It was also of particular interest because of my long -time attraction to these amazing animals. I have read many accounts of elephants, including personal journals and other systematic, extensive discourses. Croke did not disappoint me! I was totally captivated to read of Billy Williams, who in the 1920's, after serving in the army, went to wild, undeveloped Burma to work with elephants. The book is part biography and a nature treatise. It stressed his love and understanding of these gigantic beings. It was especially interesting and gratifying to learn of his behavioral alterations of how to train them. He proved what has been demonstrated in psychological studies. It is more effective to instill good behaviors and alter difficult ones with rewards and kindness. Repeatedly the elephants demonstrated their intelligence and even gentleness. They ceased their misery and worked well without the use of chains to tether them. Gone was the former cruelty to these wise devoted animals. Croke filled this book with orderly, interesting facts. It would be unfair to divulge too much in this review. The elephants played essential roles during WW ll with amazing feats. I hope that others read about this man and the wonderful creatures he loved and respected. It seemed that one could never be disappointed by their intelligence, awareness and even determination!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tasha

    3.5 I was hoping for more personal information on the elephants although we did get a good peek at Bandoola. This story was more about the man who helped the elephants which I guess is pretty evident from the title. I was just hoping for more about the actual elephants. Williams, the 'man' in the story was a pure hero. He lived a fascinating life and had a passion for the elephants. I think it was the storytelling itself that didn't fully engage me. Not bad, just not page-turning non-fic.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alexa

    This read, to me, as if Kipling had set out to write a biography. It’s full of overblown colonial-romanticism, yet from a contemporary author - pure weirdness! Some examples of the ridiculousness: “Bath time for the elephants was always a draw for Williams, who was unfailingly moved by their joy.” Oh really? Always? Unfailingly? Individuals are allowed to make such statements of hyperbole, we excuse individuals their enthusiasm, but when a biographer states such things as fact, it is simply ridi This read, to me, as if Kipling had set out to write a biography. It’s full of overblown colonial-romanticism, yet from a contemporary author - pure weirdness! Some examples of the ridiculousness: “Bath time for the elephants was always a draw for Williams, who was unfailingly moved by their joy.” Oh really? Always? Unfailingly? Individuals are allowed to make such statements of hyperbole, we excuse individuals their enthusiasm, but when a biographer states such things as fact, it is simply ridiculous – she could have easily put this in his own words (which is how I suspect she wanted to write the entire book, but perhaps only had fragments) or allowed some qualifiers, “thought, said, seemed, appeared.” Yes, they’re awkward, but when you’re writing non-fiction you need to stick to the facts. And then statements like, “By this time he understood their language,” or “This wasn’t a matter of superstition or sentiment; there really was something mystical about the whole endeavor.” Really? Mystical. And how do you quantify that? So I’m afraid I found this dull, deadly, boring, stilted, factually compromised and yet tedious. (Which is kind of an impressive combination!) It was so dry that even what should have been a harrowing tale of refugees was just a dull slog through a map. Along with the Kiplingesque romanticism, there’s a sort of acceptance of the colonialism that just ate away at me; the casual acceptance of the servants and the unnamed staff. A woman dying on the edge of the road is described as, “gazing at me with the intelligence of a mute animal”?! At one point he flags down a jeep, places two orphaned children into it, sends it off, and washes his hands of the whole thing, and yet this is presented as an act of brave selfless responsibility! There’s just so little acknowledgement of the facts of colonialism, what exactly it means that this entire tale is told from the colonizer’s point of view. The problem here is that the author has a bad case of hero worship, so everything is presented with an “oh wow!” approach, and there are no looks at the flaws, the contradictions, the other opinions. In short, I hated it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This was the March selection for my in-person book club. I wasn't thrilled to read it based on the title and description, but both proved to be misleading. While a portion of the book is about the elephant company in World War II, it is more about Jim Williams, better known as "Elephant Bill," who worked for the British to oversee logging operations in Burma after World War I. It chronicles Burmese jungle culture and how that conflicts with British colonialism, Jim's affinity with the elephants, This was the March selection for my in-person book club. I wasn't thrilled to read it based on the title and description, but both proved to be misleading. While a portion of the book is about the elephant company in World War II, it is more about Jim Williams, better known as "Elephant Bill," who worked for the British to oversee logging operations in Burma after World War I. It chronicles Burmese jungle culture and how that conflicts with British colonialism, Jim's affinity with the elephants, how he meets his wife in the jungle, and provides more information about elephants than you ever probably thought you needed to know. I enjoyed reading it, and also came across the book written by Elephant Bill's wife, which I look forward to reading (once it circulates through my book club!)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Leight

    I'm surprised by the high reviews here (and the positive critical reviews that this book received). I love elephants as well and did appreciate the interesting facts presented here about their unusual gifts - though it should be noted that this only amounts to a few pages - but I felt the other weaknesses of the book were much more salient. The author is oddly uncritical of both her subject and the broader colonial milieu in which he operates; in that respect, the book reminded me of Roald Dahl I'm surprised by the high reviews here (and the positive critical reviews that this book received). I love elephants as well and did appreciate the interesting facts presented here about their unusual gifts - though it should be noted that this only amounts to a few pages - but I felt the other weaknesses of the book were much more salient. The author is oddly uncritical of both her subject and the broader colonial milieu in which he operates; in that respect, the book reminded me of Roald Dahl in its vague glorification of British colonial personnel. She praises her subject so much, it's hard to feel that one actually learns anything about him, and she seems to make use of his family papers almost exclusively, rather than drawing on any other historical sources. The second half of the book, focusing on World War II, is even worse. Her description of action in Burma is vague and confusing, and I didn't feel there was enough evidence to support her assertions of the elephants' enormous contribution. It's an interesting story that merits a better narrative.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    This is a fascinating story. I can highly recommend this book. I not only learned more about the days of the British Empire in Burma but also about WWII in Burma under the Japanese rule. The special treat for me was the vast knowledge about the Indian Elephant that was provided. This is the story of J. H. “Billy” Williams. Williams fought in WWI and like many men returning from the war he was restless. He was hired by the Bombay-Burma Teak Company and went off to the jungles of Burma. He ended up This is a fascinating story. I can highly recommend this book. I not only learned more about the days of the British Empire in Burma but also about WWII in Burma under the Japanese rule. The special treat for me was the vast knowledge about the Indian Elephant that was provided. This is the story of J. H. “Billy” Williams. Williams fought in WWI and like many men returning from the war he was restless. He was hired by the Bombay-Burma Teak Company and went off to the jungles of Burma. He ended up spending his life work as a forest manager and responsible for the care of the company elephants. Williams developed a new method of training the elephants. He wrote a report to the head office showing it was costing more money to capture and break wild elephants than if they kept and trained the baby elephants born to the company elephants. He did not like the method used to train the wild elephants called Kheddaning which destroyed their spirit and left them with brutal scars that often got infected. Williams created a school which had the mother train the babies starting at age five. He also had twelve year old boys teamed up with the elephant to be trained as a Uris. The boy and elephant would spend the rest of their lives together working in the jungle. During WWII Williams and his elephants helped build bridges and created a path through virgin jungle as he led his elephants and refugees fleeing from the Japanese occupation to the safety of India. When he had his family safe in India, Williams returned to help the British Army fight the Japanese by building bridges and roads, at his peak he had over a 1000 elephants under his command. I thought it was great that Williams met an English woman, Susan, in the jungle of Burma and she also had a special gift with animals, of course, they married and she lived and traveled with him in the jungle on his rounds as the forest manager. Williams had to learn the Burmese language not only to communicate with the workers but also with the elephants. The elephants apparently had quite an extensive list of Burmese words they knew. Croke did extensive research and had access to Williams’ diaries and other papers as well as unpublished manuscripts and essays. The book is well written. In spite of the title this book is really about the life and work of the elephant. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. I noted that the book was published by Recorded Books; they always put out a high quality book. It was so great to listen to the great Simon Prebble narrate the book. It has been some time since I have listen to him.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dick Reynolds

    Captain James “Billy” Williams was discharged from the British Army in 1920 after serving in combat for four years in WWI. Looking for adventure and a change of scenery, he accepted a job with a British company in Burma (known as Myanmar today) that was harvesting teak from the jungles. Upon arrival, he was dispatched to an outlying camp and soon became intimately familiar with the native handlers (called uzis) and the elephants who were doing the serious work of hauling teak logs to dry creek Captain James “Billy” Williams was discharged from the British Army in 1920 after serving in combat for four years in WWI. Looking for adventure and a change of scenery, he accepted a job with a British company in Burma (known as Myanmar today) that was harvesting teak from the jungles. Upon arrival, he was dispatched to an outlying camp and soon became intimately familiar with the native handlers (called uzis) and the elephants who were doing the serious work of hauling teak logs to dry creek beds where they would be washed downstream on arrival of the monsoon season. Williams soon picks up the native Burmese language to converse with his uzis and is also able to communicate well with his elephants, understanding all their sounds and movements. He gives them loving care and talks to them in Burmese, heals their wounds and massages their wrinkled hides. We learn many fascinating details about elephants and their physical makeup: how they can eat up to 600 pounds of vegetation daily while foraging in the jungle at night, the location and function of various body parts, and how their intelligence allows them to accurately place logs while building a bridge. It’s a lonely job for Williams because there are sparse opportunities to meet eligible females and establish a relationship. It all changes in 1931 when, at the age of 33, Williams meets a young British woman in one of the camps named Susan Rowland. Luckily for Williams, Susan loves the jungle and animals as much as he does and romance soon blossoms, followed by their marriage. In the late 1930s, the coming war in Europe seems far removed from the Williams family but a real threat arrives when the Japanese invade Burma and bomb Rangoon on December 23, 1941. Susan and their young son, Treve, must be evacuated to Mandalay but James has a different mission: gather up all the company’s elephants and move them to safety away from the Japanese soldiers. It becomes a superhuman task and I had to stay up late one night to finish the book’s exciting ending. Author Vicki Croke has done a superb writing job, gathering material from interviews with Treve and combing through James’ voluminous diaries, reports and records. A map of wartime Burma is provided with extensive Notes and Index sections at the end. Overall it’s an fascinating and inspiring story about one man’s courage and leadership in a part of the world seldom visited or written about.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    I wish all the poachers could read this book NOW! I am aware that Billy Williams wrote five memoirs of his life with elephants in the 1950's. But now is the time that people need to realize how intelligent and empathetic these animals are and what a wonderful addition they are to our world. We are so lucky that William's son Treve, wife Susan and adopted daughter Lamorna have been caretakers of this elephant-lover's notes and photos of the life he was living in teak growing country in Burma (now I wish all the poachers could read this book NOW! I am aware that Billy Williams wrote five memoirs of his life with elephants in the 1950's. But now is the time that people need to realize how intelligent and empathetic these animals are and what a wonderful addition they are to our world. We are so lucky that William's son Treve, wife Susan and adopted daughter Lamorna have been caretakers of this elephant-lover's notes and photos of the life he was living in teak growing country in Burma (now Myanmar). Also that author Vicki Croke has ferreted out added info and made the story so interesting and easy to read! This is non-fiction that reads like fiction. We are indebted to Billy for studying his: elephants, oozies(elephant caregivers/Mahouts), the lay of the land of Burma, needs of the Teak Company he served and later of the army he served. He was creative, daring, risking, caring, and the first elephant whisperer. Other reviewers have detailed the story. Suffice it to say I now know a lot about elephants, teak logging, Burma elephant care, Colonialism, a large loveable elephant named Bandoola and a World War Ii trek of elephants up quickly incised steps into a mountain to reach India. Please read this book!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I loved this book although I love books with animals and their relationships with people. This is an amazing real life story of an Englishman, Billy Williams, who went to Burma in the 1920's to work with elephants for a teak company. By the time WWII came about he knew over 600 elephants by name just by the sight of them. He then formed the first Elephant Company to make bridges and also save refugees by helping them flee Burma and into India. A truly fascinating man, life and story.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Skip

    This book is hard to classify because it covers so many subjects. At the end of the day, I would say it is best considered an adventure story. Jim “Elephant Bill” Williams fought in World War I, and decided to seek adventure, travelling colonial Burma in 1920 to work as a forest man for a British teak company, a short-lived job for most. Much of the book is about his overcoming obstacles (language, working environment, health, etc.), but his love and respect for elephants (especially Bandoola) a This book is hard to classify because it covers so many subjects. At the end of the day, I would say it is best considered an adventure story. Jim “Elephant Bill” Williams fought in World War I, and decided to seek adventure, travelling colonial Burma in 1920 to work as a forest man for a British teak company, a short-lived job for most. Much of the book is about his overcoming obstacles (language, working environment, health, etc.), but his love and respect for elephants (especially Bandoola) and keen desire for more humane treatment and training is a constant theme. Elephants were key partners in felling trees, getting them to rivers, and penetrating the jungle. His ideas and innovations around care helped reduce fatalities and improve morale. The last section of the book about rescuing indigenous refugees was moving, but not the main subject of the book as implied in the title although building the elephant staircase was pretty cool.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chrisl

    Cataloging (CIP) 1. Williams, James Howard 2. World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Burma 3. Elephant Company (Great Britain) 4. Bandoola (Elephant) 5. Animals in logging--Burma--History--20th century 6. Asiatic elephants--Burma--History--20th century 7. Working elephants--Burma--History--20th century 8. Animals--War use--History--29th century 9. Burma--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945 Dewey 940.54'259591092 Perhaps, too, there should be a subject entry for how the British ruling class lived in Burma in Cataloging (CIP) 1. Williams, James Howard 2. World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Burma 3. Elephant Company (Great Britain) 4. Bandoola (Elephant) 5. Animals in logging--Burma--History--20th century 6. Asiatic elephants--Burma--History--20th century 7. Working elephants--Burma--History--20th century 8. Animals--War use--History--29th century 9. Burma--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945 Dewey 940.54'259591092 Perhaps, too, there should be a subject entry for how the British ruling class lived in Burma in the 1920s and 30s. While reading this, I had urges to reread several books. Matthee's Elephants-Logging-Exotic Location Ghosh's Burma-History Master-WWII Circles in a Forest The Glass Palace The Road Past Mandalay: A Personal Narrative

  20. 4 out of 5

    Loretta

    I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, it tells the story of a man becoming something of a proto-animal rights advocate, as his work with elephants makes him realize how intelligent, emotionally mature and generous they can be. On the other hand, it's the tale of the tragedies that are inevitable when humans exploit the labor and other products of non-human animals. Ultimately a good tale, if the story did have me sobbing a few times. And I try to be understanding of the practices of a century I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, it tells the story of a man becoming something of a proto-animal rights advocate, as his work with elephants makes him realize how intelligent, emotionally mature and generous they can be. On the other hand, it's the tale of the tragedies that are inevitable when humans exploit the labor and other products of non-human animals. Ultimately a good tale, if the story did have me sobbing a few times. And I try to be understanding of the practices of a century ago, given the societal context, and also admire "Elephant Bill" for doing his best to go against those practices as his exposure to the elephants made him realize how emotionally complex and admirable they are. I hope everyone else who reads this takes a moment to consider that having "working" wild animals is terrible in any circumstance. 4 stars.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth☮

    I finished this one last night. I really liked it. It is funny that it is called Elephant Company, because the book isn't so much about how the elephants were used during the war (only about a third of the book covers it. If that). But perhaps the title means that Elephant Bill keeps company with the elephants. And what nice company to keep. He has a sort of insight into their personas and their mentality. Elephants are so smart and their lives so rich with emotion. This book just gives more exa I finished this one last night. I really liked it. It is funny that it is called Elephant Company, because the book isn't so much about how the elephants were used during the war (only about a third of the book covers it. If that). But perhaps the title means that Elephant Bill keeps company with the elephants. And what nice company to keep. He has a sort of insight into their personas and their mentality. Elephants are so smart and their lives so rich with emotion. This book just gives more examples of how complex animals' lives can be. I found myself really taken with Bill Williams and his passion for the elephants. Many of his observations pre-date evidence detailing the ways elephants communicate and interact, so it is really interesting to see how he studied them.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Book Concierge

    3.5*** Subtitle: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II Jim “Elephant Bill” Williams was a veteran of World War I when he went to colonial Burma in 1920 to work as a “forest man” for a British teak company. He was immediately fascinated by the large beasts who were the true workers in this industry. He appreciated their intelligence and social structure, and keenly observed the relationships between the elephants and the uzis/mahouts who w 3.5*** Subtitle: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II Jim “Elephant Bill” Williams was a veteran of World War I when he went to colonial Burma in 1920 to work as a “forest man” for a British teak company. He was immediately fascinated by the large beasts who were the true workers in this industry. He appreciated their intelligence and social structure, and keenly observed the relationships between the elephants and the uzis/mahouts who were their constant companions. One Burmese man, Po Toke, helped Williams develop a different method of training and caring for the valuable animals, and introduced him to the young male calf who would become his favorite tusker – Bandoola. The subtitle really intrigued me and I was eager to read about this particular episode, but the author gives us more than 200 pages of background before we get to World War II and the vital role Williams and his elephants played in the fight against the Japanese. Admittedly all that background was interesting and helped to explain the extraordinary relationship Williams had with these animals and their riders. His respect for and loyalty to them was returned in kind, making him an exemplary leader. Croke did extensive research. In addition to the memoirs written by Williams, she was able to access a treasure trove of personal papers kept by Williams’ children and other descendants of key people. I read all the notes following the main text, they were so interesting.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Joanne

    This was such a fabulous story! It's 1920 and Billy Williams, just home from WWI, is restless and without direction. Always the outdoors man, he takes a job in Colonial Burma as a "forest man" in the logging industry. Barely trained, he is sent out into the jungles with a troop of Elephants to supervise the cutting and moving of teak logs.Williams spend his entire adult life working with and training his elephants. His story is inspirational. The author brings you into the world of the elephants This was such a fabulous story! It's 1920 and Billy Williams, just home from WWI, is restless and without direction. Always the outdoors man, he takes a job in Colonial Burma as a "forest man" in the logging industry. Barely trained, he is sent out into the jungles with a troop of Elephants to supervise the cutting and moving of teak logs.Williams spend his entire adult life working with and training his elephants. His story is inspirational. The author brings you into the world of the elephants and nature and the peoples of Burma. Do not be put off by the WWII tags on this book. Yes, Billy and his elephants are caught up in the war, but this is not your normal WWII story. I learned so much about a country I knew nothing about, and so much more about the Elephants. Billy's bond with his animals brought absolute joy to my heart. Highly recommended to all who love a good Biography, a "must read" for those of you who are animal and nature lovers.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sue Rice

    I loved this book about an young English man who goes to Burma to work in the teak business. Along the way he develops a love and compassion not only for Burma but for the strong, intelligent, gentle beasts he meets and with whom he works. When WWII comes to Burma, Jim Williams goes to heroic lengths to save not only people, but his elephants as well.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    I kept thinking, as I read this book, that the author had gotten too close to her subject’s family and perhaps lost some objectivity as a result. Her acknowledgements at the end of the book, along with the notes, make it clear that she relied heavily and primarily on her subject, Billy Williams’, memoirs, books, notes, letters, and the remembrances of his family. There is nothing wrong with this, really, but she didn’t seem to balance it out with much else. In particular, I was struck by how lit I kept thinking, as I read this book, that the author had gotten too close to her subject’s family and perhaps lost some objectivity as a result. Her acknowledgements at the end of the book, along with the notes, make it clear that she relied heavily and primarily on her subject, Billy Williams’, memoirs, books, notes, letters, and the remembrances of his family. There is nothing wrong with this, really, but she didn’t seem to balance it out with much else. In particular, I was struck by how little overall context there was for the story. There is some cursory background on the company Williams worked for, and on colonial Burma what went on there during the long, turbulent war. But this information lacked vigor, or at any rate I would like to have had more background and less of Williams’ recollections. At times the lack of background drove me to seek out information on the internet. I was baffled, for example, about why Williams’ servants were prohibited from accompanying him into India when he and his family fled there after the Japanese invasion. While Croke makes no mention of this, I found that in fact that during the retreat into India led by Lt. General William Slim, “tens of thousands of wretched Indian refrugees [were] harassed and murdered by the Burmese population as they struggled to gain Indian soil.” [BBC website on Burma campaign] No wonder, then, that the Indians were reluctant to allow Burmese into India. Yet not a word about the longstanding animosity between the Burmese and Indians appears in Croke’s account. Instead, the reader learns a great deal about Elephant Bill’s living arrangements, and his thoughts about the elephants, his surroundings, his courtship of his wife, what he had for breakfast and dinner, and so on. Of course, this book is about him, so that’s understandable, but some of the material seems rather pedestrian, particularly in the long first half of the novel in which Bill learns the ropes as an “elephant wallah.” I wondered when the central event, the rescue of refugees and work of the elephant brigade, would begin. And, in fact, once that portion of the tale began, I became more interested in the book. Still, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the author’s handling of an exotic and compelling story. From what I could tell, she hews fairly closely to Bill Williams’ accounts, and I got the feeling that these accounts, so myopically focused on elephants and Williams’ own life, missed out on the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the author didn’t seem to be able to step back from the subject and seems instead to be in his thrall. Her account falls just short of hagiographic, and a rather leaden hagiography at that. There was, peculiarly, more about elephants than I would have liked in this book, and at the same time, paradoxically, there was less about them than there could have been. Let me explain. There was a great deal about Billy Williams’ special bond with the elephants, how he felt about them, what he thought about them, and his observations about them. Some of this material was a little amorphous for my taste. At various points in the story, Williams claims (or the author claims on his behalf) to have an almost mystical bond with elephants and other creatures, such as dogs. And while I do feel that there are indeed deep, wordless bonds that can transcend species, and I have felt this bond myself, the way the author depicted it seemed lifted entirely from Williams’ memoirs and books, plus his voluminous letters, articles, and notes, but she doesn’t take the matter much further than that. Recent research into animal intelligence, communication, and abilities has shed new light on our relationships with species as varied as dolphins and parrots, and no doubt a good deal of research has been done on elephants as well. But there is no inkling of this here, which is somewhat surprising given how much time Croke spent among elephant caretakers and specialists. Although this information would take the reader out of the WWII era, I wouldn’t have minded hearing less about Williams’ elephants specifically and more about elephants in general. Finally, (view spoiler)[ the death of Bandoola and Williams’ certainty that the elephant’s caretaker, Po Toke, had shot him, baffled me. Since, as far as I could tell, no Burmese was ever consulted about the events in the book, the account seemed rather unbalanced, especially in the telling of this critical event. Croke accepts what Williams concluded, the Po Toke had killed the elephant rather than see anyone else become his handler, and she rather stolidly presents Williams’ conclusions with no additional commentary. (hide spoiler)] Again, she just never seems to step back from her subject, which is a pity, as a more even-handed portrait of Williams, warts and all, would have been more interesting, not to mention that putting him in a broader context of colonial Burma and World War II would have given the reader a greater appreciation for the time and the man. Read for "Pot Luck and Prose book club meeting in April 2016. This was my first-ever attendance at a book club.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Absolutely fascinating. The best and most beautiful book I've read all year. This should be titled "In the Company of Elephants" rather than "Elephant Company" because the first two thirds of the book is all pre World War II and it's the most engaging part. Croke tells the story of Bill Williams and also Bandoola, an unusual male bull elephant. It is masterfully told without getting into anthropomorphism and over the top sentimentality. Bill Williams was called "Elephant Bill" and was a man of s Absolutely fascinating. The best and most beautiful book I've read all year. This should be titled "In the Company of Elephants" rather than "Elephant Company" because the first two thirds of the book is all pre World War II and it's the most engaging part. Croke tells the story of Bill Williams and also Bandoola, an unusual male bull elephant. It is masterfully told without getting into anthropomorphism and over the top sentimentality. Bill Williams was called "Elephant Bill" and was a man of some renown in the British Empire. Today we would probably call him "The Elephant Whisperer." It's a history, and adventure yarn, biography, and tale of man and beast. It's romantic but at the same time realistic; the typical eccentric Brit seeking solitude in the forests of Burma after surviving the horrors of World War I. He is no introvert either but a man who quickly realizes he treasures the company of elephants more than man and that he has learned more from them than from any human mentor. And when you talk of an enemy the very jungle was the enemy with snakes, crud, heat, malaria, etc.. It was a very hostile work place but it also became home. He even found the love of his life in the jungle, a niece of another teak man, who was visiting him in the middle of nowhere. I had hoped for more of the book to be about the World War II aspect but quickly discovered that the best part was his finding himself in the jungle. Williams knew Field Marshall Slim and Orde Wingate. He was a player in the CBI Theater with his skill set. The war exploits are not front line stuff but behind the lines stuff. Even though elephants were employed in a combat service support role the Japanese were quite aggressive in their offensive posture. Williams seemed to be always just missing Japanese patrols either when he was driving his jeep or leading elephants. The greatest story is the trek through 120 miles of impassable jungle and mountains to India during the Battle of Kohima when he has to take a convoy of elephants and dependents over a steep ridge that is all but impassable. You learn a lot about elephant behavior and this testosterone fueled state male elephants go into called musth in which they can become uncontrollable. The increased and violent poaching in Africa of elephants makes me glad Bill Williams is no longer around to witness man's cruelty towards his friends.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Melody

    Jim Williams clearly suffered during his time in WW I and just wanted to get away to the jungles and to the natural world. He elected to try the hard life in Burma as a Forest Assistant with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation which milled teak. He would be in charge of the elephants. He had been in the camel Corp in the war so why not? So this is the story of "Elephant Bill," as he is come to be called. He forms a bond with the elephants he is in charge of(especially one) and changes the way Jim Williams clearly suffered during his time in WW I and just wanted to get away to the jungles and to the natural world. He elected to try the hard life in Burma as a Forest Assistant with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation which milled teak. He would be in charge of the elephants. He had been in the camel Corp in the war so why not? So this is the story of "Elephant Bill," as he is come to be called. He forms a bond with the elephants he is in charge of(especially one) and changes the way the company acquires and trains them. He learns so much about the almost mystical world of the elephant and he recognizes the many ways they can be of service to humans. He evidently wrote lots of memoirs after his retirement and return to England, but this biography makes use of some previously undiscovered unpublished items that the author was allowed to peruse.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hannah Greendale

    A harrowing account of true wartime events in which impossible obstacles were faced and the hero was not always human.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sandie

    An incredible story. I am not sure if I am more impressed with the man or the elephants.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eileen

    This was a fascinating account of the adventures of James Howard “Billy” Williams, as he developed a rapport with elephants in Burma and the natives who helped him along his way. The book affords the reader a unique appreciation of these great beasts, as one comes to understand not only their physical strength but also their emotional intelligence and fierce loyalty. Unfortunately, there were some sad parts, but mostly the story was uplifting and even inspiring! I was struck by the challenges of This was a fascinating account of the adventures of James Howard “Billy” Williams, as he developed a rapport with elephants in Burma and the natives who helped him along his way. The book affords the reader a unique appreciation of these great beasts, as one comes to understand not only their physical strength but also their emotional intelligence and fierce loyalty. Unfortunately, there were some sad parts, but mostly the story was uplifting and even inspiring! I was struck by the challenges of the jungle environment and what the pioneers in this part of the world were forced to endure. Extreme heat and humidity, snakes, prowling wild animals, insects and isolation, to say nothing of the lack of modern medicine and plumbing, and of course air conditioning – these were some of the obstacles which had to be endured. Yet, when Elephant Bill, as he came to be known, finally met the love of his life, Susan Rowland, she embraced life in the jungle and its inherent hardships. The working elephants made significant contributions to the war effort in WWII by carrying supplies and building bridges. Billy was to learn much from one magnificent tusker, Bandoola, and he developed a special fondness for him. Bandoola’s sheer strength, his judgement and bravery made possible a desperate escape from Japanese held territory by way of a risky trek over treacherous mountain terrain to India. We listened to the audio version of this book during a recent road trip. The narrator was excellent. I was glad I had the paper version along, as we were eager to see the pictures of the characters and elephants.

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