Forgotten war, Remembered menSEOLMA , Gyeonggi
It is a warm spring afternoon. In this Imjin River valley village, wooded hillsides are dappled with sunlight and sprinkled with the first flowers of spring. A group of foreign men, advanced in years, sits quietly in front of a small stone shrine carved into the granite of a craggy hillside.
They are no ordinary tourists: Most wear berets and blazers; medals glint upon their chests. Today all is peaceful, but these men remember the Korean landscape wearing a very different aspect: blackened hills stripped of vegetation, the ground furrowed by artillery, the sky raining fire. They are British Korean War veterans, and last Sunday they gathered at this spot near the city of Paju to remember 1,109 of their comrades who died in “the forgotten war.”
It is sacred ground ― “Some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England” in Rupert Brooke’s words. Here, in April 1951, Britain’s 29th Infantry Brigade fought a desperate defensive action, the Battle of the Imjin River. Every spring, British veterans of this and other actions return to pay respects.
On this, the 50th anniversary of the armistice, a group of 80 veterans and 38 family members made the trip, which was sponsored by the Korean Veterans Association. For a week, they were wined and dined by officials of the veterans association and the British Embassy. They visited the UN Cemetery in Busan, and wound up their trip with the journey to the Imjin battlefield.
Speeches were delivered, a message from the queen was read aloud by the British ambassador and prayers were offered. Then, as a lone bagpiper from the Scots Guards played, the UN honor guard held flags aloft and wreaths were laid at the memorial. Veterans then presented local schoolgirls with scholarships sponsored by British companies in Seoul. Finally, the old-timers toured the battlefield, where the former British trenches are now occupied by the Korean Army’s 25th Division.
With historical hindsight, UN forces were clearly fighting for South Korea’s freedom. But when they arrived, British forces did not fathom what they were getting into. One of the first units in theater was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. “We were wearing jungle greens when we got off the boat, and were still wearing jungle greens in the North when it was 40 degrees below freezing,” recalls one Argyll. “Many times we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing here?’’
Adds James Jackson, an artilleryman: “It was a godforsaken, sonofabitch of a country. It was cold, there were no locals around and the food was bloody awful.”
In battle, many underwent horrific experiences. Near the Yalu River, Eric Gurr of the Argyll and Sutherlands was part of a small patrol tasked with taking out a sniper. They walked into a massive ambush. “I was hit with a burst from a burp gun. I played dead; a Chinese soldier kicked me over and went through my pockets; he took everything out, then put everything back. I thought I was going to get it in the head, then the Australians counterattacked, and I was evacuated to a hospital in Japan. When I returned to the line after treatment, an officer asked, ‘Have you been skiving in Tokyo?’” Hit by five rounds (“Cheap Chinese bullets!” a comrade says, laughing), to this day he still carries two in his shoulder.
Action aside, Korea’s wider tragedy was evident to the soldiers. Meeting the children at the service was poignant for many. Recalls Doug Wilson of the Royal Ulster Rifles: “During the war, we would give kids a bit of chocolate and they would attach themselves to us. I remember two little girls and one little boy ― they had lost their family, lost everything. The eldest girl was about 7. They were sad and hungry, but tried to put on a good face. Later, when we moved up to the line, those children were trucked away to an orphanage. I sometimes wonder what happened to them.”
Despite the harshness of the war, there were compensations. Eddie Sharp of the King’s Liverpool Regiment notes, “It’s the friendships I remember. You are never so close in civilian life. Today, I keep in touch with my mates, and I have traveled to Canada and New Zealand with veterans. We are all of an age ― a really good crowd.”
The camaraderie of old soldiers, however, is little compensation for the bitterness many feel about the lack of recognition they receive in Britain. Stanley Tomenson, a former Fusilier, says, “Unlike the Falklands or the Gulf War, nobody remembers Korea: it’s the forgotten war. [After the war] we had one parade in the city [London] that was it.” After a moment he adds, more quietly, “But it’s unbelievable how the Koreans treat us.”
The trip granted many veterans internal peace. Mr. Tomenson says, “I’m a bit sad, but glad I came. I really came to visit my best friend, a lad called Sugden. He was killed on the Imjin; I wanted to see his grave.”
For Jacqueline Rose, traveling to Korea with her husband, Imjin veteran Edward, the trip was a chance to learn about something her spouse rarely discusses. “He tells our grandchildren a bit, but he doesn’t talk much about it [to me]. Only when he gets together with his mates.”
It was also a chance to make sense of the sacrifice.
“The Koreans didn’t waste a minute,” says Doug Wilson. “When I left, Korea was devastated: a bomb site. Now it is a beautiful country. It was worth it in the end. The Koreans put Britain to shame.” Musing on his return to Korea half a century after the guns fell silent, James Jackson, who had cursed this “godforsaken” country, said “When I was over here, I thought, ‘What the hell is this war about?’” But when he visited Busan, he says, “I looked out of the hotel room and saw the people running around and waving at us. I left six good friends here, but I have laid the ghosts to rest. What we did was right.”
The hamlet of Seolma, just south of the Imjin River, lies on the historical invasion route to Seoul. In April 1951, this position was occupied by the British 29 Brigade, composed of battalions of the Gloucester Regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Belgian Capital Battalion. Supporting them were Centurion tanks of the King’s Irish Hussars, plus artillery and engineers. There was a lull in the fighting; the brigade anticipated a move. Due to this, the British units were neither concentrated, nor dug in.
The lull would not last. At night on April 22, three Chinese divisions stormed south. Their orders: Take Seoul by May Day! The 29 Brigade, standing in their path, was immediately engulfed in ferocious combat. But as United States and Republic of Korea divisions on the brigade’s flanks fell back, the smaller British unit was overlooked. When asked about his troops’ status, Brigadier Brodie replied with British understatement, “It’s a bit sticky” ― a phrase that implied no urgency to U.S. commanders.
The situation was indeed “sticky.” The Chinese infiltrated between units, destroying them piecemeal. One by one, positions were overrun in hand-to-hand fighting.
“There were waves and waves of Chinese. The more you killed, the more came on,” recalls Gloster survivor Maurice Bradshaw. The Fusiliers managed to pull back through the valleys under heavy fire. Among those killed in the rear guard was their commanding officer, who had refused promotion so as to lead his troops in battle. But orders to withdraw came too late for the Glosters. After two days of fighting, they were surrounded. A Filipino tank unit attempted to break through, but was unsuccessful. The Hussars tried, but were swamped by Chinese. The tanks were forced to hose each other down with machine guns; one drove through a house to dislodge a persistent attacker. Survivors recall the tanks’ hulls splattered with blood.
By the 24th, the Glosters were seven miles from UN lines. Survivors regrouped on a final hilltop. With ammunition dwindling, they fought on. To drown out Chinese signal bugles, the Glosters’ drum major stood and played his entire repertoire ― except for “Retreat” (his bugle was later destroyed to prevent it from landing in enemy hands). On the 25th, over fading radio sets, Brigadier Brodie offered the Glosters’ commander a choice: surrender or break out. He chose the latter. Under cover of an air strike, small groups attempted to exfiltrate, but with thousands of Chinese surrounding them, they stood little chance.
In four whirlwind days of combat, the 29 Brigade captured the imagination of the world. They bought time for UN forces to regroup, and halted the Chinese offensive. Seoul did not fall. But the butcher’s bill was heavy: the brigade lost about a quarter of its strength. Of the Glosters, among the 585 men who had begun the battle, only 67 answered roll call on the 26th. Like the Spartans, they had held to the end. Today, half a century later, a stone monument cut into a hillside memorializes the doomed battalion’s last stand.
by Andrew Salmon