By Bertie Lawson
On the 15th December 1943, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, addressed men of the 25th Dragoons:
“I know you think of yourselves as the Forgotten Army”, he said to them. “Well, let me tell you, you’re not forgotten … nobody even knows you’re here!”
His quip had the intended effect and made the men laugh. But it was a quip intended to uplift troops from the dispiriting reality of the circumstances.
The Second World War in Burma is often described as the ‘Forgotten War’, and the soldiers that fought in it, ‘The Forgotten Army.’ However the stories of courage, cruelty and audacity that emerged from it are as great and varied as in any of the other theatres of war.
In Burma today, one place where these stories are still remembered is at the immaculately preserved commonwealth war cemeteries. Like their counterparts around the globe they are spaces of sombre tranquillity that draw a steady stream of pilgrims.
One of the most frequently visited is that of Thanbyuzayat, in modern-day Mon State. Here are the graves of 3,771 POWs who worked on the Burma-Siam Death Railway, constructed to connect Bangkok with Rangoon. Japanese engineers estimated that it would take 5 years to build the 410 kilometre line, but due to the forced, hard labour of POWs, the railway was completed in just 13 months.
In Thanbyuzayat, those visiting Burma can see the Western Terminus of the Death Railway as well as a small museum. In the nearby villages, when accompanied by a local guide it is possible to meet Mon villagers who remember the Japanese occupation of the area. Some of their parents worked on the construction of the railway and recall the retreat of the British forces to Rangoon in 1942.
In Rangoon War Cemetery lies Major Hugh Seagrim, an officer of the British Army who stayed undercover in Burma after the British retreat. He lived in the jungle with Karen guerrillas who, like the Chin and Kachin, remained loyal to the British throughout the Japanese occupation. Seagrim would assure them that the British would return and when they did the Karen would be required to fight for the liberation of Burma.
The evacuation of Rangoon had been swift and chaotic and by the time the Japanese arrived in March 1942 the city was largely bereft of all civility and order. Smoke filled the sky at night as bands of hooligans and lunatics loose from the asylum looted wealthy households and then set them ablaze. Animals escaped from the zoo and it was said that in downtown happily swung a troop of intoxicated orangutans.
As Paul Frillman from the American Volunteer Group (AVG) wrote:
‘Each day the emptying streets slipped back a little further toward jungle.’
The Japanese soon became aware that a British Officer was hiding in the hills outside of Rangoon. After a concerted man-hunt, in order to stop the continued brutalisation of Karen villagers, Seagrim gave himself up to the Japanese. He was taken to the Kenpeitai in Rangoon and kept in sorded conditions in cells that became known by its inmates at the “Rangoon Ritz.”
Having been caught in disguise, Seagrim was eventually tried and shot as a spy in 1944. On Remembrance Day 2017, a plaque was unveiled in the Holy Trinity Church in central Yangon, commemorating Seagrim and the sacrifice he made.
Help for Forgotten Allies
As brave as Seagrim undoubtedly was, the Karen he fought alongside were in some ways doubly heroic. In many cases the Japanese were in possession of their homes, and often their families too, and at this point in the war the chances of a victorious British return were small. Their continued support was a vital component in the eventual reconquest of Burma, though the part they played is a story that is too rarely told.
And yet, these brave veterans have not been forgotten by everyone. In the congregation the day that Seagrim’s plaque was unveiled were Sally McLean, Peter Mitchell, and Duncan Gilmour, trustees of the charity Help for Forgotten Allies (H4FA), providing grants to support these veterans and their families.
Many of the Karen who fought for the British have been caught up in the conflicts that have wracked Burma since independence, and few have received any assistance or official thanks for the part they played in defeating the Japanese. Sally and her fellow trustees continue to seek and support Myanmar veterans who risked their lives fighting for another king and country during World War Two. H4FA’s mission is to recognise and reward these men before it is too late.
The Collective Best
In 2017, H4FA teamed up with the production company Grammar Productions, to record the stories of these men before it is too late. Venturing far off the beaten path, the team visited Karen veterans around Loikaw and Chin veterans up towards the Indian border. Premiering this year in London, the documentary “Forgotten Allies” principally focuses on these ethnic soldiers but recognises the part played by the thousands of men from a score of countries that made up Burma’s Forgotten Army.
This army incorporated men from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, as well as soldiers from China, and East Africa and West Africa. Flying in the air above were Newfoundlanders, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and South Africans. There were men from every state in America, and there were Indians of every caste, each with rifle and Tommy gun.
And it was the collective effort of these men together – what Field-Marshall Bill Slim referred to as the “collective best” – that eventually brought victory to the Allies with the reconquest of Burma. As George MacDonald Fraser was to write:
“We were the Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition. I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, “I was there.”’
Back in Rangoon
At Remembrance Day 2017 in the Rangoon War Cemetery, H4FA and Grammar Productions alongside veterans, military personal from around the world, diplomats and other interested parties gathered to remember those who had fought in Burma during the Second World War.
It is in visiting Burma today, and in particular the cemeteries, that one can reflect upon these myriad stories of the Second World War in Burma. Stories of courage, cruelty, and audacity. Stories of horror and humanity. In doing so we can keep the spirit of the Kohima epitaph alive:
“When you go home tell them of us and say: ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Copyright: Bertie Lawson. Bertie, the son of a former Royal Hussar, is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel, a tour operator organising battlefield tours through Burma.
Editor’s note: Please do follow the link to Forgotten allies contained in the article. It is important that we try to remember our shared British and Colonial history in a modern world where everyone seems to be fixated upon consumerism and political correctness which tend to combine to draw a sanitised shroud over the experiences of a fading generation.
The world premiere of Forgotten Allies was held at the National Army Museum on June 12th 2019. It will be broadcast on the History Channel in the UK later in 2019.