Open a 2010 diary at June 25 and there’s every chance it’ll look like an unremarkable day. It’s around the time that Glasgow schools break for the summer, when suitcases and backpacks are looked out for the holidays, pounds are changed into euros or dollars and the focus of the working day blurs a little in anticipation of the big getaway.
That date does not seem to spring from the pages of school text books, yet it is as much a date to remember as September 3, June 6 or May 8. However, next year there will be no bloody but reverential big screen movies and few documentaries full of black-and-white images and white-haired old men remembering their youth.
On that day, June 25, in 1950, the Korean War broke out, and its 60th anniversary will pass most of us by.
At that time of remembrance, British veterans of the Korean War will pause and think of the countless numbers of soldiers who never returned home from wars that have spanned nearly a century. They will think of the civilian dead. They will wear their poppies and fall silent as bells toll at 11am.
Strange then, that as Remembrance Sunday comes around again, the stories of those who served in Korea and the 1100 British servicemen who died in the conflict, are written so small by history.
It is as if the focus moves through the First and Second World Wars then snaps up to date, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and everything in between blurs.
Danny Thompson, then aged 18 and from Garngad, was called for National Service in the late summer of 1950. He served in Korea with a mortar platoon in B Company of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and has a theory as to why that conflict has been dubbed ‘the Forgotten War’ by many historians.
‘I think it’s forgotten because it was led by the United Nations,’ he said. ‘If it had been Britain in Korea it would be different … because it was UN maybe it tends to get overlooked.’
Now 77 and living in Bishopbriggs, Danny became a member of the British Korean Veterans Association (BKVA) two years ago. Its focus is to keep the Korean War family together, educate the young and honour the memory of the lost 1100.
There is a Scottish Korean War Memorial at Witchcraig, Beecraigs Country Park, near Linlithgow. The site is planted with 110 Scottish and Korean trees – one for every 100 fatalities – and the centrepiece is a splendid pagoda.
The landscape, said Danny, reminds him of that far-off country where 45,000 Britons went to fight under a UN flag as North Korean and Chinese forces swept into South Korea and towards Seoul. Britain was one of more than a dozen countries to send troops to Korea.
As a young soldier, a conscript, Danny did not harbour any strong views on the conflict. ‘I didn’t really give it a thought. Your concern was for yourself and the guys beside you,’ he said. ‘All we knew was that we had to stop the Chinese and the North Koreans or Communism would have taken over … that’s why the Americans threw so much money into Japan.’
By the summer of 1951, he was in the line south of the 38th Parallel – the line of latitude that divided the country after the Second World War – where Commonwealth troops were determined to prevent the Communist advance across hills overlooking the Imjin River. The reality of war soon came calling.
‘We did a company patrol, what they call a feeler patrol across the Imjin. The Chinese must have been watching us all the way … we got to this place and they stonked us with mortars and one of our lads was killed.’
Danny recalled seeing Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war and was struck by the depths of their hostility towards their UN captors: ‘They were only boys, some about 16, they were spitting on us as they passed … they were fanatical.’
While Danny talks fondly of those days on the line and in reserve, when he got to enjoy a guitar he had taken with him, he and KOSB veterans everywhere clearly hold the bravery of Private Bill Speakman in the face of a Chinese advance on Hill 217 in November 1951 in the highest regard.
Speakman, a Cheshire-born regular soldier from the Black Watch who was attached to the KOSB, and half a dozen others played a critical part in hampering a Chinese attack on Hill 217 to allow a safe withdrawal from the ridge. Outnumbered and in danger of seeing the left of his company’s position collapse before waves of attacking enemy troops, Speakman repeatedly led charges, stalling the opposition long enough for a complete evacuation.
By the time Speakman ran out of grenades, he started throwing beer bottles. His initiative and bravery were recognised by a Victoria Cross. The first to be awarded by Queen Elizabeth II, it is on display in Edinburgh Castle.
As Danny, whose platoon fired more than 4,500 rounds in that engagement, said of coming under fire: ‘You just don’t think, you just did your job.’
On this Remembrance Sunday, as on many others, he’ll be watching the broadcast from the Cenotaph. His message to the public is a simple one: ‘Buy poppies, help the veterans and remember. What else can you do?’
He added: ‘To me it really does matter. Most people buy poppies so it must mean something.’
The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea, where more than 800 British servicemen are buried, is appealing for photographs of those interred there and those who died but have no known grave.
James Grundy, who works voluntarily on the cemetery’s behalf, said: ‘These photographs will be attached to their records and also displayed in the cemetery hall of remembrance.
‘The following names are just a few of the young men from the Glasgow area who gave their lives in Korea. Private Thomas M Sinclair; Pte Alastair Annan; Sergeant James T Anderson; Fusilier Calder Mills; Pte Robert Devennie; Lieutenant Robert C Hunter RN; Sapper Charles L Wylie; Pte William Smith; Leading Stoker James W Addison RN; Rifleman Thomas Wright; Rfn Thomas Brannan; Pte Robert McKendrick.’
James Grundy can be contacted at 102 College Croft, Eccles, Greater Manchester, M30 0AN. Telephone 0161 789 7633.
The BKVA can be contacted at Brian Hough, National Recruitment Officer BKVA, 116 Fields Farm Rd, Hattersley, Hyde, Cheshire, SK14 3NP. Please enclosed stamped, addressed envelope with correspondence.