Memories

THIS WAS THEIR FINEST HOUR

Lewes, Sussex

Lewes, Sussex

When the Last Post sounds I get an enormous lump in my throat.

This year I took part in a wonderful service at the Lewes War Memorial. The commemoration was part of the spectacular Bonfire Night, celebrated in this little East Sussex town, where my 98-year old mother lives, like nowhere else in England. Led by a large brass band, which played a couple of stirring and appropriate hymns, the members of the Waterloo Bonfire Society paid tribute to the fallen of the two World Wars and other conflicts. Around the memorial costumed members of the society held flaming crosses and firework bedecked poppies. A banner proclaimed ‘Lest We Forget.’ After a lone trumpeter played the Last Post, there was a silence in the crowd and even the annoying man beside me left off shouting into his mobile.

Lewes, Sussex

Lewes, Sussex

During the minute of reverential silence I thought of my dad, Acting Captain Kenneth Launcelot Napier-Andrews, whose typed memoirs of his war experiences building the infamous Burma Railway have recently come to light.  My dad is the reason I’m a member of the local bonfire society, although those from away are not usually permitted entrance. His mother was one of a family of 12 children who lived in nearby Hurstpierpoint. Dad knew his grandmother quite well and visited her frequently as a child. My great-grandmother is buried in the not too distant church at Beddingham and it notes on her gravestone that her father, my great-great-grandfather, who shares the plot, farmed in Glynde, now famous for the Glyndebourne Opera.

Here are some excerpts from dad’s wartime story:

“The base camp, at the south end of what was to become the Burma Railway, was indescribably filthy and unhygienic… It was here that we first came in close contact with the Japanese… Far from wanting to steal from us, they were willing to buy anything from a broken fountain pen to a gold watch. They were eager to have our last remaining possessions, but NOT ONCE (Dad’s capitals) did I see anything taken off a prisoner by force.

“Our troubles really started when, after a day’s rest in the base camp, we set off on foot for our first working camp. We had little or no food during the march… On the third evening we arrived at our first jungle camp. Many of us did not come out of the jungle again for the next two years and many never returned at all… The camp guards were mostly Korean and not Japanese. The commander of the POW camp was always a Japanese but rarely an officer. One camp of 40 British officers and 500 troops was run by two Japanese privates. We mounted guard on our own camp and outside the Japanese hut to protect us all from the Siamese. There was never any hope of escape. The jungle was more effective than a thousand guards.

“As our stamina faded (though lack of food and poor quality rations) and the work on the railway increased and the conditions in the camp became more and more overcrowded, disease struck… When the first man died, he was given a full military funeral… The next week three men died, then ten the following week… The British commander put a stop to the military burials as the sound of the Last Post several times a day was too depressing for the survivors. At the worst period, our camp had swollen to 2,000 working men, 3,000 sick or dying, and 20 or more being buried each day…

“As the camp grew in size the number of guards increased and unpleasantness started… We would be kicked or beaten if we failed to stand to attention and salute as a guard sauntered around the camp. For more serious crimes the offender would be stood to attention outside the guard room for periods of 12 hours to a week at a time… We were never really afraid of being shot in this camp as the British soldiers working as servants for the guards had systematically filed off the firing pins of all their rifles. Even during the worst time, we tried to keep ourselves clean and shaved. I shared one Gillette blade with my friend Robert Harding, shaving every other day, for nearly two years. (Dad and Robert became lifelong friends, dying within a couple of years of each other in their early 80s, apparently the oldest surviving members of the 18th Division of the Royal Army Service Corps.)

“As the Japanese high command demanded that work on the railway be speeded up, the engineers demanded more and more work from us. They became ruthless about working sick men and would often turn out a complete hospital hut and make the occupants work, regardless of their condition… They were quite genuinely astounded when we complained. After all, we had been taken prisoners of war and were therefore entitled to no consideration… We should have committed hiri kiri (sic) and joined our ancestors… They were merely helping us on the road we should have taken…

“Tarsao was a large POW camp on the River Kwai. I had arrived with a party from the 18th Division… Hard labour, shocking accommodation, poor food and disease had already taken the lives of several hundred… I was becoming very much weaker through constant diarrhoea, malarial fevers, jungle ulcers and jaundice… I had fallen into a feverish sleep when I became aware of a euphoric sensation of floating above myself with all my aches and pains gone… It suddenly struck me that I was either dying or already dead… ‘Wake up, wake up, you silly bugger,’ I shouted at myself, ‘If you don’t wake up, you’re going to die…’

“In the morning, the officer who delivered the letters came into the tent. ‘Good God Ken, you look bloody awful,’ he said. ‘I’m arranging an evacuation party and you’ll be going on it…’ I spent the night in a hut without sides beside the River Kwai, it was very quiet and very beautiful… I don’t think I ever became so severely ill again during the rest of the time I was a POW…

“At long last the railway was finished… Trainloads of Japanese troops were on their way north… Then the tide turned and the Japanese wounded were returning in their thousands… The conditions were quite appalling … The dead and dying lying together … We saw at first hand that the Japanese attitude towards us was no worse than it was to their own troops when they ceased to be of any use to the fighting machine.”

Robert L. Harding kept a prison camp diary. Some notes stand out:

“… K. carving name plates for the crosses on graves of our soldiers as they died…

“… K. and R.L.H. found abandoned Thai village. Behind headsman’s hut discovered a two-hole outhouse which we swiped. Lined with silk. Waterproof.” (Later Robert added: For chaps who had been sleeping in leaky tents for months, this was a marvelous find. What’s more, it was light enough that we could carry it back to camp and we lived in it, wonderfully dry, for months.)

“Dec 1944 – K. and R.L.H. in hut with an Australian bedridden with a suspected broken back … air raid down river… when the bombs dropped he leaped up and took cover with us … K. promised him a fried egg on toast for Xmas if still alive…

“15th Aug, 1945 – rumours re the peace. Nips (sic) and working parties returned to camp tight. 24th Aug – meet paratroopers. Have first J. Walker. 18th September – leave Rangoon for home.”

At the end my dad wrote:

“No matter how dark the clouds, it will be the brighter spells which we will remember in the end.”

A fitting epitaph for two fine soldiers.

Featured image - A giant poppy at King's Cross Station, London

Featured image – A giant poppy at King’s Cross Station, London

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