I've been meaning for a while to mention Andrew Salmon's award-winning To The Last Round ("The Epic British stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951" - Aurum Press, 2009) and now is an appropriate time, as the BBC recently featured a large section of commemorative/historical news marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Imjin River (see www.bbc.co.uk/imjin60).
Although To The Last Round focuses on the Battle of Imjin River, this is within the framework of a well-researched history of the Korean War itself. A little-remembered war of the Cold War era, this was fought for possession of the Korean Peninsula, when a United Nations army fought the Communist forces of North Korea and China.
Initially, the war took the form of a series of sweeping attacks and counter-attacks: North Korea crossed the “38th parallel” (the post-WWII frontier) to invade South Korea; a largely American United Nations force counterattacked, driving shattering the North Korean army and pushing north almost to the Chinese border; then the overextended UN army was forced to retreat south by the Chinese, back to a line little different from the original frontier. (In hindsight, it’s fortunate that the messianic General MacArthur was relieved of command before putting into effect his plan to use nuclear weapons). The UN forces further reinforced, a long stalemate ensued until April 1951, when China launched a massive “human wave” attack forcing further UN retreat. This is the context of the Battle of Imjin River when the 29th Infantry Brigade fought a rearguard action, outnumbered 7:1, and a group of British forces were surrounded on “Hill 235” and made a last stand until their surrender and capture.
Without diminishing the role of the Gloucester Regiment, which is central to most accounts, even now, To The Last Round doesn’t gloss over controversies that still exist, notably the media focus on the “Glorious Glosters” at the expense of other central UN combatants (the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, Royal Ulster Rifles, 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars, as well as the Belgian Battalion), and the question of whether the Gloucesters and other battalions were stranded through mismanagement of the general retreat. Nevertheless, the stand at “Gloster Hill” remains iconic in what was the most bloody battles involving the British army since WWII.
To The Last Round also covers the aftermath: the two-and-a-half year internment of the British survivors, which reads as a mix of the harrowing and the comic (as in the many ways the prisoners wound up their Chinese guards by walking imaginary dogs and playing tennis with imaginary balls and rackets). And for those who returned, the aftermath continued with a general lack of recognition in a country still depressed by World War II and, for many, what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. While I’m neither pro-war nor pro-military, I can’t help coming away from the book astounded by the sheer resilience of ordinary men, many of whom were conscripted straight from peacetime National Service into the most hellish experiences.
Andrew Salmon's account is a little completist in places; although necessary to a serious historical account, there are only so many details of troop movements and hardware you can absorb in one reading. But it’s generally highly readable, conveying the horror, confusion and indeed the strangeness of this particular war, such as the appearance of the still-unexplained “Witch” aka “Black Widow”, a long-haired robed figure seen leading Chinese troops. The official site for To The Last Round is tothelastround.wordpress.com.
On a personal level: if I've delayed writing about To The Last Round, it's because the whole Imjin episode gives me strange existential jitters, as my father Morris was in the Gloucester Regiment and was a survivor of the battle and subsequent internment. If he hadn't survived, I wouldn't have existed - and indeed I suspect that his status as a war hero directly led to his rapid marriage to my mother on his return. But equally, I don't doubt that his experience of war and internment - he was invalided out of the army, I guess with what would be called PTSD these days - were what led to the equally rapid divorce. The consequences have been complicated. However, it's a lasting delight that we were able to draw some of the threads together half a century later; there can't be many people who successfully acquire an excellent father and a large and equally excellent extended family at 50. Morris, who is 80 soon, was interviewed for the book and for the BBC coverage: see Private Morris 'Brassy' Coombes recalls Imjin River battle.