It’s time for a national memorial for forgotten POWs
04 July, 2019
The Mornington Crescent memorial honouring Far East Prisoners of War
MY late colleague, Selwyn Evans, who always seemed to have a quizzical, faraway look, hardly ever talked about his wartime experience in the Second World War – except on one occasion, when he suddenly started to tell me about a particular battle in north-east India.
Selwyn, who had been in the infantry, didn’t mention the name of the battle, or my memory has buried it. But I suspect, judging by his description, that he was remembering the famous Battle of Kohima in 1944, regarded as a turning point in the Far Eastern war, and known as the Stalingrad of the East.
Last week was the anniversary of the Kohima battle. Selwyn, a sub-editor on the New Journal, stopped tapping away at his typewriter – this was in the late 1980s before the arrival of computers – and, without being prompted, skipped over what must have been dreadful moments of fear and courage, and just talked about the slain as they lay on the hill.
But what sticks in my mind is how, looking quite embarrassed, he remembered the stench of the corpses. “The smell, the smell,” he winced, as he described how the corpses had to be collected on the side of the hill. Fixed for ever in his mind, the memory haunted him.
Selwyn, who had grown up in a Welsh valley in the 1920s and 30s, influenced by his father, a Methodist minister, had become left-wing and a foe of Hitlerism. I had met him in earlier days at meetings of the National Union of Journalists.
Like all good journalists with a sense of vocation he was drawn to the defence of the underdog, and while stationed in India had gone to meetings held by opponents of the British Raj – the seeds of Gandhiism and the independence movement.
He could talk endlessly about his days on leave in the big cities in India. But the bloody moments of the war lay mostly trapped in a memory that would not let go of them – until that day, when he told me of a battle on the hill.
Few readers, I suspect, have heard of Kohima or the thousands of men in the 14th Army now regarded as the Forgotten Army.
And perhaps I, too, may have remained unaware of it had it not been for several readers who wrote to the paper, wondering whether we could collect money for a memorial to the 50,000 British troops captured by the Japanese.
As I got involved in running articles about a proposed memorial – and later helping an architect to design one, and even later, seeking permission from Camden council for it to stand where it is today in Mornington Crescent – I became more and more aware not only of the death and the agony suffered by our captured troops kept in horrendous conditions in camps and the building of a railway line in Burma, but also of the need to memorialise what happened.
I met this gap in people’s mind about those faraway war years when council officials objected to placing the monument in Mornington Crescent, arguing it would be better placed in a public park.
It was clear they knew nothing about the plight of all those thousands of prisoners of war – and to them, perhaps, it was something that belonged to the history books. An academic matter. Perhaps the subject of a TV documentary. But, surely, not something that should be publicly emblazoned. Fortunately, they lost the argument.
Now I am delighted to read that a campaign is growing for a national commemoration to honour those ‘forgotten’ men, and that a petition demanding a special day of remembrance has already gained more than 10,000 signatures.
The memorial in Mornington Crescent is, as far as I am aware, the only dedicated monument in London created to honour the Far East Prisoners of War. On November 11 every year serving servicemen, ex-soldiers, and relatives of those who have died, gather at the memorial.
If the growing movement for a national commemoration is approved by the government – which it should be – then special events remembering the Far East war will also be held at the memorial, hopefully at the end of June, that historic time in 1944 when the Battle of Kohima raged – and the Japanese army was defeated.