The epic stand on the Imjin

Andrew Salmon: To the Last RoundJennifer Barclay, author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi, looks at Andrew Salmon’s exciting new book on the battle of Imjin River: To The Last Round (Aurum Press, June 2009)

To the Last Round by Andrew Salmon gives the most exhaustive account to date of what he calls the ‘epic’ British stand on the Imjin River in Korea, 1951, when China unleashed its greatest offensive of the Korean war. A third of a million Chinese were mobilised, and the entire 63rd Army of 27,000 men descended on the 4,000 troops of Britain’s 29th Brigade who were charged with defending the key route to Seoul from the north. It was a bloody battle and resulted in hundreds of British soldiers being taken prisoner for the remainder of the conflict.

Andrew Salmon
Andrew Salmon

An interesting choice of word for the subtitle, ‘epic’ – for the British stand, although brief, lasting only a few days, was indeed heroic, of impressive proportions, realising something of a mythic quality that would make a fine Hollywood drama. Salmon calls it the Thermopylae, the 300, of the Korean War. And yet so far there is no 300, only a forgotten 1956 film with Korean veteran Michael Caine called A Hill in Korea.

The defence of the Imjin River (and South Korea) over a few terrible days in late April 1951 remains the most desperate and costly battle bought by British soldiers since World War Two. Salmon notes of the Glosters, the battalion that suffered the most, that at no other time since World War Two has a unit of this size been written off1. Each gun fired off approximately a thousand rounds, twice as many as were fired in the entire Falklands War, and about the same number as were fired at the battle of El Alamein. Continuing with the gripping statistics, he notes that over a thousand Britons lost their lives in the Korean conflict, more than in Suez, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq or Afghanistan.

And yet until now there was no definitive history of the Imjin battle. There is, as Salmon gratefully acknowledges, a long list of personal histories, and the infamous few days naturally feature in any full history, including Max Hastings’ The Korean War and other British and American accounts.

Seoul-based journalist Andrew Salmon’s inspiration for the work evolved from a story he was writing about a visit of British veterans in 2001, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, for a Korean newspaper. He quotes one of the men:

‘In Korea, the people say “thank you” to us, more than in any other nation where British troops have fought’.

It is an astonishing fact, given that the three-year conflict devastated the country and ended in a shaky stalemate. Salmon went on to interview more than forty such veterans in the course of his research.

Salmon’s book is packed with interesting information, and he clearly loves his adopted country Korea, ‘a corrugated land of jagged peaks tumbling towards blue horizons, of postage-stamp rice paddies reflecting the skies, of thatched farming villages tucked into valleys, of white sand beaches and rocky coastlines’. Being married to a Korean, he knows things like the Korean proverb ‘when whales fight, shrimps are crushed’, such an apt summary of large swathes of Korean history. It’s a very useful reference book, and for history buffs it’s probably a riveting read too.

It’s a journalistic account, and for the general reader it’s not an immediately captivating read. The opening of chapter one, focusing on a ten-year-old schoolgirl ‘gaily’ skipping off to school, not knowing that the North Korean leader had launched an invasion of South Korea, is perhaps designed with film in mind, but slightly awkward. For a non-academic book, the pages that follow are overly cluttered with complicating footnotes and reference numbers to endnotes, which interrupt the flow of the reading. The mixture of dense military history and personal reminiscences, while valuable, can be uneasy.

It should perhaps be read alongside a colourful personal account such as Reginald Thompson’s Cry Korea, though he didn’t get close enough to the actual battle, or that by Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, The Edge of the Sword, which was recommended to me by one of the Imjin veterans, Robert Warrior, when I interviewed him last year. Now this does read like an old film:

There had been no movement along the entire Battalion front for days, but for an occasional old, white-robed Korean peasant, too rooted to his land to be transplanted by war. No movement along the northern bank of the winding Imjin River, now lazy, slow, and somnolent in the dry April… And yet, of course, they had not gone. The push north across the Han River had but temporarily defeated them… We waited until the 22nd of April, 1951. On that day the battle began.

The earth and the wind smelt of April; the hillsides, as yet bearing the winter skeletons of shrub and dwarf oak, were plainly alive with new life… I lit a pipe…

‘Over there,’ he said, pointing. ‘That’s the fourth group we’ve seen – just a few men. The Colonel has got the mortars on to them.’
A moment or so later there was a series of tiny flashes on the edge of the hill, over the river…
‘That ought to tickle them a bit,’ said Henry.

Farrar-Hockley describes vividly and dramatically the scenes, the men’s need for sleep over those unrelenting days of battle, the sounds, the light:

23rd April…
The dawn breaks. A pale, April sun is rising in the sky. Take any group of trenches here upon these two main hill positions looking north across the river. See, here, the weapon pits in which the defenders stand: unshaven, wind-burned faces streaked with black powder, filthy with sweat and dust from their exertions, look towards the enemy with eyes red from fatigue and sleeplessness; grim faces, yet not too grim that they refuse to smile when someone cracks a joke about the sunrise. Here, round the weapons smeared with burnt cordite, lie the few pathetic remnants of the wounded, since removed: cap comforters; a boot; some cigarettes half-soaked with blood; a photograph of two small girls; two keys; a broken pencil stub. The men lounge quietly in their positions, waiting for the brief respite to end.
‘They’re coming back, Ted.’

It’s beautiful storytelling, and for someone like myself interested in Korea but not military history, it’s more easily readable. But I will highly recommend Salmon’s account to anyone with an interest in modern history and the military. Nowhere else will you find so many veterans’ accounts woven together, and that alone makes it a valuable resource, for the survivors are still able to bring the reality of war home to us in their recollections. As Robert Warrior said to me:

‘You can still see the road we walked up at Imjin River, all the trenches still there… I can remember it all. Sometimes my mind’s a blank when I go into town these days and I can’t remember what it is I’ve gone into town for, but I can remember all that.

Links:

  1. While the Glosters suffered the most, and seem to feature largest in most accounts of the battle, we should not forget the other units which formed the 29th Brigade: the 1st Battalion, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles, as well as the Belgian battalion. All of them feature in Salmon’s account []

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