To the Last Round – a second look

A year ago Jennifer Barclay reviewed Andrew Salmon’s then recently published To the Last Round (TTLR), an account of the epic British stand at the Imjin River in Korea, 1951. She confessed to not being a fan of military history, and though her review was polite you can tell she really didn’t enjoy it. Spurred on by Salmon’s lively presentation in the KCC in July this year, I decided to give the book a second chance.

I confess to not being much of a military history fan myself either, but I like a good yarn. And I confess to having been a devotee of the Commando / War Picture Library comics for long after I should have been reading things much more grown up.

Reading the prologue of TTLR, a 7-page sketch of a small but action-packed night raid across the Imjin on what would turn out to be the first evening of the major Chinese offensive, I was transported back to my schooldays: the tale of derring-do could easily have come straight from what at school we affectionately called a “trash mag”. Those comic books had vivid storytelling but relied on pictures to convey the plot. Salmon’s storytelling is equally vivid, but does not need the pictures to make you turn the pages.

Thankfully, the book does not maintain that hectic pace. Once the preface is over, we get some background to the British involvement in the war, character sketches of some of the key figures, and helpful information about the forces involved. We then launch back in to the action. Another confession: I didn’t read every paragraph of the detailed battle accounts: you can have too much of a good thing. But there’s plenty to entertain, from the initial firefight in January 1951 in the battlefield grimly christened Happy Valley; the breakout down Route 11, and the final stand on Hill 235.

Salmon is keen to provide a balanced account of the battle on the Imjin, giving equal weight to the action seen by each of the 29th Brigade’s units: the Belgian battalion – the only unit north of the Imjin when the Chinese army swarmed south – the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars and of course the First Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment. The “Glorious Glosters” have, since the war, received perhaps more than their fair share of the attention for the brigade’s stalwart defence of their strung-out positions on the front line, and Salmon rightly is careful to redress the balance, giving each unit their rightful time in the spotlight. “The Glosters were captured. We fought our way out,” said an Ulster Rifleman, while a Gloster agrees: “The ‘Glorious Glosters’ was media hype. It was a brigade battle.”

This is not designed to be a comprehensive account of the Korean War. It is meant in part as a tribute to the soldiers who fought in it, and the account draws extensively on interviews with surviving veterans. This means that the narrative is full of human interest. Countless little snippets of detail add to the colour: the Chinese soldiers who seem to be well versed in WWII films telling their captives, in English, “For you, the war is over.” Whether they also did this in a fake German accent is unrecorded.1 Numerous examples of the respect which the Chinese and British soldiers had for each other are given, as well as numerous examples of the stiff upper lip one expects from British officers. “It’s pretty sticky”, Brigadier Brodie famously said concerning the Glosters’ position the night before their last stand. “It was very noisy,” complained 2nd Lieut Huston Shaw-Steward of the fighting in Happy Valley, “and there were lots of unpleasant peasants.”

Possibly the most moving chapter is the concluding one: little character sketches of the veterans today. Universally they show a modesty about their achievements, and on visiting Korea they realise that their past service has been worthwhile. For readers who are interested in the bits of history which will survive after the last veteran has passed on, Salmon gives details of where some of the relics and mementos can be found: for example, the cross carved by Lt-Col James Carne in the prisoner of war camp (Gloucester Cathedral), and the Happy Valley monument (Belfast City Hall).

Recommended.

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  1. In another movie-related anecdote, we hear that Chinese soldiers who had infiltrated behind the UN lines were watching a screening of a Doris Day film in the Royal Ulster Rifles camp, when a burst of gunfire destroyed the mobile screen. []

2 thoughts on “To the Last Round – a second look

  1. By the way, I gave the book to a friend who loves military history, and he thought it was absolutely brilliant!

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