From Scorched Earth, Black Snow:

The Front Line: Naktong River
In common with most modern conflicts, where soldiers lie in carefully camouflaged positions, the front appeared lifeless, deserted. But it was, in its way, beautiful. Korea is known as ‘the land of embroidered rivers and mountains’, and from their hilltops, gazing into No Man’s Land, this landscape unfolded before the British soldiers’ eyes. Above, impossibly high, spread a luminous blue sky. Beyond the foresights of rifles and Bren guns resting on the parapets of slit trenches, untended rice fields sparkled green. From higher positions, the water-filled paddies reflected the summer sky and its dazzle of sunshine like a patchwork of mirrors. Among them, here and there, were dotted hamlets of mud-walled, thatch-roofed huts and cottages, set amid little copses. All were abandoned. Some were burned down; others smouldered. As the eye wandered further north, it came to the broad blue loop of the Naktong, its flow almost imperceptible. Beyond it, largely treeless – most of the peninsula was deforested – but carpeted in lush green scrub, loomed the enemy-held hills, the shadows of clouds scudding across their slopes. And behind them, wave after wave of mountains cascading northward into a hazy blue infinity. It was a landscape that had endured for eons: the lone signs of the twentieth century, bar the soldiers’ weapons, were the telegraph poles lining the empty tracks that wound through the paddies. Silence, broken only by the incessant background drone of cicadas and the occasional squawk of a radio, hung over all. ‘It was all peace and quiet,’ said Man. ‘But it was an ominous peace….’

Inferno: Hill 282
Fire terrifies all animals and most humans with a deep, perhaps atavistic fear, for it is nature’s primary agent of destruction; many representations of hell across unrelated cultures and religions feature a burning pit. The demonic aspect of napalm was recognised by reporters in Korea who saw its effect and who dubbed napalm ‘hell bombs’. This was the munition dropped on Song-san at just after 12:15 on 23 September.

The Mustangs, however, did not drop their loads on the enemy weapons on Point 390, the infiltrators advancing through the scrub on the ridge against C Company, or on the gully up which the North Korean attackers were swarming. They delivered their ordnance squarely on top of the Argylls of B Company.

In echelon, Quartermaster Andrew Brown, watching the battle from afar, watched the air strike with satisfaction. ‘We thought, “Ah, tremendous,” it was just a sheet of flame,’ he said. ‘Little did we know it was our fellows. Later when we found out – oh, God …’ ‘We were cock-a-hoop when the Mustangs arrived,’ said Adjutant John Slim. ‘Then we heard the screams…’

Halloween 1950:Chongju
The Highlanders – those fey fighting men from the north – were also sensing the invisible malevolence settling over the wasted land. ‘It was beginning to feel slightly hostile, the natives had got more sullen, you got the feeling they knew something we didn’t,’ said Lauder. ‘I had a feeling – I wasn’t even discussing this with other officers – this uncomfortable feeling that we were too far north.’

Dug into a ridge above Chongju, Second Lieutenant Ted Cunningham gazed out of his trench as daylight faded. At his feet, the empty town presented a disquieting sight: Its grid of streets was blazing in the blackness, but there were no inhabitants to put the fires out. ‘We were overlooking the town, it was going up in flames, and it was very clear that we were out on a limb, just us,’ Cunningham said. ‘It was quite eerie; there was an unreal feeling.’

31 October 1950 dawned with a chill: Halloween, the ‘Feast of the Dead’. In austere Britain, children recalled tales of ghosts and witches. Eight thousand miles to the east, their brothers, fathers and uncles were about to encounter something far more terrifying, a force that would stun the world as it struck with shock suddenness out of the winter descending over the Korean killing grounds. That day, a Middlesex patrol brought in two prisoners. One was North Korean. The other was Chinese.

A Nightmare Wonderland: Chosin Reservoir
The marines and commandos were now entering a nightmare wonderland, for battle in Siberian temperatures had transformed Hellfire Valley into a surreal gallery of cartoonish monstrosities, of hideous grotesqueries.

In normal circumstances – even allowing for the rigidity of rigor mortis – tensile integrity deserts corpses, giving them their rag-doll appearance as they lie sprawled or flat. Not so at Chosin Reservoir. Here, the bodies – like victims of an icy Pompeii – had frozen into rigid postures, limbs sticking out at peculiar angles: ‘stiffs’ in every sense of the word. Even though the corpses had been lying in the valley for six days and nights, they looked freshly killed, Moyse thought. Some tableaux were reminiscent of an abattoir: spilled blood had not coagulated to its usual brownish scab, but frozen into streams and puddles of crimson. The feelings and emotions that the men had been undergoing at their moment of death – shock, terror, agony – remained frozen in their faces. O’Brien recognised some. They were ‘terrible to see’, lying, trouserless, with their feet up in the air where the Chinese had stripped them to clothe themselves; their legs had frozen in the extended position. There were greater indignities. The Korean interpreter, Lieutenant Lee, could not help noticing how many corpses displayed signs of having soiled themselves. And Allen passed a marine who had been sniped while defecating. Dead, trousers round his ankles, he squatted at the side of the track, a frozen sentinel.


From To the Last Round:


Battle, Tragedy, Legend

I am a soldier, and unapt to weep
Or to exclaim on fortune’s fickleness.
– Shakespeare

A Quiet Afternoon On The Imjin

It was a sunny weekend afternoon in April, 2001.


After a light lunch, I and several friends were slogging up a dirt track to the summit of a low hill. Although we were all in our 20s and 30s and the weather was mild, it was a sweaty climb: jackets were slung over shoulders, lungs were tested.


Passing in clouds of dust, South Korean army jeeps were rattling up to the hilltop a couple of hundred meters ahead of us. Driven by young Korean troops, they were conveying old British soldiers – men in their 70s and 80s, survivors of a war that had sputtered to an uneasy halt half a century previously – to the summit.


Every April, Seoul’s little British community joins visiting veterans on their annual visits to this site. It is an hour’s drive north of Seoul, and a kilometer south of the Imjin River. It lies among artillery emplacements, dug-in armored vehicles and military bases, for just beyond the river, is the so-called “Demilitarized Zone” – actually, one of the world’s most heavily armed strips of real estate – which divides capitalist South Korea from the communist North. This border, the 38th Parallel, is the Cold War’s last front line.


Even so, it is a pleasant occasion: Diplomats, businesspeople and their families meeting for a picnic in the countryside. It is also a somber one. The event remembers the most tragic action fought by British troops in that distant, savage conflict: The battle of the Imjin River, fought from April 22-25, 1951. This year was special. It was the 50th anniversary and in addition to veterans, the VIPs had descended in force: generals, ambassadors, South Korea’s defense minister – even Prince Andrew, Duke of York.


As the dust thrown up by the last jeep dissipated, I noticed, ahead of us, a tall, solitary figure working his way painstakingly up the steepest part of the track. He was wearing a dark blazer and a beret – the unofficial uniform of visiting veterans. I noticed a badge on the rear of his beret. The only regiment in the British Army with a back badge is the Glosters; it was this battalion which had been wiped out in the battle. I caught up with the old soldier. “You know, there are jeeps for veterans,” I told him. “You don’t have to walk.” “I know,” he replied. “But I feel I have to walk up this hill.”


We fell into conversation. His name was Sam Mercer. As a 22-year-old private, he had fought on the hill we were now climbing. He had, in fact, taken part in the close-quarters action in which his platoon commander, Lieutenant Philip Curtis, won a Victoria Cross at the cost of his life. And Sam had not escaped unscathed. Despite his erect posture, one of his legs was a prosthetic; one of his eyes was glass.


At the summit, we paused for breath and surveyed the landscape. Around us, the rolling countryside was sprouting green. Behind us, the craggy granite hills rose higher. Just below the lip of the hill we were standing on, were fresh trenches: the old Gloster position is, to this day, occupied by South Korean troops. As the eye lifted, the lazy bends of the Imjin River could be made out, glittering in the sun. Beyond, the blue hills of North Korea shimmered mysteriously in the haze.


Sam pointed out where Curtis’ desperate counterattack had taken place, and told me a bit of his own part in the battle. It was sobering stuff. Night assaults by overwhelming numbers. A suicidal attack on an enemy bunker. A withdrawal under fire. Survivors whittled down. A last stand on a napalm-scorched hilltop. In the bright, peaceful afternoon, I wondered what it must have been like for the man at my side. He had survived that first night of battle, but lost an eye to shrapnel on the Glosters’ final position. Left behind with the wounded as survivors att