History Hikes: 1950-1953 Korean War

Korean War MemorialSenior Historian Chris Anderson, our man in London, has relaunched his blog, History Hikes. You will most often find Chris prowling around somewhere in the world checking out historic sites and walking in the footsteps of some amazing historical figures. History Hikes chronicles his visits to these places and the fascinating people he meets along the way.

Today, we share his latest dispatch on the 1950-1954 Korean War.

A Dirty Little Imp Helped Me Remember…

By Chris Anderson

Like many people I like to take a book along on vacation. For me it is generally something I have an interest in but know little about. I try to avoid books on topics that I have read often. I would not, for example, take along something on D-Day or the deployment of U.S. airborne forces during World War II; it would seem too much like work. That doesn’t mean that I can read the latest Tom Sinclair or George R.R. Martin novel either. I need to find that sweet spot somewhere in between a heavy history book and wild fantasy. This year I took along Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground. I knew from past experience that Sides’ books are always thoroughly researched and-important for a vacation read-very well written. As expected, I was not disappointed.

I am ashamed to say that I know frighteningly little about the 1950-1953 Korean War, which began 70 years ago this past June, beyond reading Max Hasting’s one-volume history, a biography of Chesty Puller and a few essays by S.L.A. Marshall; oh yeah, and of course watching “Hamburger Hill” and “MASH” as a youngster. I thought On Desperate Ground, which is about the Marine Corps’ fight at the Chosin Reservoir, would correct this deficiency a bit as well as help me get ready for the interview with Sides that Rick Beyer and I would be doing on History Happy Hour. I had picked up a copy of the book at an airport bookshop some time ago during those long-forgotten days when I used to travel. I thought my hour-and-a-half train ride to York would be the perfect time to learn a little bit more about the “Forgotten War.”

One of the things that really stuck out as I read On Desperate Ground was the story of Task Force Drysdale. During the darkest hours of the fight at the Chosin Reservoir, Drysdale-a Royal Marine officer-had led a mixed force of Royal Marines, U.S. Marines and U.S. Army troops to open a road and relieve a force of cut-off Americans. Many years earlier I had a very brief encounter with one of the British Marines Drysdale had commanded at the Chosin but we had not really talked about the battle. Sides’ book, however, remined me of that brief meeting. I also knew that there had been some involvement of British and Commonwealth forces in Korea but, like most Americans, I thought that the war had been fought primarily by American and South Korean Troops. The only “British battle” that I was aware of was the stand of the “Glorious Glosters,” at the Imjin River in April 1951.

The book was a joy to read and I quickly finished it. I assumed that I’d “scratched” the Korean itch and would soon get on with the other books I’d brought along. As you may have guessed, I was wrong. Toward the end of vacation, while my wife and daughter went to check out a shop, I sat down in the market square in Durham to rest. On the other side of the square was a monument of a soldier. Curious, I walked across the square to check it out.

The monument was put up by the veterans of the regiment and the local community and was dedicated to the men who had served in the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) during the regiment’s 200 years of service. For those who might not know, the DLI was one of the most distinguished regiments in the British Army. Formed in 1881, the regiment’s antecedents go back to the 18th Century. Men from Durham have fought with the regiment and distinguished themselves in all of Britain’s wars from the Seven War, the Napoleonic wars, Britain’s wars of empire including the Crimean, Maori and Boer wars.

During the First World War the DLI raised 42 battalions of men from Durham and the surrounding communities, 22 of which served overseas. The Regiment’s distinctive light infantry badge was worn in every theater of the war and its battalions were recognized with 59 battle honors. Six members were recognized with the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry and some 12,000 never returned home. After the conflict ended in 1918, one battalion was sent to Russia where it served as part of an international force in Archangel during the Russian Civil War.

Called on again in 1939, the “Dirty Little Imps,” as they were called, again fought with tremendous distinction. Fifteen battalions of the DLI were raised and 10 of these served overseas. Members of the regiment served in every campaign of the British army including France 1940, North Africa, Italy, France 1944, Germany and in Burma. On June 6, 1944, Durhams landed on Normandy’s Gold Beach. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery remarked, “Of all the infantry regiments in the British Army, the DLI was one most closely associated with myself during the war. The DLI Brigade [151st Brigade] fought under my command from Alameim to Germany …It is a magnificent regiment. Steady as a rock in battle and absolutely reliable on all occasions…. There may be some [regiments] as good, but I know of none better.”

Following VJ-Day, the DLI was busy in a number of operations around the world as Britain retreated from empire. During the Cold War the regiment deployed to Greece, Burma, Singapore, Korea, Aden, Cyprus and Borneo. Finally, in 1968, the DLI was amalgamated with other county regiments to form The Light Infantry.

Given such an incredibly long, and proud history, when I looked at the bronze soldier on the monument I was surprised by what it was not. It was not a soldier from the Somme in 1916, D-Day in 1944 or any of the DLIs many other famous battles. Instead, it was of a young National Service soldier in the uniform worn by the 1st Battalion, Durham Light Infantry when they deployed to Korea in 1952. The Korean conflict might not loom large in the consciousness of most Americans, probably even less so in the memories of most Brits, but it was a young soldier of the Korean war that the DLI veterans thought would be the most fitting visual reminder of their regiment’s long and distinguished service. I was curious.

The very first armed United Nations Response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 came just weeks after the communist offensive began. On July 3, 1950, Royal Navy aircraft flying from the decks of HMS Triumphstruck North Korean targets around Haeju. More British support soon followed. In addition to large numbers of ships and aircraft, Britain would eventually send some 81,00 of its young men to fight in Korea. 1,060 would never come home. Together with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India, the British would eventually form the 1st Commonwealth Division, which served alongside American troops as part of I Corps. Great Britain was the second largest contributor, after the United States, to the United Nations Command which eventually had soldiers of 22 nations in its ranks. It was as part of this commitment that in September 1952 the 1st Battalion, DLI, deployed to Korea and entered the lines as part of the 28th Brigade, 1st Commonwealth Division.  

The battalion was typical of British many units at that time, being made up of veteran regular soldiers and young National Servicemen. With insufficient men to meet all of their national defense requirements, in 1948 Parliament had passed the National Service Act, which required all men between the ages of 17-21 to serve on active duty in the armed forces for 18 months. With only the most basic of training, many of these National Servicemen would be sent to Korea. Just over 50% or the 1st Battalion DLI was made up of young conscripts when the battalion took over American positions near Neachon. By this point the conflict had reached a stalemate with both sides in positions that resembled the trench lines of the First World War.

Almost immediately the battalion began active operations; first to improve their positions and then to conduct a series of raids and small attacks intended to secure dominance of no man’s land. As fall turned to winter, the battalion move to a place called Point 210, where they remained until they were relieved at the end of January. Returning to the front at Point 355, otherwise known as “little Gibraltar,” the battalion resumed active operations. While they were at the front, Patrick O’Donovan, a reporter for The Observer,visited the battalion. He later remarked on the “…small, cheerful, slightly disrespectful men who were at their best when things were most beastly and who would go home to vote as far left as they could. There was a singular lack of military nonsense about them and yet they were so professional that they made their neighbours, the United States Marines, look [like] amateurs.”

It was from these positions that the men of the DLI exhibited their dominance of no man’s land in a rather audacious fashion. In honour of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, on the evening of July 2, 1953, a patrol from the battalion snuck to the very edge of the Chinese trenches and staked out EIIR, the royal cypher, with bright fluorescent aircraft recognition panels. Not to be outdone, later that day, every gun in the Commonwealth Division fired red, white and blue smoke at the enemy trenches and as they did so, the remaining men of the battalion jumped onto the parapets of their trenches and gave three cheers for their new queen. A Captain Burini remembered, “There was some concern that the Chinese might take advantage of the cover provided by the smoke and attack us, but they behaved themselves and probably thought that we were all mad.”

Just over three weeks later, at 2200 on July 27, 1953, buglers from the DLI sounded “Ceasefire,” announcing that an armistice had been signed at Panmunjom by American Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. and North Korean General Nam II. The battalion remained in their positions until September, when they began the long journey home. In their year at the front the DLI had lost 24 dead, three missing and 124 wounded. Peace talks held after the armistice failed to reach a successful conclusion and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea are still, technically, at war.

The price the United Nations and Korea had paid to stop communist aggression had been staggering. Between 1950-1953 it is estimated that nearly 5 million Koreans-10% of the pre-war population-had perished. In total, some 628, 833 soldiers, sailors and airmen were killed in action. Despite this, for many, Korea is remembered as the “forgotten war.” It was not until 1995 that a Korean War Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. to remember the 1,789,000 American men and women who served in Korea, nearly 37,000 of whom were killed in action. And not until 2014 that Great Britain, the second largest contributor to the United Nations Command, put up a memorial behind the Ministry of Defense building in London to the 86,000 servicemen it deployed to the Korea Peninsula.

I was so glad that 70-years on, in the market square in Durham, I was reminded of this long-ago conflict and of the Dirty Little Imps who fought in it. I think it is wonderful that the DLI’s veterans chose to remember their distinguished regiment with a statue of a young National Serviceman, his right hand holding a bugle-the symbol of the light infantry-that he is about to put to his lips and blow “Ceasefire.”

*Needless to say, this whole experience has sent me down into a Korean War rabbit hole. I have posted a reading list of books related to the American experience in Korea on the History Happy Hour website. If you are interested in Britain’s contribution, you might want to check out:

The British Part in the Korean War (2-vols), Anthony Farrar-Hockley

British Soldiers of the Korean War: In Their Own Words, Steven Kelly

The Durhams in Korea: The 1st Battalion DLI in Korea, 1952-53, Harry Moses

To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951, Andrew Salmon

Tell Amazon I sent you!

Korean War bugler statue

Veterans of the Durham Light Infantry chose to remember their regiment’s two centuries of service with a statue of a young National Serviceman in Korea preparing to blow his light infantry bugle to sound “Ceasefire.”

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