Saturday, 11 October 2008

A Veteran Remembers

27 July was the anniversary of the end of the Korean War in 1953 – a war in which millions died, and which only ended with a ceasefire, Korea remaining divided. Peter Poole served in the war as a member of the Royal Military Police, and agreed to share his recollections of that time. He was eighteen, with two years of national service ahead of him. Like many of his comrades, he hadn’t heard of Korea before. ‘We knew that the communist North Korea was likely to take over the country and the western world should resist the spread of this evil regime and protect the people of this “Land of the Morning Calm”.’ It took five weeks to get there by troop ship, and they arrived at the docks in Pusan in August 1951. The war was 12 months old, and the famed Battle of the Imjin River had taken place in April. Over six hundred British soldiers were left killed, wounded or missing, many were taken prisoner, but they blunted the Chinese offensive. ‘There were no civilians on the docks but there was a welcoming band (provided by the US military) and plenty of streamers, we thought everything was going to be a sort of picnic holiday and the war would be over very soon.’ The job of the Royal Military Police was security: controlling traffic, patrolling the sector and providing close protection to VIPs such as the General commanding the division. ‘We manned the bridges over the river, one person on either side communicating by hand operated telephones. We also had to monitor the prisoners of war handed over to us on the bridges. Then there were the night patrols on villages…’ They would inspect these no-go areas for troops who’d gone out of bounds to raid the villages for ‘young ladies’. They escorted the British wounded to holding places and manned camouflaged roads, which were covered with netting that looked like greenery to allow the tanks and supplies to get through, until the Chinese got wind of it and shelled them. They also picked up refugees who were in danger walking through a war zone. ‘We’d pick up children who’d been orphaned, who’d been detached from their villages… They’d be barefoot, with no food, like you see in Darfur today. We’d take them to safety. I wonder if those children are still alive, if people today remember being rescued.’There was very little western dress in those days, except a few academics. ‘In all the villages, people wore the traditional creamy white dress, and the men carried bales of rice on wooden A-frames, like rucksacks. And they wore the big round hats, and baggy trousers – they weren’t in touch with the outside world.’ In the North, the war went on around the civilian population; there was no evacuation. ‘They had nowhere to go – they were very, very poor – and a lot got accidentally killed, which was never broadcast.’ The Chinese and North Korean dead were buried on the spot. ‘I have two very vivid recollections. Ask any veteran and they’ll tell you – the cold! We were living in dugouts and tents, and it got down to minus twenty, minus thirty.’ Smoke from fires would have given them away, so they created heaters out of petrol cans. ‘And we relied very much on the Americans and Canadians, who provided us with extra food and clothing – they had much better equipment.’ ‘The other thing you remember – the rats! With the way cans and foods were disposed of, it encouraged rats. Oh, and also the noise! There were howitzers going over our heads, and of course you didn’t wear ear plugs… Many veterans now suffer from bad hearing.’‘But it was very pleasant in the summer,’ he says. Between the horrific times, there were pauses in the battle, when negotiations for a peace deal were happening. They’d play sports, have parades and attend variety shows. ‘Stars came out from the UK, and we had to look after them – especially the girls! There were no women, you see...’

The Korean people were very friendly and appreciative of the British contribution to the war. ‘We obviously did miss home but were able to write letters almost daily… Occasionally a parcel of home comforts would arrive. The comradeship, the sharing of each others’ thoughts, parcels and letters became the norm.’‘We came back home on the troop ship via all the lovely places: Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, through the Red Sea, along the Suez Canal – quite a nice cruise! But it was a great relief to sail up Southampton Water… All the families had come to meet us.’ He returned home two years older and ‘a lot wiser, a changed person… Fortunately, my old job was available and my girlfriend was still waiting!’ She became his wife; and after recovering from a spell of malaria, he found a challenging career in sales, where he stayed for almost forty-three years. The British Korean Veterans Association has about 4,000 members, most now in their seventies. Imjin River is still visited every year for a commemorative service. He went in 1995 and was surprised to be surrounded by Korean schoolchildren asking for his autograph. Last year he had an email from a man in Perth, Western Australia, who was in the same unit and found him through the BKVA website. ‘Dusty, we called him, and he emailed me and said have you got Skype? We’d chat quite frequently and I went to stay.’ The photo of their meeting made it into the BKVA Morning Calm magazine and in response he received a whole lot of communications and photos from other RMP veterans. ‘They all look a little older now, but it’s amazing how faces don’t change very much,’ he says, reflectively. ‘Bodies change, but you can still see that they’re the same people as they were at eighteen in Korea.’

Written by Jennifer Barclay (
Jennifer Barclay is the author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi, published by Summersdale Publishers in August (£7.99, and all good bookshops), and is a regular contributor to

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