Today, I thought I would share part of the stories of two of my heroes, family members who served in the World Wars.
First, is my Great-grandfather, Charles Young. He enlisted in 1916, an older man with a family (thank goodness!), after a lifetime working with horses – he was still put in the infantry, 1/6th Bn Duke of Wellington’s Regt. He went out at Christmas 1916 after only weeks of training and spent much of his time in and around the Ypres Salient and fought at Passchendaele. In April 1918, he somehow survived two main actions during the Battle of the Lys, saving Ypres from being captured (if Ypres fell, it would have been Dunkirk 1918, not Dunkirk 1940!). His battalion was reduced from 1000 to just double digits…
Charles’s luck ran out on 9th October 1918 at Naves, when he was shot down during the attack. An unknown comrade saved his life that day. Wounded, back at the Aid Post, The Germans had launched a massive mustard gas attack to delay the British advance further. ‘Someone’ made sure Charles had his respirator on.
My Great-grandfather never talked about his war to his family, his children never knew why he always wore a silk scarf (as seen in the photograph below). Although the respirator saved his life, it did not protect him from the mustard gas chemically burning his neck – the scarf protected his skin and hid the scars from his children.
Although Charles died shortly after my birth, my mother told that she took me to see him and he held me in his arms, his first Great-grandson.
By the end of the battle the equivalent of one brigade had been lost, either killed, drowned or taken prisoner. The remainder arrived on the west bank with little or no equipment and only some with their personal weapons where they were re-equipped as well as possible before being re-formed into units to continue a fighting withdrawal. The withdrawal covered nearly 1,000 miles, mostly on foot, over three months in the face of a superior enemy and cut off from outside assistance. They finally reached Imphal in India in May, it was the longest withdrawal in the history of the British Army.
Donald Young made it across the Sittang, but was reported ‘Missing in Action’ in March 1942, somewhere along that long retreat – he is ‘missing’ still.
One day selling Poppies in town, a very smartly dressed older man came up to me with his wife to buy theirs. I saw he was wearing the badge of the ‘Burma Star Association’. I told them that my Great-Uncle fought in Burma. The man said, ‘I was with the RAF, who was he with?’ ‘With the 2nd ‘Dukes’ at the Sittang River.’ I replied. The man’s face totally changed, his eyes stared into mine, his wife took his arm. Slowly he said, ‘They told us it was clear…they told us it was clear…’. As part of demolishing the Sittang Bridge, the RAF had been used to bomb what was left of it – thereby cutting off the 2nd ‘Dukes’. Despite the many shoppers there, there were really only the three of us. I took and shook this WW2 veteran’s hand and thanked him for what he had done. He had never told his wife what had happened that day in Burma and the reaction of the RAF personnel who only later discovered what they had inadvertently done.
By David Whithorn
The second soldier is his son, my Great-uncle Donald, he too served with the Duke of Wellingtons in India before WW2.
This is the official account: The 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, were moved from Peshawar, on the North West frontier of India, by train and ship to Rangoon. They arrived on 14th February and were deployed on the far side of the Sittang River on 20th February to reinforce 17th Indian Division, who were facing overwhelming odds in holding the Japanese advance. The Sittang was a fast flowing river 600 – 1000 yards wide, crossed by a railway bridge which had been adapted to carry vehicles, and was the Divisional withdrawal route.
By the 22nd February the Divisional Commander decided that he had little choice but to order the demolition of the bridge. This was blown in darkness under heavy fire and was only partially demolished leaving ⅔ of his Division on the far side. The remnants of two DWR and 1st/3rd Gurkha Rifles on the far side were able to re-secure the bridgehead to allow many members of the Division to continue to cross the river by ropes attached to the bridge. Many others swam or used rafts.
By David Whithorn
Barry's StoryI Joined the Army in 1966 with the Royal Corps of Transport. During my 22 years, I served in several units across the world, one such unit was in Berlin, Germany BAOR. The unit was known as Brixmis, its mission was the Liason between the Soviet Army in...
My brother, Fusilier Charles Marchant
This is relating to my Father (Dad) who served with the 5th Guards Armoured during World War II.
I hope the trip gave my Dad some sort of closure. Rightly or wrongly, he has always said how war “wastes lives”.