This year once again saw the Royal British Legion Thailand commemorate Remembrance here in the “Land of Smiles”. The RBLT Chonburi Branch, the only branch in Thailand, which covers the whole of the country and as custodian of Remembrance, we held our annual service on the 11th of November at the “Don Rak” war graves cemetery in Kanchanaburi, the home of the infamous “River Kwai”.
Maintained in excellent condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff along with its smaller sister cemetery “Chungkai” also in Kanchanaburi. It is the final resting place of 6,981, British, Australian, Dutch POWs from the infamous Thai – Burma “Death Railway” and Phoebe Mercer a WRVS Nurse. Chungkai holds 1740 British and Dutch POW’s.
The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese military project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway (except for the Americans, whose remains were repatriated) were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries, 2 in Kanchanaburi and 1 in Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.
Don Rak cemetery is only a short distance from ‘Kanburi’, the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the prisoners passed on their way to other camps. It was created by the Army Graves Service who transferred to it all graves along the southern section of railway, from Bangkok to Nieke.
Some 300 men who died (most from a Cholera epidemic in May/June 1943) at Nieke camp were cremated and their ashes now lie in two graves in the cemetery. The names of these men are inscribed on panels in the shelter pavilion. Within the entrance building to the cemetery will be found the Kanchanaburi Memorial, recording the names of 11 men of the army of undivided India buried in Muslim cemeteries in Thailand, where their graves could not be maintained.
Thailand is under very tight Covid restrictions at the moment but to our relief on November 1st these were relaxed to allow gatherings of up to 200. This year we needed that number, as well as our local hosts, the Governor of Kanchanaburi Province, officers from the Thai Military and police services.
We also had 14 different countries send diplomatic representatives including Ambassadors and Defence Attaches from, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, USA, Netherlands, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya and Sweden. We also had attendees from SSAFA and the VFW and the Death Railway Interest Group who represent Asian victims (about 270,000 were drafted and about 100,000 are dead or missing). A very strong RBLT presence along with interested members of the public from all over Thailand and the world meant we were at capacity.
With Branch Chairman Bob Mann acting as Master of Ceremonies, the service commenced at 10.50 precisely with the march on of the Branch Standard, ably carried this year by Mr David Golding, standing in at the last minute due to our normal SB Richard Holmes being taken ill, (he is fine now). This was followed by some appropriate verses read by our officiating Chaplain, Reverend Norman Jones Vicar of Christ Church, Bangkok and Defence Attaché, British Embassy Bangkok, Col. Tony Stern.
At 1 minute to 11am the Chairman read the Exhortation,
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
age shall not weary them, nor
the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and
in the morning,
we will remember them.
All attending proudly responding, “We will remember them”.
Two stalwart buglers of the Thai Army sounded the “Last Post” followed by the dipping of the standard and observation of 2 minutes silence, which was broken by the sound of “Reveille”. Due to the restrictions, we did not have any “youngsters” to call on so the Kohima Epitaph was read by Mark Watson Branch Chairman of SSAFA, (no offence Mark).
Then followed the laying of 37 wreaths led by H.E. HMA Mark Gooding OBE and the RBLT Mr David Palin and accompanied by a haunting lament played on the bagpipes by Mr Angus McKernan, ex Drums and Pipes, Cape Town Highlanders Regiment, South Africa.
All diplomatic visitors and local dignitaries laid wreaths along with RBLT members and private individuals. A wonderful array of respect and remembrance indeed.
H.E. the Ambassador then read “The Falling Leaves” By Margaret Postgate Cole, a very poignant poem. Followed by, Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW) Prayer, read by, Dr. JJ Karwacki, COL (ret) US Army Medical Corps, representing the US Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“And we that are left grow old with the years
Remembering the heartache, the pain and the tears,
Hoping and praying that never again
will Man sink to such sorrow and shame.
The price that was paid we will always remember:
Every day, Every month; Not just November.
We shall remember them”
by Cpl. Arthur E Ogden and Victor Merrett, FEPOW’s
The service was brought to a close with the “Act of Commitment”, “The Lord’s Prayer” and the Blessing. The final curtain of the service being the marching off of the Standard once again to the stirring “Skirl” of the pipes.
The service could not have taken place without our sponsors, with sincere thanks to:- British Embassy, Bangkok, CSP Projects, Pattaya, Pattaya Cookery School, Tropical Restaurant, Pattaya, Mr Neil Sandilands and the Pattaya Mail.
Following the service at Don Rak, a less formal and much shorter service was carried out at Chungkai cemetery which is about 4.5km away across the river.
When in Kanchanaburi we always include this smaller cemetery, which does not receive the same attention as Don Rak, but is nevertheless immaculately maintained by CWGC Manager, Mick Newbatt and his fantastic team of maintenance staff.
This service was also well attended by approximately 50 or so RBL, diplomatic and other visitors. An abbreviated service was held which included the parading of the standard, the exhortation and 3 wreaths being laid at the “Stone of Remembrance”.
Having rested for a couple of days, a number of us then travelled from Pattaya to Bangkok on Remembrance Sunday the 14th and took part in and assisted the British Embassy run service at the British Club in Bangkok. Another splendid event with over 60 wreaths being laid at the cenotaph in the club garden.
Also, on Remembrance Sunday the 14th, St Georges Church in the Father Ray Centre in Pattaya incorporated remembrance into their service. Ex Branch Chairman Andy Barraclough and his lovely wife Fai, represented the RBLT with aplomb and laid wreaths on our behalf.
Now that Poppy Appeal is closed for this year, once all the boxes are in and the reckoning, reckoned, I and the others are looking forward to a rest for a month. Fingers crossed, the Thai Government will open entertainment venues again soon so we can all get together in a social setting and possibly, belatedly, celebrate the RBL Centenary, albeit in early 2022, no matter, we will pretend it’s 2021.
Then looking forward to doing it all again next year.
Roy Wilson, RBLT Branch Secretary.