Over the next four years, historians and the public alike have been called upon to commemorate and remember the First World War. Countless documentaries, articles, books and blogs have been prepared and doubtless there will be many more. It is only fitting and right that we should acknowledge the sacrifices made and seek to understand them. Having said that, we often fail to recognise the contribution of more recent veterans. While they fought for the same values and many of the same reasons as generations before, they remain obscure and largely forgotten figures.
Sixty-four years ago this summer, soldiers from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were once again preparing to take up arms. Few knew where they were going and even fewer knew how ferocious the fighting would be that they would encounter. Over 145,000 troops fought as members of a unified Commonwealth Division during the Korean War (1950-1953). Praised by allies and enemies alike, the division was well known for courage and skill in the field. However, very few people know who they are today. I am usually met with befuddled stares when I explain my research to others. ‘When was the Korean War? I didn’t know we sent troops there,’ is usually the response.
The Korean War erupted in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950. Since 1945, North and South Korea had been separated and the invasion represented an attempt by the Communist government in the North to forcibly reunify the two halves of the peninsula. The attack largely caught the world by surprise. However, the United Nations was quick to respond and called upon its members to help repel the invasion. Over the following three years, a coalition of 17 different nations fought a brutal war of attrition against the North Koreans and their Chinese allies. The Commonwealth Division was the second largest foreign contingent in theatre and saw some of the heaviest fighting. By 1953, the war had produced a staggering 4 million casualties and ended in a stalemate that remains unresolved to this day.
As we commemorate World War I, I am struck by how very little most people know about Korea or many of the other smaller scale conflicts in which Britain and the other Commonwealth countries have participated. It brings up important questions as to why we choose to commemorate one war over another. While the scale of WWI is staggering, servicemen who fought in Korea suffered no less than their predecessors. For over three years, they endured, ‘privations of almost Crimean proportions.’ 1 Moreover, they faced hand-to-hand combat and terrifying nightly assaults by the enemy. Be that as it may, Korea came at a time when the West was weary of war and was downplayed by both politicians and the media as a ‘police action.’ This had long-term consequences for all concerned.
In a 2005 study of Australian veterans conducted at Monash University, the authors concluded that veterans of the Korean War were, ‘five to six times more likely to meet the criteria for PTSD’ than men of a similar age and, ‘one and half times more likely to meet the criteria for current hazardous alcohol consumption.’ 2 While many factors contribute to these figures, one is left to wonder what role the lack of public support and commemoration has played over the years. Across the Commonwealth, there was little government support for ex-servicemen in terms of either pensions or counselling. Local veterans’ groups were also frequently unwelcoming. Upon applying for a home loan, one Canadian veteran was even told, ‘Korea was no war…Here’s fifty cents. That’s all you’re getting.’ 3 The first Commonwealth memorials to the war weren’t erected until the late 1990s.
Korean War veterans are an uncomfortable reminder of the power of public recognition or the lack of it. No matter how advanced medical care may become, how society responds to returning servicemen is pivotal in how veterans process their experiences and reconcile themselves to grief. Mercifully, fewer and fewer of us have direct experience of war. However, this does not mean that we don’t play a role or have an impact upon those who fight on our behalf. The military and members of the public are increasingly connected through television, social media and other forms of communication. As we welcome home a new generation of veterans, we need to think carefully both about what we choose to commemorate and praise and what we choose to ignore and forget. While Korea may be the ‘forgotten war,’ it is a reminder for us all.
Meghan Fitzpatrick recently completed a PhD on ‘Invisible Scars: Commonwealth Military Psychiatry and the Korean War (1950-1953)’ at KCL. She is interested in exploring the role of medicine in modern war and the cultural and social history of the armed forces. You can find her on twitter @kmegfitz.
Header image: Private Smart of A Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), awaiting helicopter evacuation from 3RAR Regimental Aid Post after being wounded by enemy mortar on Position 355, Korea (17 May 1953) [George ‘Max’ MacAfie Luff via Australian War Memorial] Inset image: Private ‘Buck’ Bradley of Taree, New South Wales, Korea (1 March 1955) [Donald Albert (Tim) Meldrum via Australian War Memorial]
- Max Hastings, The Korean War, Pan Grand Strategy Series (UK: Pan Macmillan Books, 2000), p. 95. ↩
- Malcolm Sims, Jillian Ikin and Dean McKenzie, Health Study 2005: Australian Veterans of the Korean War (Australia: Department of Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University, 2005), pp. 11-12. ↩
- Don Leier, quoted in Ted Barris, Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at War 1950-1953 (Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1999), pp. 304-5. ↩