Kohima 70th Anniversary Memorial Service
The Dean of York's Sermon
Given by The Dean of York, The Very Reverend Vivienne Faul
When you go home … the familiar words which begin the evocative epitaph on the memorial at Kohima and on the memorial here.
It is good as Dean of York to welcome each of you back to this memorial service, to the memorial itself and to York, the home base for the 2nd Division before and after the Second World War, and which, through its own crossed-keys badge has a coincidental link with York Minster. It is, of course, to the veterans we extend our warmest welcome.
When you go home
When those who did survive – and so many did not – went home after the battle of Kohima they went all over the world. For those who defended Kohima Ridge and Garrison Hill and the tennis court were drawn from across the Indian sub-continent and across what is now the Commonwealth. They were people of different backgrounds, races and faiths, an international fighting group, formed out of force of circumstances when a Japanese Division advanced much more rapidly than anticipated across Burma with India in its sights and cut the roads from Kohima to Imphal and Dimapur.
On the ground, 1500 men of the Royal West Kents, the Assam Regiment and the Assam Rifles held out for two weeks, supported by airdrops by the RAF and Allied air forces until relieved by their comrades of the 2nd British Division.
The battle which followed the initial siege was fought at close quarters for two months. From 18 April to 13 May, British and Indian reinforcements, which had been rushed thousands of miles across India, counter-attacked to drive the Japanese from the positions they had captured. The Japanese abandoned the ridge at this point but continued to block the Kohima–Imphal road.
From 16 May to 22 June, the British and Indian troops pursued the retreating Japanese and reopened the road. The battle ended on 22 June when British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109, ending the siege of Imphal
As you will know, this was the first defeat of the Japanese by the British army in the Second World War. It was a turning point in the Asian theatre of war, and therefore a turning point in the Second World War. Many see it is one of the greatest battles in the history of British and Allied troops. Victory turned on the differing capabilities of two commanders, Lieutenant General Mutaguchi, and Lieutenant General Bill Slim. Above all, it turned on the determination of the two sides. As one of the Japanese troops commented, the Japanese and the British troops were both courageous. But the British troops were courageous for longer.
When you go home, tell them of us
Yet despite the achievements and the sacrifices, Kohima is often described as the forgotten battle. And so, for me, as a new Dean of York, it has been good to visit the Museum at the Imphal Barracks this week to be told the story of those weeks in 1944. It has been humbling to hear of the conditions on the hillsides.
I have lived in North India and I know the effects of the monsoon. The incessant rain, and the mud, and the humidity. And I lived on the plains. Up in the hills the conditions for fighting would have been profoundly testing. In that setting, the noise of guns and war cries of the Japanese, the stench of excrement and of rotting flesh … for those of us who have never fought, the scene is one of almost unimaginable horror. No wonder many of those who returned talked little of what they had endured. Few would have understood.
But thanks to the commitment of those who remember, and their families, through the work of the National Army Museum, the York Kohima Museum and through the presence of this memorial there are encouragements to ask why? And how? And so the story of how one of the furthest flung and wildest places in India became central to the history of the 20th century is being passed on to a new generation.
Here are two tributes from the National Army Museum website in recent months:
16 June 2013, 3.18pm
My father, Lieutenant W E King, 2nd Manchester Battalion and my godfather Maj Peter Everidge fought at Kohima. My father almost never mentioned the experience except to say that he should have been court martialled rather than being awarded the MC. Now that I have read more about the battle, I can see why he didn't speak about – so far removed from the experience of those in Britain was it that it must have felt as though it had happened on another planet.
24 April 2013, 9.12pm
My Father, Sidney Vickers, won a Military Medal at Kohima, presented to him in the field by Bill Slim. His comment,'every bugger deserved one', would be echoed by all who fought there.
When you go home, tell them of us and say
for your tomorrow we gave our today
All this is not just a matter of history. Our ‘todays’ continue to be vital moments and bring new possibilities for renewing comradeship and friendships which continued down the years and now through new generations. More than that, there are new memories being created through the link with the extraordinary and wonderful people who still live around Kohima. A resident of Nagaland recently commented:
A war fought against unbelievable odds. The memorial in the Commonwealth Cemetery, Kohima says that if it were not for the Nagas who helped as scouts, stretcher bearers and spies for the Allied forces, this battle would never have been won. I am proud I am a citizen of Kohima and happy that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does such a good job of maintaining the cemetery. A great battle indeed. It lives on in the memory of my people even today.
So the Kohima Education Trust with its support today for the ongoing development of the Naga people and especially its children has made new memories to lay alongside the memories of the horror and pity of war.
Today we gather to remember those who died, whose graves or cremated remains are on Garrison Hill.
Today we remember those who were maimed in body or mind by the experiences of those weeks.
Today we remember comrades who are not with us, those too frail to be here.
Today we remember those who have recently died.
We give thanks for them. We will continue to remember them holding them in the love of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit as we offer our own lives in service of God and Queen now and in the days to come.
Dean’s Park. York Minster
10 July 2014
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