Seventy-one years ago this month the battle at Kohima had been fought and won after six weeks of the most savage and unrelenting combat of the Second World War.
Most years since then at around this time, those who fought there and survived, their families, their friends and others with an interest, have assembled to pay homage to the gallantry and tenacity of the regiments and individuals who took part in the battle.
Today we again gather to salute the warriors of Kohima and to give thanks for their courage, determination and selfless sacrifices, sacrifices made all the more poignant because they were made for those of us living today. Those incomparable, anonymous words first inscribed on the memorial at Kohima say it all: When you go home, tell them of us and say for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
So, if we ask ourselves why we once again assemble here in the grounds of York Minster, I suggest the answer is clear. We do so because we believe it is not only right, but a God given duty, that we should remember not only the horrors of the battle and those who fought there, but the terrible consequences had it not been won.
Recall those dark days in early 1944; India under threat from Japanese invasion; the war in the Far East likely to continue for more years of bloodshed and misery; countless allied prisoners of war and interned civilians condemned to continuing and brutal captivity, while the nations of South East Asia would have had little to look forward to in peace but years of further oppression and slavery. These were the realities which would have faced the world had victory at Kohima by the 2nd Division and its allies not been achieved.
Today we once again live in perilous times – not on the scale of the events which faced our leaders in 1944 – but still of sufficient magnitude to cause us all to be concerned for ourselves and future generations. In 1944 we were already committed to defeating two deadly enemies; today we are not confronted by such a situation and we repose confidence in the wise counsel of our leaders to steer us away from future conflict. We also know that in this country we have armed forces – the successors of those who fought so gallantly in World War Two at Kohima and elsewhere – who have shown themselves to be brave and purposeful, most recently in fighting terror and insurgency in places where this country has responsibilities.
We rightly place our trust in their skills and resilience. But one of the hallmarks of military forces in a modern world is that they should, through their professionalism and determination, also deter potential enemies; while their primary purpose must be to fight in our defence if called upon to do so, they also have a vital role in constraining others who may see advantage through aggressive action. And this is where we all come in because by meeting every year here in York to laud those who fought and died at Kohima, we are reminding our fellow countrymen why such a battle happened and why it should not be allowed to happen again. It is a simple message and one that each of us can speak by our presence here today and for years to come.
But there are other ways in which we, beneficiaries of Kohima seventy years ago, can show our gratitude and try to make the world a better place. Just over ten years ago ideas began to emerge which led to a collective desire to make at least some amends for the consequences of the battle visited upon the local Naga people of Kohima and the adjacent North East India. Over three long months those people supported the allied soldiers fighting the Japanese and suffered equal if not widely different deprivations and risks; without their courage and support much that was achieved by the British and Commonwealth forces at Kohima might not have been possible.
Because of the vagaries of war these gallant and resourceful people were never properly thanked at the time nor their contribution adequately acknowledged and so in 2003 a group of veterans decided to make amends by forming a trust to support education and associated developments in Nagaland, a practical and immediate way of showing their gratitude. Ten years on that work is flourishing; led by a group of dedicated people both here and in Kohima, the trust has through its work provided confirmation that a debt needed to be repaid and was going to be. You have all in your individual ways supported the work the trust is doing and your presence here today will give further encouragement to the efforts of the founding fathers and their successors.
But there was one founding father without whose vision and commitment none of that could have happened. Gordon Graham fought at Kohima with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders; his battalion like all others sustained enormous casualties in the fighting, suffered countless, miserable setbacks but, after weeks of almost indescribable warfare – more akin to the battles of the First World War than the second – and showing enduring, conspicuous courage, were in the end successful in defeating the Japanese. Gordon survived, a proud soldier but a man who thereafter determined that experiences such as Kohima should, if humanly possible, never again be faced by succeeding generations.
But he was equally a realist who understood that the world is an imperfect place and the human being a flawed creature, often incapable of learning the mistakes of the past. His compassion and far-sightedness, tempered over a life of ninety-four years, led him to propose the educational support now provided to the Naga people and it was his vision and energy which contributed the leadership to ensure that it happened and continues to happen. He was a remarkable man and his death in late April brought the end of an era. Gordon has now gone to join his comrades who fought with him at Kohima.
For me Gordon made sense of some of the emotions to which human conflict gives rise, when in 1954 he revisited Nagaland and subsequently wrote his epitaph ‘Kohima 1954’. His poem was read for the first time at this service last year, as it was at his funeral in May; and I believe that it is a fitting way for us to contemplate and understand what war and its aftermath means to those who have been involved and who have given everything that others might lead peaceful and fulfilled lives.
Returning to Kohima ten years after the battle.
I was guided to my battalion’s memorial
By a ten-year old barefoot boy.
As he trotted up the track which the bulldozers had driven,
now a leafy lane,
he explained the bullet-ridden corrugated iron
and the grass-filled foxholes.
Having led me to the place I wanted to be,
He scampered off
to re-join his playmates.
Later, in the cemetery
I walked along the endless rows of headstones.
Learning not to move too slowly,
which can cause tears,
nor yet too fast,
when numbers dull the sense of individual tragedy.
Next morning I arose while it was dark
and went for a walk in the jungle,
but finding none.
As I stumbled through the thickets
in the midst of a rainy dawn
a bugle sounded reveille.
At that moment, I understood
that life is a partnership
between the living, the dead and the unborn,
and that we, the living,
have the duty
to pass to those who follow us
the wisdom and ideals
of those who have gone before us.
I have no doubt that those words will be read whenever people gather to remember the sacrifices of Kohima. But let us also keep in mind that there exists a thread which connects that horrific battle of 1944, Gordon Graham’s subsequent return there ten years later, these annual assemblies of former members of the 2nd Division and their friends gathered here in the shadow of this great Minster to give thanks, the continuing commitment shown by the city fathers of the City of York by their presence at this service, the memorial in front of which we meet today and now the work of the Trust. Each in their respective way helps us to understand the past and, by so doing, will assist us, the living, to do whatever may be asked of our generation in the future.