REMEMBRANCE: 1914 – 2018...... The Soldier’s Story.
My grandfather - James Scougal - was born in Yankton, South Dakota, America in 1882. He died in Carlisle, Cumbria, in 1956. Granddad was a sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. He was deployed to Flanders, Belgium, in 1914. The regiment was part of 18th Infantry Brigade, 6th Division, Third Corps. The battalion’s battle honours include Armentieres, Hooge, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Le Transloy, Hill 70, the Somme and Cambrai. My grandfather returned home after the war physically unscathed but mentally scarred by the horrors of the First World War.
My father - Herbert James Scougal - was born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham in 1915 and was a company sergeant major in the Royal Army Service Corps. Dad was taken prisoner by the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941, during the Battle of Hong Kong.
The two generations that came before me fought two world wars and sadly lost over ten million lives from within their number.
My father seldom spoke of the war but towards the end, he told me this. I call it ‘The Soldier’s Story’…
‘It was Christmas Day, 1941, when we surrendered. There were about 10,000 of us to start with but seventeen days later there was only 6,500 of us still alive. I fought next to the Middlesex Regiment. The Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles were just along the line from us. There were Canadian Regiments from Manitoba and Quebec. But elsewhere, on the Kowloon Peninsula, there were lads from the Royal Scots, the Sappers, and Indians from the Punjabi and Rajput Regiments. The Hong Kong Volunteer Force also fought with us. I was a Company Sergeant Major in the Royal Army Service Corps. Normally I drilled soldiers, taught them how to march and salute, and instilled discipline. I taught them to drive anything from a jeep to a tank to a ten-tonne lorry. I wasn’t an infantryman.
But that day I was a soldier.
They came at us from out of the jungle just north of Hong Kong. There were thousands of them. We killed quite a lot of them when they attacked, but they just kept coming. My friends fell and died around me. There were bodies everywhere. I lost dozens of friends that day. Christmas Day was never the same for me from that day on. I was lucky. We stopped fighting when we ran out of bullets. They didn’t shoot us. Elsewhere in Kowloon they killed injured soldiers, raped the nurses, and murdered those who surrendered. I was just lucky, or so I thought. They took us to Sham Shui Poo prison camp. They were nearly all British and Canadian soldiers there. We were given two blankets, a cement floor and a hut. For the next four years, I lived mainly on water and rice. One day we caught the Commandant’s cat. We skinned it and ate it raw. The Commandant got twenty years for war crimes when the war ended. We ate all the grass in the camp, put it in soup and ate it. Whenever we could, we would catch and eat snakes. We would eat anything to stay alive. They electrified the wire around the camp at night. In the morning we would find a dead dog or a dead cat lying by the fence. We would eat it, often raw.
They beat us, kicked us and rifle-butted us whenever they wanted to. I had beriberi, diphtheria, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever and a dictionary full of tropical diseases that confounded the doctors. I don’t know how I got through it but I did. They worked us in the mines, digging and scraping. Someone died nearly every day. We just clung to life every second of the day.
It was the Canadian Navy that liberated us in August 1945.
When the guards realised all was lost they made for the mines to hide from the approaching Canadians. We encouraged them and told them we wouldn’t let them be taken by the Canadians. When the Japanese guards were inside the mine we wired explosives up and detonated the mine. It collapsed and we never saw the guards again. My hands were on the plunger when it went down. A lot of us pushed the plunger down. Lots of us wanted to be part of it. I’ve never regretted it.
Two weeks earlier atomic bombs had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end the war.
I was about thirteen and a half stone when I went into the army. I was six feet tall, in my prime, and with my whole life before me. When I left Sham Shui Poo I was less than six stone and there were only about a thousand of us left from the original ten thousand. The rest died in imprisonment.
They didn’t want the people to see us like skeletons, skin and bone, so they took us home via Australia and Canada. They fed us, watered us, tended to us and clothed us. Then they took us to Hiroshima. They thought we’d be happy to see what we’d done to them to stop the war.
I can remember reaching out to touch some of the buildings with my hands. The shadows of the buildings were still there but there was nothing to touch. There was nothing left of that place. No buildings, no people. Nothing. It was tragic and so strange.
It was the final brutal act in a long and brutal war.
When I finally did come home I was walking passed the Crown and Mitre in English Street, Carlisle, when one of them came towards me. I hit him as hard as I could. The police locked me up. The man turned out to be a Malayan doctor from the local infirmary. He didn’t press charges.
Thinking now, they did so much to us and we did so much to them. No one wins a war.
When it’s right, tell them of love and death, and of war and peace. Tell them why I wore a poppy every Remembrance Day, and why I have kept the words I have just told you within my heart for decades. It is a miracle that I lived through it, and it must be a miracle that you were born my only son when I lived so close to death every day.
I’ve not long to go before I go. I’d like my grandchildren to know about me when they are much older…
Tell them of me, so that they might know of me… and my story.
(Extracted from the book ‘Scougal’ by Paul Anthony)