Veterans of the Battle of Kohima, at which the Japanese invasion of India in 1944 was halted and turned back, were guests of The Duke of York at Buckingham Palace on 1st November, 2012.
All in their nineties, accompanied by consorts or carers, the veterans, bemedalled and wearing their regimental headgear, had individual conversations with HRH in the Palace’s South Drawing Room.
The Duke’s invitation had been inspired by his visit to Kohima in May 2012, during his tour of India as part of Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. HRH’s programme included laying a wreath in the Kohima War Cemetery in memory of the thousands who fell in the epic sixty-four day battle, overshadowed at the time by events in Europe.
Moved by the experience, which included a heartfelt welcome by the people and Government of Nagaland, replete with speeches, tribal dances, gifts, music and meetings with locals who had fought alongside the British, The Duke on his return to the UK expressed a desire to meet some of those who had found themselves in Kohima in very different circumstances sixteen years before he was born.
Thirty-one veterans of the battle were located. Only nineteen were able to accept, and seventeen came. A few of them had been to Buckingham Palace before. None of them had expected such a generous recognition of their service in what had come to be known as the Forgotten Army. Volunteers or conscripts from all over the UK – miners, mill workers, farmers, students – they had joined the army to defend their country against the Nazi threat. The Division had been at Dunkirk and was re-formed before embarking for Egypt to play a part in the North African Campaign, but the convoy was diverted to India following the Japanese conquest of South East Asia in 1942. The 2nd Division was rushed into action in North East India in March 1944.
The Palace reception inevitably aroused memories. Thanking HRH for his kindness and hospitality, Major Gordon Graham, speaking on behalf of his comrades, remarked that memories only have meaning when they are translated into action, and related how the veterans, following their last march-past at York Minster on the 60th anniversary of the battle in 2004 had turned their thoughts to the Nagas who had been their allies, and decided to form a charitable trust to assist the education of Naga children.
Major Graham referred to the epitaph on the memorial in Kohima: When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.
The veterans present had now had their tomorrows and were proud, Major Graham said, to hand over the mission inspired by their memories to the next generation, of which he cited The Duke as a shining example.
In reply, HRH endorsed the idea of education as a living memorial to war. Later The Duke accepted the invitation of the Kohima Educational Trust to be its Patron. HRH will attend the annual Kohima Memorial Service in York Minster on May 22nd, 2013.
The poignancy of the veterans’ reception at the Palace was sadly illustrated shortly afterwards by the death of one of the veterans – Andrew Watson of the Lancashire Fusiliers. His wife wrote that he always remembered that when he was wounded he was carried to safety by Naga stretcher bearers. His family and friends contributed funds for a scholarship in his name for a Naga school child, descendant of the generation of Nagas which saved his life – a life to which the invitation by The Duke had been a serendipitous coda.