Given the age I am it was inevitable that my progress through school and early years of work would be punctuated by contact with former national servicemen.
For the vast majority of them, spending two years in uniform had been an aberration – a black spot on young lives taken away from the cosy familiar and dumped into an alien world of martial nonsense that bore no resemblance to the real world. This apparently universal attitude was built on memories of pointless rules and endless army BS coupled with mind numbing boredom.
One supervisor I worked under had spent a freezing winter with a long since lost county regiment manning the uneasy iron curtain armed with little more than a revolver and a whistle. Another bloke endured months of tedium stacking widgets and wotsits in a huge warehouse doing little of any apparent use in the gigantic struggle against the Soviet menace. One guy’s happiest memory was ‘accidentally’ burying a SOB of a corporal’s Sten gun at the end of a trench digging exercise.
There was an exception and this was a chap I knew who has been gone some years now. For him national service spent counting and re-counting huge stocks of engine spares was a welcome escape from the grey drudgery of the post war East End. The army served edible food and there was usually hot water and indoor plumbing. He had more money than any time previously in his life and, straight out of Leslie Thomas, he lost his virginity to a smooth operator who knew the ropes. He could and would tell us all about her with relish. It was in the army that he learned the beginnings of a trade that would sustain him through three decades of work back in the real world.
This was a time when the British Army was around 400,000 strong with plentiful commitments. I was on Salisbury Plain a few days ago watching an armoured brigade on the move wondering how much of it would be cut if the supposedly bottom line two per cent of GDP on defence really is abandoned by whoever is in power after the election this May. For all this the commitments don’t appear to be easing off. It struck me how these concerns filled pages of this wonderful book from Jim Jacobs, a man for whom national service had been a defining moment in his young life.
Mr. Jacobs takes us back to the Korean War when, along with a fair number of very temporary soldiers, he was shipped out to help repulse swarms of invaders from north of the 38th Parallel. His rich and immensely detailed story leads us to major events; three battles where the British army lived up to proud traditions of times gone by. We learn about the pioneering role of a Royal Artillery heavy mortar battery fighting for its life against repeated human wave attacks by Chinese troops. The author has what seems like a photographic memory for faces, events and locations and his ability to explain things with a much wider perspective than that of a youthful gunner is admirable.
The author has really done his homework and that eye for detail so often attached to soldiers, even reluctant national servicemen; has stood him in good stead. Our hero has spent the intervening years as a committed veteran making friends across the spectrum of ex-servicemen with a Korean connection and he has developed a deep affection for Korea and it’s people. There is something intensely dignified about this book and some of this rubs off on the reader inasmuch as you go away with a deeper understanding of the war in Korea while gaining stronger feelings for the men who fought a largely forgotten war.
In my youth it was a conflict to be accessed by MASH on the telly (much less the original film) and the first really decent book I read on the subject was the gem by Max Hastings, which must be all of twenty five years ago now. Somewhere in my “library” I have an early edition of the excellent account Anthony Farrar-Hockley wrote of his Korean War and there have been one or two fairly cheesy films; I suppose the William Holden potboiler Bridges of Toko-Ri is the movie that springs easily to mind even though it was based on a James Michener novel rather than actual events. In the UK the true legends of the war were the Glorious Glosters at Imjin and the young Bill Speakman, VC. That’s about it.
So, this really nice book has done us a service. The author’s principled and quite entertaining writing has enlivened a lost conflict and I wish a great many books could be of this standard. I would say if you wanted the Korean War in a nutshell then this is the book for you. There will be others and I may well find them, but I am very happy that I eventually pulled this gem out of my ‘to do’ pile.If you are looking to educate yourself in unknown territory then this is an ideal place to start.
In Britain the government of the day tried to hide the war behind the ludicrous tag of a ‘police action’. This book will show just how hollow that notion was. Britain was still tired and reeling after six years of world war and events in Korea were about as welcome as a tweet from Jihaddy John is today. But the war was real. Jim Jacobs will take you back to it and all will become clear. In an age when belligerence from Pyongyang can make timorous hearts a flutter, we do well to look back to when standing up to all that stuff was simply the only option. The doing of it fell on the shoulders of lads like our Jim and he did himself and his country proud. It is something to celebrate and commemorate and you can do that in part with the help of this superb book.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
FROM THE IMJIN TO THE HOOK
A National Service Gunner in the Korean War
By Jim Jacobs
Pen & Sword, 2013