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Friday, 20 April, 2001, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Britain's forgotten war

Almost 100,000 British troops fought in Korea 50 years ago in conflict as bloody as any seen before or since. Yet many veterans still consider it the war our country has forgotten.

Fifty years ago 600 soldiers of the British Army took on a force of 30,000 Chinese troops crossing the Imjin River in Korea.

Reporting to his American superior, Brigadier Tom Brodie of the Gloucestershire Regiment admitted the situation was "a bit sticky".

Such classic British understatement failed to secure the "Glorious Glosters" reinforcements or permission to fall back.

At the end of the battle 10,000 Chinese troops had fallen. British losses stood at just 59, but only 39 of the survivors evaded capture.

Two Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest military honour, were awarded for the action. But despite such heroism, Britain's role in the conflict has largely been forgotten by the public.

What caused the war?

When the Japanese forces occupying Korea were defeated in 1945, the country was "temporarily" split at the 38th Parallel - with US troops liberating the south and the Russians moving into the north.

Cold War wranglings postponed the re-unification of the country. On 25 June 1950, soldiers of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea launched an attack on their neighbours to the south.

The United Nations Security Council (led by the US and in Russia's absence) passed a resolution to begin a "police action" to help the south.

Why did Britain join the conflict?

In 1950, the UK was still licking the wounds of World War II. The British Empire was in sharp decline and Clement Attlee's government (with a Commons majority of just five) was facing its own military woes in Malaya.

When Korea was first divided in 1945, the Labour cabinet suspected it might one day be forced to dispatch combat troops there, something it viewed as a "most undesirable commitment".

However, the UK was a full member of the Security Council, somewhat indebted to the US and still adjusting to its reduced global importance.

Reminded by a colleague that Korea was not a priority interest for Britain, Clement Attlee mused: "Distant, yes, but nonetheless an obligation."

How many British troops fought?

More than 90,000 Britons served in Korea, among them Fusilier Maurice Micklewhite (better known as Sir Michael Caine) and Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley (who was promoted to general and later commanded Nato).

A Korea veteran helps the brother of a British victim at a ceremony to mark the annivesary

Due to cutbacks and difficulties recruiting regular troops, a large number of those sent to Korea were National Service conscripts.

Which other countries were represented?

The United States provided the bulk of the United Nations force. However, countries as diverse as France, Cuba, South Africa, Ethiopia, Belgium Thailand, Australia, Turkey, Canada and Bolivia also contributed men and materials.

Forces from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea were bolstered by "volunteers" from China.

How was the campaign fought?

At times the war bore all the hallmarks of the Nazi blitzkrieg, with both sides staging massive, fast-moving offensives which swept aside the opposition. At other times, the fighting was reminiscent of the battles of attrition seen in World War I.

By 1952, the sides had fought each other to a standstill and were prepared to re-establish the 38th Parallel as the border between the Koreas.

Was this the war's end?

The nature of the war resulted in many thousands of troops from both sides being taken prisoner. The Geneva Convention rules on repatriation had not envisaged a conflict like Korea, causing PoWs to become a major sticking point in securing peace.

One in three Chinese prisoners claimed not to be keen to return home, forcing the UN to consider whether to agree to China's calls for forced repatriation. It took until 27 July 1953 to agree a compromise and for the armistice to be signed.

What about British prisoners of war?

More than 1,000 British servicemen fell into enemy hands. Many were subjected to brutal treatment and "political re-education". Some 82 prisoners never returned home and are presumed dead.

Royal Marine Andrew Condron chose to settle in China, only returning to the UK in 1960.

What was the human cost of the war?

The losses experienced by Britain (1,078) and the United States (37,000) are dwarfed by China's and North Korea's military fatalities, which number perhaps 1.5 million. Civilian and military losses in South Korea also exceeded one million.

The Koreas remain divided to this day, with not only a country, but countless families kept apart by the fortifications of the 38th Parallel.

The Korean War revealed the limits of the "special relationship" between the UK and the US.

The Attlee and Churchill governments found it almost impossible to influence America's execution of the war.

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20 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
War dead remembered in Korea
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