2013 marks a number of anniversaries; 80 years since the Columban Order arrived in Korea, 60 years since the Armistice that brought the Korean War to an end and 30 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Korea. We marked this with a Photo Exhibition at the Korea Foundation called History and Vitality, Stories of Ireland and Korea which tried to capture visually past and present relations. The history of our relations is primarily that of people, whether in the service of Empire, faith, nation, business or war. One project that became immensely rewarding and one of the highlights of my posting to Korea was the recovery and commemoration of the Irish contribution to the Korean War. The following short account sets out the role, largely unknown, played centrally by the Royal Ulster Rifles, a key unit of UN Command, with special thanks to writer and historian Andrew Salmon for his major contribution to this project.
Ambassador’s Message – The Fighting Irish of the Korean War
22 March 2013
Yesterday evening I attended Andrew Salmon’s lecture on the “The Fighting Irish of the Korean War” at the Korea Foundation. The term “lecture” does not do it justice. His delivery, engagement with the audience, his knowledge of the people and engagements, his use of audio-visual materials and personal engagement with the characters involved made it an immersive and compelling experience. The scheduled hour turned into two as Q and A turned into a collective discussion. It was really history as theatre and I, like the rest of the audience, left with a vivid account of experience of the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) and 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars in the Korean War.
The RUR were the spearhead battalion of the British 29th Brigade, Britain’s strategic reserve which was committed to the Korean campaign. Composed 50/50 of Catholics and Protestant, its soldiers were tough and experienced fighters, proud and quick with their fists. Many, both enlisted and officers, were veterans of WWII. The RUR lost most men in the ironically named Battle of Happy Valley in January 1951 when they were pulling back along a frozen river after resisting a Chinese “human wave” attack on their position north of Seoul. Inadvertently illuminated by flares from a passing UN aircraft, they were raked with gun fire from the hills and charged by the bayonet wielding Chinese. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, extremely rare in modern battle as Andrew noted. The ten tanks of the Irish Hussars were immobilised by stick bombs, their engines petering out as the morning broke when their fuel ran out. Seoul would fall for a second time.
The following April, the RUR found themselves in a central salient along the UN line which was dug in at the Imjin River, again just north of Seoul, with the main body of US forces to their right. The Chinese Army seemed to have melted away and routine patrols could not find them. In fact, Chinese genius with camouflage concealed the fact that some 300,000 troops were massed for an assault. The attack, launched on 22nd April, was designed to overwhelm the UN forces, surround and destroy the main US force, and take Seoul for a third and final time. Stretched supply lines and limited motorised transport meant the Chinese 63rd and 64th Armies had about six days to do this.
The Chinese attack when it came was a complete surprise to UN forces and the RUR found themselves in a vicious fight, along with the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment (the Glosters) and a Belgium battalion, all bearing the weight of the main Chinese thrust South. As the 29th pulled back in a fighting retreat on 25th April to a blocking position which they then held, the Glosters were isolated on a hill top and annihilated by wave after wave of Chinese troops (some 622 of 650 were lost, either dead, wounded or missing; 34 would die in captivity).
The stout resistance of the 29th Brigade, along with the Belgium troops, allowed the main US force to extricate itself and move south, avoiding the pincher movement that would have sealed victory for the Chinese and disaster for the UN forces. US General Ridgeway, as UN Commander, responded with all the enormous firepower at this disposal, including naval artillery, inflicting serious losses on the 63rd Chinese Army (perhaps 10,000 or one third of its fighting force) which, its supplies exhausted, was stopped five miles short of Seoul.
The UN had withstood the largest massed attacked by a communist army since the Soviet capture of Berlin in 1945. It was the last decisive action of the Korean War. Though the War would drag on in often heavy skirmishing along the 38th parallel until 1953, Seoul and the Republic of Korea were saved at the battle of Imjin River. If the Chinese had failed in their objective of seizing Seoul and dealing a crippling blow to US prestige, Andrew noted, they had nonetheless taken the field against the US, driven the UN forces from North Korea, preserved the DPRK and announced their arrival as a major world power.
British military causalities in the Korean War exceeded those later suffered in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That said, as Andrew pointed out, for every non-US soldier fallen, the US lost 30 soldiers in the Korean War (many Irish American, as the names in the UN Cemetery in Busan attest).
Andrew is an expert on the British Army’s role in the Korean War about which he has written two books; To the Last Round, The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951 and Scorched Earth, Black Snow, Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950. Though he has interviewed many Irish veterans and clearly loves the men, ethos and memory of the RUR and Irish Hussars, he eschews the notion that he is an expert on Irish involvement. Still, I am deeply grateful for all that he has done to shed some light on this little known dimension of Irish Korean relations. You can check out his website here http://tothelastround.wordpress.com/
Today, the RUR lives on as the Royal Irish Regiment.
(Please note that any inaccuracies in the above account are solely mine and not Andrew’s!)