BUSAN, South Korea – Over the past ten years, when time has been kind enough to permit, I’ve made a point of going to the U.N Cemetery on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It is at this monumental mark in time that hostilities ceased for what was later to be referred to as the war to end all wars –the brutal conflict which history recalls as World War I.
For natives of Great Britain, Canada, other commonwealth nations and notable participants such as France, this day has come to be known as Remembrance Day, when we remember those that sacrificed their lives during a time that was witness to unthinkable destruction. A war that saw nearly 40 million souls lost in its wake.
The occasion of Remembrance Day now is not only for the first Great War, but for all conflicts since then and the day has become synonymous with the Red Poppy of Remembrance, inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields.
Upon my first visit to the U.N cemetery in Busan I had expected there to be some sort of service or ceremony, but to my surprise there was no one there. In hindsight, this wasn’t completely surprising; November 11th isn’t commemorated in all countries like it is in the U.K and Canada. Although America memorializes its fallen on its November 11th Veteran’s Day, their primary day of remembrance is Memorial Day, annually marked on the first Monday of May. For Koreans, Memorial Day is in June and for the Australians and Kiwis there is ANZAC Day on April 25th.
So, as a native of England, each year I would find myself alone in the cemetery solemnly approaching the grave of some soldier –any soldier– to pay my own private, silent tribute to he and those that had given their lives. Not only those in the two great wars that my grandfathers and their fathers before them served in, but those also who gave their lives in the Korean War. A war that sixty years ago decimated this country that I’ve come to call home.
And so it was, my annual pilgrimage to pay respects to my countrymen in a place not far from home.
A Gathering of One Grew
And then, about five years ago, I noticed a small gathering of foreigners and Koreans holding some sort of service near the newly built Wall of Remembrance. Apparently, a group of Canadian veterans felt it only right that this day should be remembered and began doing just that.
The following year the group was much larger and with the noticeable presence of some Korean veterans. Every year it grew until the organization of the event came under the wing of The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and the local Busan and Nam Gu governments.
Last year this the ceremony became quite a big affair, where government ministers rub shoulders with veterans from Korea, Britain, Australia, The U.S, New Zealand, Canada and Turkey along with representatives of other nations. A military band plays somber music in the background, tributes are read and speeches given.
I sometimes wish for the days of my own private act of remembrance, alone in the cemetery. The âTwo Minutes of Silence’ observed by the larger gathering these days isn’t silent at all, since the band plays during the 120 seconds of reflection. The 11th hour isn’t observed either. Maybe it’s significance isn’t realized here. But at least there is remembrance. For that I am thankful.
As I walked away from this year’s ceremony, I made a point, as I always do, to stroll around some of the gravestones; to read the names of the men who died. This year, one gravestone stood out from the others. It was surrounded by Irish flags and baskets of flowers with two rosettes perched on top reading, Proud to be Irish!
The grave belonged to a Private Keating, a gunner in the Royal Artillery. He had died here during the Korean conflict in June, 1953, at the age of 24.
While standing before the final resting place of Private Keating, a gray-haired gentleman came up to me and said, That’s mine. That’s my father. I don’t think he or any of them knew what they were coming to. So young, so young.
Lest we forget.
You can read more from Matt at his blog, An Englishman in Busan.
Photos by Matthew Sidgreaves.