I well remember how nervous we were, my fellow researcher Peter and I, as we set up the recording equipment in Albert’s living room. It wouldn’t do at all, we both knew without saying anything, if we somehow
got it wrong and failed to capture the old man’s story on tape through an equipment malfunction down to our ineptitude.
We had attended a detailed training
session on Use of Recording Equipment at the local library and had decided on an extra practice session at my house, just to be on the safe side, after Peter had collected the large bag containing everything we needed from the project manager. All this - and
still we fretted that something would go wrong.
I was thinking of that today when Mr B and I settled down in front of the TV to watch coverage of the commemoration
marking the 75th anniversary of VJ Day from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. As always, when events are broadcast from the Arboretum, we congratulate ourselves that we were able to visit this amazing place before Mr B’s health deteriorated
too far. Once again, too, we commented on how national events like this, inevitably scaled down by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, have somehow acquired an added poignancy, a extra layer of personal detail missing from the trademark parades of past
Listening to the stories of the men and women who survived the war in Burma, I thought back to the day Peter and I interviewed Albert Markwick, in the living
room of his West Sussex home, the only witnesses to our conversation being his loyal, ever-present daughter - and our recording machine . He was just eighteen when he walked with his father to the railway station, on the first leg of what was to be a long
journey by train, boat and to the steaming jungle that was Burma. At the time it never occurred to him how his father, who had served in the First World War not so very many years before, must have felt. “He knew what I was going into,” mused Albert,
“I didn’t.” They had a farewell pint of beer at the station before his train steamed out of the station. Many of the men who related their own stories on TV this morning were the same age as Albert when they signed up - it’s hard to
imagine, these days, just how young they were. “When I think about it, it’s the years, 18, when a young fellow has fun...but, alright, you missed all that..” commented Albert, pragmatically.
Listening enthralled to Albert’s description of his involvement in one particular battle, I had no idea that I was hearing a first hand account of what Louis Mountbatten later described as “probably one of
the greatest battles in history; naked, unparalleled heroism.” I only found that out later at home when my background research told me Albert had been involved in the famous “Battle of the Tennis Courts”, which proved to be the turning point
in the Battle of Kohima. And Albert was there, trading hand grenades with the Japanese.
Albert died in 2017, just four months before the book
in which his story features was published. I wish he had been there on the day of the launch, to see some of his most memorable quotes written large on display boards and to know his previously untold story will live on.
Had he lived, I feel sure he would have been at the Arboretum today, making the interviewer - and the TV audience - laugh with his tale of towing 25 pound guns up a mountain, negotiating the hair-pin
bends of the infamous Tiddim Road. When he reached the top, he was treated to a mug of rum which left him feeling warm and decidedly tipsy - only to be ordered to drive down the mountain again, in the dark, to fetch more ammunition. “Oh, my God, it was
pitch black, I was drunk. Anyway I got to the bottom, came back and when I got back I thought, my God, how did I get round here in the dark, it was only because I was drunk!”
Albert would have agreed with all that was said today about the soldiers of the Burma campaign: “We were the forgotten army ...Well, I mean the war with Germany, they had their party, didn’t they, but there was nothing for us, not even a
welcome home, no nothing...”
I only wish he could have seen and taken part in today’s commemoration and known that he and his comrades at arms are
the Forgotten Army no longer.
Note: if any reader would like to hear Albert’s voice, recounting
parts of his amazing story, go to the West Sussex County Council website (www.westsussex.gov.uk) and search for military voices past and present.