The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras

The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), 1875. Click on thumbnail for larger picture.

To an Englishman born before 1940 this picture can carry a very strong emotional charge unknowable to either the painter or the Ruskin who praised it. The 28th became the Gloucestershire Regiment, and a hundred and thirty-six years after this battle scene was painted the regiment was ordered to hold Hill 235 above the Imjin River in Korea.

In 1951 the Chinese Army erupted across the border and into the Korean War. The UN Army — in reality the United States and a coalition of allies — was in retreat, streaming south to regroup. Like the Highland Division at Dunkirk, the Glosters were to hold a line to let the big brigades go by, sacrificing themselves if need be. The Chinese came in their tens of thousands directed by a blare of bugles. On the hill the guns grew so hot they seized up but the enemy never stopped, an untrained army sent to overwhelm by sheer weight of numbers.

One of the young lieutenants who commanded on that hill died in 2006. To counter the noise of the Chinese bugles, he ordered the Drum-Major to reply with regimental tunes and bugle calls. To me it says something amazing about the human spirit that a man knowing he is about to die can stand to attention in the dark of night and defy death by playing music. Only 39 young men on that hill survived and there was human flesh in the tracks of the tanks of the Hussars when they finally broke out in the wake of the US armour. All that, and all the emotional charge it carries, I now read back into Elizabeth Thompson's 1875 painting of the same young men, similarly beleaguered, from the Cotswolds and Severn-side.

T. S. Eliot tells us that good new literature can change all that's been written before. In other words, great poetry changes us, makes us grow a little, so we look back at earlier poets with different eyes. Perhaps art is changed in the same way by things the artist can never imagine. Ruskin, it's said, taught us how to see but did he have anything to say about the power of events to change us, so that a work of art is never finished or final but grows (or shrinks) in the minds of later generations?

Related Material

Ha Jin. War Trash: A Novel. New York: Vintage International, 2004.

This powerful novel tells the tale of one of those untrained, badly armed Chinese soldiers who were betrayed by their leaders into dying by the thousands in suicide attacks after having been repeatedly told by government propaganda that American, British, and other U. N. troops were decadent westerners who would run at the first sight of the People's Liberation Army; they didn't, as the narrator quickly learns. Taken prisoner after being badly wounded, he spends the rest of the war in a POW camp and the rest of his life in disgrace because he had been captured alive. The novel, which is told from the Chinese soldier's point of view, conveys their bravery, disillusionment, and yet resistance as prisoners — and makes very clear what those British soldiers Dick Sullivan mentions were fighting for. [The author, Ha Jin, who came to the United States in 1985, has won the PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Award, and many other prizes for earlier novels; he is now Professor of English at Boston University.]

Unfortunately only Americans, British, Australians, and a few others remember how U. N. forces saved South Korea: older South Koreans know the truth, but because Korean secondary-school history books do not even mention what happened, the young, some of whom actually believe their country defeated Japan by itself in WW II (!), deeply resent U. S. troops and believe Western powers have kept them apart from a reconciliation with North Korea. As Oscar Wilde put it, no good deed goes unpunished. [GPL]

Last modified 15 May 2006