Thursday, 25 July 2013


It's a Vancouver Island tradition... A little sun, a little beer, and a day floating down the Cowichan River, at least that’s what the tubing company advertisements will tell you. They will also tell you the best way to keep the beer cool is to get a separate tube just for the beverages. What they won’t tell you is what that funny looking cenotaph down near the Stoltz pool end of the river is all about. You have to go out of your way to find it, in a little clearing up from the beach and away from the campers.

Ironic really considering the inscription, “when you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today”. The words are sometimes known as the Kohima poem and commemorate the British Fourteenth Army and their wartime exploits in what was then called Burma.

In 1945, the Governor-General set aside District Lot 11, Cowichan Lake Land District, as a "Public Park" and named it Arakan Park. That was then, now the area is more prosaically referred to as Cowichan River Provincial Park. In 1945 there were still some who remembered the Fourteenth Army and Major Charles F. Hoey.

Major Charles Ferguson Hoey, was born in Canada on March the 29th, 1914, in Duncan, British Columbia and died on February 17, 1944 in the Arakan district of Burma. He is remembered today by his unit, the Lincolnshire Regiment, and a few fading memorials. A park in Duncan is named for him. The particulars of his death were given in the style that was common at that time.

“In Burma, on the 16th February 1944, Major Hoey's company formed a part of a force which was ordered to capture a position at all costs. After a night march through enemy held territory the force was met at the foot of the position by heavy machine-gun fire. Major Hoey personally led his company under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire right up to the objective. Although wounded at least twice in the leg and head, he seized a Bren gun from one of his men and firing from the hip, led his company on to the objective. In spite of his wounds the company had difficulty keeping up with him, and Major Hoey reached the enemy strong post first, where he killed all the occupants before being mortally wounded. Major Hoey's outstanding gallantry and leadership, his total disregard of personal safety and his grim determination to reach the objective resulted in the capture of this vital position”

By all accounts Charles Hoey was a professional soldier who traveled to England to join the army long before World War II. He served honourably with the 14th Army in a desperate, forgotten war in a lost corner of the world that almost literally no longer exists.

The 14th Army was a polyglot force, a truly imperial army, with perhaps 100 languages among them and any number of faiths, customs and eating habits. They consisted of British, Australians, Canadians, South Africans, Burmese, Chinese, Africans and the largest contingent, the Indian Army.

As William Fowler describes in his book “We Gave Our Today: Burma 1941-1945” the fighting in Burma was at least as terrible as fighting in the trenches in World War I. About the size of France and Belgium combined, the country had two monsoon seasons and was hot and humid from May to November.

Lieutenant John Hudson, who commanded a company of the Royal Bombay Sappers & Miners, wrote that 'getting soaked went with jungle life. We were often so wet, night and day, that our whole bodies became white and wrinkled like an old washerwoman's hands'. Shirts rotted off soldiers' backs, and the bodies of the dead deteriorated in the heat: they became shiny, translucent black and bloated like a Michelin Man.

Lt Sam Horner, of 2 Royal Norfolks, recalled that 'the heat, humidity, altitude and the slope of almost every foot of ground combined to knock the hell out of the stoutest constitution. 'You gasp for air, which doesn't come, you drag your legs upwards till they seem reduced to the strength of matchsticks, and all the time sweat is pouring off you.'

It is not clear why anyone would fight and die in such a remote hell in return for a forgotten memorial in a forgotten park. It seems unlikely that it was to ensure a future for drunken teenagers, free to tube down the river on a sunny day.

So why do they do it? If nobody will care afterwards, if the gains their sacrifices paid for are going to be thrown away by faceless power brokers, if the promises of care that were made are broken, if it happens every time, why do they do it?

Young men, and women, will always want to test themselves; they will always seek adventure with careless confidence in their own invulnerability. Some will join for patriotism, or belief, or a desire to bring meaning to their lives. There are probably almost as many reasons for joining the armed forces as there are people who join. But it would seem to be a mistake to do it with the belief that a grateful nation will “never forget”.

A quick Google of the headlines reflecting stories about current veterans is revealing.

“Veteran Affairs eliminates nearly 300 jobs in deficit-reduction fight”
“The quiet cuts”

“More things that there isn’t money for anymore”

“Vets kept in the dark over medical records and claim applications “

“On-site audit of veterans facility sparked by neglect complaints complete”

“Veterans board given mild rebuke by Commons committee”
“Veterans shelve medals in protest on Remembrance Day”

“Feds spent over $750,000 in five-year court battle against vets’ pension claim”

“Veterans Affairs bureaucrats penalized for violating critic's privacy”

After the wars are over and the bands have stopped playing, nobody ever remembers the warriors. Canada’s Afghan veterans have been surprised to learn the same thing. They shouldn’t have been. We say we won’t forget, we swear that their sacrifices will not be in vain. We lie. Given a choice, we’d rather float down the river then think about brave men dying far away and long ago.

Major Hoey is buried in Taukkyan Cemetery, Rangoon, Burma. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Sobraon Barracks in Lincoln, England.