A living history lesson
Sam Phipps meets the Forgotten Highlander who ensures children remember the past
‘BOYS and girls, for three and a half years I never had a wash,” Alistair Urquhart tells a packed audience of P6 and P7 children who are 80 years his junior. “Maybe the boys think that’s great. I don’t think the girls do.” Laughter breaks out in the school hall but this is a rare moment of levity in a tale of horrific torment and remarkable survival. For 65 years Mr Urquhart kept quiet about his experiences in Japanese captivity during the Second World War, even to his own family, but the reticence is over.
His aim is nowadays is twofold: to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of fellow prisoners and slave labourers who did not share his extraordinary luck, and to offer a lesson in perseverance to younger generations, including children such as these at Viewlands Primary in Perth.
First came his book, The Forgotten Highlander, a gripping and harrowing account not only of his time on the Death Railway, building the notorious Bridge over the River Kwai amid torture, starvation, brutality and disease, but also of government indifference on the men’s return to Britain in 1945.
Mr Urquhart, just 20 when he was sent to Singapore with the Gordon Highlanders in 1940, also survived the torpedoing of a so-called hellship, and floated alone on a raft for days before being recaptured. From his last prison camp, 10 miles from Nagasaki, he saw a US plane fly overhead, and a few minutes afterwards he felt a gale-force blast of hot air. “I didn’t know at the time it was an atomic bomb,” he tells the pupils.
Since the success of his memoir, published last year, Mr Urquhart has given dozens of talks throughout the UK, including in libraries and schools. There is something of the old music hall about his entrance at Viewlands, a wave and a grin, then he walks with a stick to take his seat facing the audience.
Pupils, teachers and parents are rapt as he talks – steadily, coherently, without self-pity but sometimes with an edge of anger – about those distant days. He goes from his call-up in Aberdeen in September 1939 to the shambolic fall of Singapore, where a decadent British officer class contributed to defeat, and then describes the numerous sufferings inflicted by the Japanese.
“I was part of a draft of 600 men who were told we were going to a holiday camp. We were taken to Singapore railway station and put into steel-sided trucks. They were so hot you could not put your hands on the side.
“We were herded tightly together, the doors were closed and we had a five-day journey, with a few stops for half a cup of rice and half a cup of boiled water. Men were suffering from malaria, dysentery, all sorts of diseases.”
A 30-mile march at night through dense jungle followed. Those that fell by the wayside were left to die. “It turned out we were going to build a railway between Thailand and Burma. Often the temperature was 120 in the shade and we had to work like slaves.”
Some 90,000 Asian labourers and d 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died on the e Death Railway. Mr Urquhart worked on the infamous Hellfire Pass, with the most basic tools.
Among the many ailments were e tropical ulcers. Some in the school audience, ce, adults and children alike, wince as s Mr Urquhart describes the treatment. “Captain Mathieson, the medical officer, said: ‘Just go down to the latrines and pick up some maggots, put them on your ulcer and let them eat away the rotten flesh’.
“Even to this day I can still feel them nibbling away but at least you knew that while they were busy, they were doing good for you. But for other diseases you just had to hang on, carry on as you could.”
Mr Urquhart, previously a sociable young man, decided early on not to make friends with anybody. “If you lose a friend in those conditions, it is the most harrowing sight you can ever imagine and I wasn’t prepared to go through that again.
“Every morning I had to psyche myself up to get through that day only, not the next day. The Japanese were brutal in their punishments – if you died there were plenty more to take your place. It is believed one man died for every sleeper laid on that railway. I reckon it’s far more than that.”
He was once forced to spend seven or eight days in the “black hole”, a caged area too small to stand, sit upright or kneel, and without food or water. Absurd though it sounds, he was lucky. “Normally they’d be in there for a month and never get out alive.”
When he was put into the hold of a rusting “hellship”, the Kachidoki Maru, with hundreds of other men, he feared the Japanese were going to scuttle the vessel. Instead, after six days of a voyage whose full horror he conveys brilliantly in The Forgotten Highlander, it was torpedoed by the Americans, who were unaware of its human cargo.
“I decided again I would not go on a raft with any of the other men because I felt the only way I was going to survive was on my own. You had to keep yourself awake, otherwise you’d slide off and the sharks would have a heyday.”
So out there in the South China Sea he did a stocktaking of the plumber’s merchants where he had worked in Aberdeen. That took all day. Several days and mental challenges later, he was picked up by a Japanese whaler. Then, via 11 days on another hellship, it was off to a coalmine and further slavery.
After Nagasaki and liberation by the US, Urquhart was handed a cake of soap, “the best present I’d had in three and a half years. Then we were deloused and deeverything.” He weighed 5st 12lb, down from 9st 7lb at the start of the war.
Finally arriving at Southampton from New York in late 1945, the men were shocked by the lack of any reception. “There was no-one to welcome us whatsoever.”
It even took the intervention of Prince Charles, who read the book and met Mr Urquhart at Balmoral this year, to secure him a medical pension of £92.82 a week, backdated to last October.
THE boys and girls ask a flurry of questions. “When the bomb fell and you felt the heat, did you feel the ground move as well?” No, but it almost knocked him off his feet. “At what point do you think you were at your worst?” The sinking of the ship was when he thought he was most likely to die. “But you never give up.”
One boy asks: “What “Wh was the best part of World War Two?” It might seem an odd question but Mr Urquhart gives an informative informativ answer. “Well, obviously getting home. But the best part was getting back my sanity really. I mean, during durin that three and a half years I was virtually on autopilot, autop in other words I had the mindset of survive, survive.” Mr Urquhart Ur went on to marry, have two children child and became managing director of a plumbing supplies business. A widower wid since he was 75, he still pursues pur his lifelong passion of bal ballroom dancing and is an active member me of the Far East Prisoner of War W Association (FEPOW).
“I find that children, are the best audience,” a he says. “Because they listen l so well and they ask good questions.” q
Evelyn Brockbank, the headteacher, h says the talk has been “phenomenal” and will stimulate interest in history. “What he said is real history – it happened h to this man, to thousands t of men. It’s not just something s you see in a film or read in i a book. It’s been poignant, it’s been b humbling.” The Forgotten Highlander is published by Abacus, £7.99
FACT, NOT FICTION: Alistair Urquhart (below) lived the horrors portrayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.