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Historian's Corner


Kohima Epitaph
Bill Dean is a dear friend of many of us, and he happened to mention the Battle of Kohima and the Kohima Epitaph today. Very few people now remember Kohima, or even know of its significance. Some of you may even know the Kohima Epitaph, but not know the significance. I can tell you that those who were at Kohima certainly remember and know the hard fighting required to be able to wear the "Burma Star Medal."
Ellen Hannay never forgot.  -- HKG

 
Kohima Memorial

"When you go home, tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today

 
In March 1944, the Japanese Army launched the “U Go” offensive with the intent of finally capturing all of Burma and invading India. Two vital crossroads at Imphal and Kohima were vital to the Japanese plans. If the Japanese were able to capture these crucial crossroads,

LCpl Harman VC at Kohima with The Buffs

there would be nothing stopping them from advancing deep into India. India was now in great peril of invasion.
 

All that stood in the way of the advancing Japanese was an understrength British & Indian brigade – merely 1,500 men fit for duty. They alone faced nearly 15,000 attacking Japanese soldiers. Their orders were simple – Hold Kohima at all costs. There could be no retreat. The Kohima defenders had to hold and not yield as they bought time for reinforcements to come and join them. But for how long?

 

The Battle of Kohima became known as “The Stalingrad of the East.” The British and Commonwealth soldiers fought brutal and desperate battle from April until June 1944, but they never yielded. Garrison Hill became the center of the battle, while the Deputy Commissioner’s former residence became another site of fierce fighting. At the DC’s former residence, the British and Japanese soldiers dug in and fought each other across the tennis courts which became the scene of some of the worst fighting at Kohima (The Battle of the Tennis Court). Nearly 100,000 soldiers would eventually fight in and around Kohima. The British & Commonwealth soldiers suffered 4,064 casualties while the Japanese had 5,764 casualties.

 

British Army reinforcements eventually arrived and went on the offensive. The British Army would remain on the offensive for the rest of the war until the invading Japanese Army was forced back to the Sittang River and annihilated. With roles reversed, the British were now forced to fight for every yard of advance against the tough Japanese soldiers. In time, the path of this final brutal campaign became known as “The Road of Bones.”
 

Tennis Courts Cemetary - Kohima

Tennis Courts Cemetary - Kohima

And now to Ellen Hannay.
 

Lance Sergeant Robert B. Hannay, 30 years old, was a proud member of the 1st Battalion, Queens Own Cameron Highlanders. Married to Ellen, he joined the Army early in the war and they remained together through a variety of postings until he was finally posted to India in March 1944. Ellen stayed behind in Scotland, working in a munitions factory while waiting for her husband to return from the war.

 

LcSjt Hannay was one of the first defenders of Kohima to clash with the advancing Japanese. He was one of the first to die at Kohima, and the first of many Cameron Highlanders to die at those vital crossroads. LcSjt Hannay was killed in action at Kohima on 14 April 1945. Ellen soon received the news of her husband’s death and sought some way to once more be with him. She volunteered for the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), asking for immediate posting to the Far East. Although initially posted to Calcutta, she continually tried to find some way to get to Burma.

 

On 26 December 1945, Ellen Hannay finally made her way to Kohima and found her husband’s grave on the hard-fought Garrison Hill:

Ellen Hannay

Ellen Hannay

 

“This was for me a deeply moving experience, beyond tears,” she said.

“So many of the names on the bronze plaques by the graves were known

 to me as I had travelled with my husband after he joined the army until

 he was posted to India.”

 
 
Ellen Hannay never remarried. Over the many years, she was able to visit her beloved husband’s grave a total of 8 times. When she passed away in 2010, her nephew, Jim Gibson, learned of his aunt’s final wishes to somehow be buried with her husband at Kohima. Gibson set out to somehow honor his late aunt’s wishes and to somehow honor his late uncle’s sacrifice.
 
Through amazing perseverance, Jim Gibson was able to obtain permission from the British and Indian Governments, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to lay Ellen’s ashes to rest on the grave of LcSjt Hannay at the Kohima Cemetery. In October 2010 Gibson and members of the British Legion laid his aunt’s ashes to rest on the grave that had held her husband’s body since 1944.
 

Ellen Hannay’s final wishes to again be with her husband had come true. A devoted wife’s “Last Post.”
 

 
 
A Valentine’s Day memory better than any box of chocolates or bouquet of flowers.

 

Lest we forget,

Henry