Lance-corporal Gilles Martin, Royal 22e Régiment, 1951-1954.Gilles Martin
Mr. Gilles Martin, August 2011.
"For quite a long time, I wondered if it was really worth it. [...] Well, after reflecting [...] I understood that if we hadn’t gone, history would definitely not have been the same."
First of all, you have to learn, you have to learn. The people who were already there were dealing with guard duty in advanced positions, in the trenches where positions were set up for the machine guns as well. In those days, we had Brens and Stens (British light machineguns and sub-machineguns). The Brens were in shelters under bags of sand and logs provided by the American army. You had to see how it was set up.
When I arrived, I was a lance-corporal. I don’t know why, but that’s what I was. Not long after, I was promoted to corporal. But to go back to my arrival, there was also an adaptation period. Of course, the people who were already there gave us information. They told us what to do very tactfully, I would say. When we arrived, they didn’t try to scare us. I was impressed. I always found that the guys were decent because they never told us any horror stories. Of course, they told us to be very careful. They showed us where we had to be for guard duty, because we would change shifts regularly to carry out our guard duty.
When I got there, it wasn’t really hard. We just had to remain in our positions. We would defend ourselves if we were attacked. We were not supposed to attack, that was for sure. That was already established before we got there; because we were almost at the end of the Korean War (Mr. Martin served with the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the Royal 22e Régiment). The trenches were already made. We didn’t need to shovel and I didn’t do any shoveling. We lived in the trenches; we spent time in the mud, in the snow, in the cold and in the heat. But it wasn’t very comfortable either coming out of the trenches, since we were burrowed into the ground like groundhogs. They were holes in the ground with… Because Korea was mostly all hills, they weren’t high like mountains but it was very “hilly”; there were hills everywhere. And when we went down into the trenches, it wasn’t far. We went fifty or sixty feet down, and we had what we called “dugouts,” which were holes in the hill with bags of sand on top, logs, bags of sand, and then beds, what you would call beds.
In the winter, we had to keep ourselves warm. I was lucky to have salvaged a box of munitions and two shell cartridges. We made a furnace with that, with a pipe that went all the way outside. We dripped oil into the “furnace” and it kept us warm. It was learning the hard way. Again, we were young and we were able to take what we thought could take. That wasn’t true for everybody.
They were pretty difficult times. They were times when we had time to reflect, we had time to think about our situation, time when there wasn’t really any action, when we weren’t in the trenches. It wasn’t always easy to realize that we weren’t at home. We were really far away! We were very far, and we had left behind those who we loved. It was a period where we did a lot, at least for me, when I reflected a lot, I did a lot of introspection. For quite a long time, I wondered if it was really worth it.
I kept wondering the same thing up until recently when we returned to Korea. Once there, I realized and I saw that what we did, and what the United Nations did, was something that changed the course of history. Because when we started talking about those trips to Korea, I read several documents. I read, and I became informed. That’s when I discovered, of course, that what Korea has become today would not have been the case if the United Nations hadn’t gone there. I think that the United Nations was us. It was people like me, like all my friends I had there. It’s us who did that.
In life, people don’t talk about the Korean War much. It’s been called the “forgotten war” for several years and that’s the way we still refer to it. But I think that we, the veterans, should take a bit of the blame. If I think of my father or my brother, I never heard them speaking about the war at home. My father never to spoke to us about his experience in 1914-1918 or in 1939-1945, except for the small part when he was an instructor for the reserve (the reserve army). We saw him every two weeks and we sort of knew what he did during the week, but it wasn’t anything dangerous. When my brother came back, he never spoke about his experience. He spoke about Holland a little bit afterwards (during the north western European campaign in 1944-1945), but before, he hardly spoke about it at all. And when we came back, I thought to myself that people might think we were crazy if we spoke about Korea.
What did we go there to do? It was ten thousand miles away in a country that hardly anyone had heard of. What did we go there to do? Well, after reflecting, seeing and reading about it and with our last trip to Korea in April, that’s when I understood that if we hadn’t gone, history would definitely not have been the same.
You can say or think that war is useless. But during our last trip to Korea, we received a medal that is engraved on the back with a short sentence which has always led to me believe that we did the right thing. They say that peace is never free and I think that’s true. If we don’t stand up to an attacker, then there’s a big chance that he’ll win if we do nothing. By going to Korea, the United Nations drastically altered the course of history.