Malaysia – In the footsteps of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

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I never knew my Great Uncle Ron. He was killed in Malaya (as it then was) in 1941, serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But the very mention of his name, by any of my generation or younger of the family to any of the older members of the family would automatically elicit the same response, verbatim: “You would have loved Ron.” He had become a sort of family saint. Ronald Joseph Baxter had suffered from TB in his teenage years and was consequently considered infirm, so was delighted to be accepted for active service at the age of twenty five in order to prove to himself, as well as to other people, that he was fighting fit. He was to die before his 26th birthday. Soon after training he was sent to Singapore. Ron was a staunch Christian and a member of the Oxford Group, or Moral Re-Armament, a band of intellectuals which included in its numbers some quite influential people and called for a moral reappraisal in the pre-war years to avoid the impending conflict. They even had their working members exempted from active service, but when Ernest Bevin became Minister of Labour in 1940, he decided to conscript them. Over 2,500 clergy and ministers signed a petition opposing this, and 174 Members of Parliament put down a motion stating the same. Bevin made clear that he would resign from the Government if he was defeated, and the Government put a three-line whip upon its supporters. As a result, the Oxford Group workers were excluded from the Exemption from Military Service bill.

In his letters from Singapore Ron talks of meeting another member of the group, one Mrs Jessie (“Bobbie”) Geake, a teacher at a girls’ school. She had smiled when he offered to lend her his copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Come Wind, Come Weather”: stories of ordinary Britons who had found hope and new life through MRA, which my Grandad had sent him, saying “I helped her put it together.” In this book she says, “What they are doing up and down the country in helping men and women solve their problems, and prepare them for whatever lies ahead, will prove to be of national importance in the days to come.” The book sold 650,000 copies in Britain alone. Du Maurier, as you will have gathered, was another member of Moral Re-Armament.

Skip forward to Christmas 2001. For the first time in a number of years, myself and my two brothers with families are at my parents’ house. Talk after dinner turns to family stories and Uncle Ron makes his appearance in the conversation.

“You would have loved Ron,” my father begins, “he was such a kind and gentle man.” He tells us that he still has the telegram informing the family of Ron’s death somewhere and goes up to the attic to look for it. Ron had been killed by a shell in Battalion HQ about twenty miles south of Ipoh, Malaysia. He was buried nearby and after the war was reinterred at Taiping War Cemetery about the same distance north of Ipoh. My father returns, having found the telegram. The date the fatal shell fell was 29th December 1941. Sixty years to this very day, 29th December 2001, exactly sixty years to the day that he fell. I felt a bit shocked at this coincidence. My Dad had not looked at the telegram in a good while; it was in a box of family memorabilia he had not opened since my Grandfather passed away. It was strange that it had happened when all the family, for once, were gathered. It was as if Ron was nodding to us from beyond. Then and there I swore that one day I would go and put some flowers on his grave on behalf of the family. My Dad was touched.

“You would have loved Ron,” was his reaction.

It was another ten years until I had the opportunity to do what I had promised . My father, by this time, was growing visibly frailer each time I saw him, his body riddled with cancer – too frail to travel, but not too frail to instruct me to take lots of pictures. Some friends of ours were living in Jakarta and this was close enough to Taiping to combine a visit with my family pilgrimage. Having each a young child, it was decided that me and Steve would make the trip, which would be quite a hard travel, and his wife, Jennifer made the bookings, flights and hotel. She was good at that sort of thing. But I am not sure whether or not it was to ensure that we appreciated the fact that the girls had, quite literally, been left holding the babies while the boys went off, that influenced a five am flight departure. It meant getting up at two. Personally I like to think that my big-hearted Canadian friend Jennifer simply worked out the plane bus connections for a whole day’s travel. I had told Steve that I would go alone, and was pleased that he wouldn’t hear of it, for he is an excellent travel companion who also had local knowledge. He kept the trip upbeat when we were tired on arrival in Ipoh, proclaiming, “OK, so where are the whores?” And took many of the photos I passed on to my Dad, whilst maintaining an absolute respect of what this was all about.

Jakarta’s streets are quiet this morning. Amazing. It is such a mad mosh pit of frenzied traffic in the daytime. Tens of thousands of scooters, cars crawling along, inching through the streets and dodging pedestrians, cyclists, animals and carts. So 3.00 am is a pleasant time to be out and about. At the airport I fill out my departure card. Steve is stopped and told to fill one in, even though he has got residency, which he duly does in the name of “Mickey Mouse” hailing from the Planet Zog. The surly immigration officer smiles as she takes it, not even bothering to read it. The flight is delayed by four hours but finally we arrive in Kuala Lumpur via Singapore, in time to get a bus from the airport to Ipoh. It takes about four hours and is modern and comfortable. We follow the route that the Argylls took by train north to the state of Perak.

Getting off in Ipoh, at what we assume is the centre, after fourteen hours travelling we find ourselves beside a quiet dual carriageway. It turns out that we are some miles out of town so we wait for a taxi. And wait. After an hour or so one stops. Unfortunately the driver does not actually know Ipoh very well and spends an hour and a half looking for the hotel, phoning friends for assistance and creasing up his face in confusion when we show him our map. Many phone calls, numerous enquiries of other drivers and pedestrians and scores of circles later we get to the hotel. “No pets and no durians,” proclaims the sign at reception. Ipoh was a tin mining town, and this, along with rubber plantations, once provided great wealth for the place. Not now though. Its centre is resplendent in crumbling grandeur in pastel shades. The only building still clad in its pompous colonial elegance is the Royal Ipoh Club, the name is spelled out in white stones on the flowered bank overlooking a lush green expanse of playing fields where cricket, polo and rugby were once played.  It looks haughtily down in its mock Tudor grace on the ramshackle facades of formerly beautiful buildings and pavements that tilt at every angle, open drains and potholes that could swallow you up to the knee and teenagers playing games of football on the still green grass. The classically Victorian train station hotel is, like so many others, shut down with some of the shutters hanging precariously from one hinge. It is from here that Ron would have disembarked from a train on the Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth line. The functioning station still stands, but like so much of the town’s colonial architecture, is falling slowly into decay.

Ipoh is famous for its street food so finding somewhere to eat and enjoy a well earned beer after sixteen hours travelling, before setting off to Taiping the next day, seems appropriate. The only way to get there from Ipoh is by taxi. It is a drive through steaming, forest clad mountains. But at least today’s driver seems to know his onions. And where to buy fresh flowers. Most shops only sell plastic bouquets because the heat just wilts fresh ones here. Fortuitously the man knows a flower shop with a fridge and I can buy a fresh bunch to which I attach the card I had made. We stop off at the state museum in Taiping, the oldest in Malaysia, and then head out to the cemetery. It is set in the jungle between lush, rolling hills offering many more shades of green than I had ever imagined were feasible in this world.

A perfect lawn and lines of gravestones laid out in neat rows in the sun. A palm lined avenue leading to a memorial, while gardeners dressed in green cotton work shirts and trousers, with straw hats, silently tend the immaculate cemetery which is laid out on both sides of the road.

Ornate gates face each other across the tarmac. Three hundred and twenty nine known casualties from Indian, British and Commonwealth armies rest here along with five hundred unidentified troops. Most of these seem to be “An unknown soldier of the Indian army.” We spend some time wandering the rows and I soon find what I have come to see. I wonder what would have happened to Ron had he survived. The pictures I have seen of Highlanders who went through the Japanese camps make me think that he was actually one of the lucky ones. He did not suffer like the other ones, their legs like matchsticks and with sad, tired, determined eyes. I wonder what happened to Mrs Geake. I later found out that she had been evacuated to South Africa with her two sons and subsequently became the head of the school when she returned after the war. Her husband, I suspect, was not so lucky. The flowers are laid respectfully on the grave and I stand mulling over all of these thoughts. The mission has been done.

But the hard travel is not over. We had booked a return bus, however have forgotten that there is a one hour time difference and after a leisurely breakfast we discover that we have missed the bus and the only way to catch our flight is to get a long distance taxi. The trip had started at two am in the morning, continued with a long flight delay, a bus ride to a taxi that hadn’t the faintest idea of where we wanted to go so basically just drove around until he stumbled across it, a missed bus and ended with two very tired bodies by the time we get back to Jakarta.

My Dad, who passed away last year, could not thank me enough. Why do sons always crave the approval and respect of their fathers? But that’s what this trip did. A good few more you-would-have-loved-Ron’s later and several I-can’t-thank-you-enough’s and I can look back on the trip as one which I will never forget. For all of his family, for those who did, and those who would have loved Ron, the flowers were laid. On behalf of all of us. And through this travel, through reading the letters he sent to his brother, researching the history of his regiment’s campaign in Asia and finding out about the lives of those who were there with him, in following in his footsteps from Singapore to his last resting place in Taiping, even though I never met him, maybe, just maybe I did get to know him… just a little.

With grateful thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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5 thoughts on “Malaysia – In the footsteps of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders”

  1. 30th June by ocelus

    Thanks for sharing such a deeply moving and personal experience, your Great Uncle seems to be one of those people who achieves great things in their life without having to seek attention, I’m sure that we’d all have loved Ron.

    The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a fantastic job in ensuring that those who died during both world wars have a final resting place and that they and the missing are not lost forever.


    2nd July by bilbo_baggins

    A very moving and informative experience, thank you for sharing this, and Ron, with us.

    BB xx

    6th July by ocelus

    it must be a great comfort for the families to know that even though their loved ones are buried far away and they may never visit the grave someone is honouring and respecting the sacrifice they gave.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this, Pete. A personal history or a travel piece with a very personal touch, either way I found it interesting. I know little about the war in SE Asia. Most of it comes from British TV programs like The Jewel in the Crown or A Town like Alice or classic movies such The Bridge on the River Kwai (Made from a French novel to boot!) We Americans don’t have a grand imperial history, but we certainly had our fling with colonialism!

    Liked by 1 person

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