A humble squaddie’s war story
21 November, 2019 — By John Gulliver
Arthur Lawson MBE at the Far East Prisoners of War memorial on Remembrance Day
HE talked about battles in the Burmese jungle nearly 80 years ago as if they were yesterday.
Facts, figures, exact moments of peril while serving in the 48th Brigade of the REMEs (Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), it all comes back in a flash to Arthur Lawson – now in his 97th year.
His fluency of memory and descriptions of historic events astonishes me as I talk to him at his St John’s Wood home. My colleague had met him at the annual Remembrance Day ceremony held in Camden Town at the memorial of Far East Prisoners of War, erected from funds raised by readers of the New Journal.
Born in Glasgow, conscripted at 17, off he went to India – to join what became known as the Forgotten 14th Army in the battle against the Japanese threatening to invade the sub-continent.
He would shun any description of him being heroic but as he describes the intense battles he was involved in how else can you describe what he and his comrades went through?
The inevitable happened. In the famous bloody Battle of Imphal in 1944 when the British army fought – and won – a desperate battle to stop what looked like an unstoppable invasion of India – Arthur was wounded in the knee with shrapnel.
Though he was attended to in the “field dressing station”, the wound still nags him today – part of the shrapnel could not be removed. He feels it when he goes upstairs, quite easily a muscle spasm can set in.
This has stopped him today from having an MRI scan because the magnet would catch the shrapnel. So for his heart problem he has to have a special “nuclear-type scan”.
He is a thoughtful man. He doesn’t use exaggerated language to describe his bloody army life, and quickly skips over what he calls “several narrow escapes”. Or the fact that he was a key engineer, and earned the rank of sergeant.
He has the darkest memories of what he calls the “barbaric Japanese soldiers” whose philosophy, he believes, was different to those of the British soldier. He pauses and then tells me that sometimes when a British soldier had been captured his loud cries could be heard in no-man’s land in the jungle as he was tortured – and then, when the body was found, it would be “booby-trapped”.
There is a reserved tone in his descriptions of the battles and his view of mankind and you sense that he is able to see it, perhaps less intensely passionately, as he must have done at the time.
He takes his ill-health in his stride and is active in the Monash branch of the British Legion of which he is president. And for those who don’t know – as I didn’t – Monash is named after a famous Australian army commander who was very successful in the First World War. Monash happened to be Jewish and many members of the Monash branch are Jewish – as is Arthur Lawson MBE
His sight is badly impaired now and he can only get around with a white stick but he goes shopping and attends his local synagogue in St John’s Wood.
It is difficult for him now to attend the Cenotaph and in any case he would have to be pushed in a wheelchair – and here his voice takes on a slightly hard tone.
It is clear he is “too stubborn”, as he put it, to be taken in a wheelchair.
A friend in the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s organisation recommended our PoW memorial instead and Remembrance Day was his second visit.
He became a central heating engineer in the post-war years, and after he became a widower he met an old girlfriend who had also lost her spouse and they got married. He now has a son and daughter (one 70, the other 68) and several grandchildren.
He has too broad a view of life to explain his longevity, his active life and sharpness of mind, with simple explanations but he mentions – as if it may be important – that he is a teetotaller. I felt surprised.
“What never?” I asked. “No,” he says. “When I joined the army at 17 I saw how easy it was to become a drinker so I thought No. I wouldn’t even take one – take one drink and it goes on.”
He must have had pretty steely nerves to keep to a path of abstinence in the heady moments after battles that are hard to imagine – but all that sounds typical of a man who isn’t boastful, immodest or patronising; just a humble squaddie in a war long ago.’