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Tun San: London’s Burmese Great War hero

Britain’s effort in the Great War was really an imperial effort. Locally-raised forces travelled from across the Empire to fight in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa. As we have seen, there were also men from across the Empire – and elsewhere – serving in the British units of the Armed Forces. One of these was Tun San, a Burmese man based in Richmond who became a war hero.

Tun San was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1888; his father Tun Aung Gyaw lived in the Mawlee Quarter of Akyab (now Sittwe), Burma.* Tun San attested for the army in Kingston-upon-Thames on 10 December 1915, giving his address as 12 St John’s Road, Richmond (although his family name was presumably Tun, he appears in army records as T. San) and his correspondence address as the Burma Society, St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. Presumably he was living in Richmond at the time but it was not his permanent home; he appears to have given his profession as clerk and as student, so possibly he was studying in London at the time.

At the time Burma was part of the “Indian Empire”, the largest part of Britain’s possessions in Asia. According to the 1911 census, Tun San would have been one of around 3,200 Indian-born people in Surrey at the time, under 0.1% of the population (the 12,000 Indian-born people in London being 0.28% of the population). It is worth bearing in mind that many of those thousands would have been white men and women born in India: the children of soldiers, traders, travellers and administrators. London was relatively cosmopolitan compared to the rest of the UK, with a larger proportion of its population being of Asian or African descent, but the general population was overwhelmingly white. As we have seen, Londoners born in other parts of the Empire did join the British armed forces, including Lal Roy, the Indian pilot who earned the Military Cross, and GEK Bemand, the Jamaican-born artillery officer who died in 1916. Tun San was another of these young men.

Tun San joined the army on 20 January 1916, becoming a private in the East Surrey Regiment. Seven months later, he was posted to the Machine Gun Corps and its Motor section – the forerunner to the Tank Corps. September 1916 had seen the first ever use of armoured fighting vehicles – which the British authorities nicknamed ‘tanks’ – so Tun San and his comrades were at the cutting edge of military technology. On official paperwork his role is listed as ‘1st driver mech’.

Part of Tun San's service record

Part of Tun San’s service record

After nine months of training, he was sent to France and on 30 July 1917 he joined “F” Battalion. He appears to have still been serving with them when the tanks went into action at Cambrai in November – the biggest tank action in history up to that point.

The attack at Cambrai began on 20 November. The infantry were supported by 350 tanks in the offensive against the German ‘Hindenburg Line’.  ‘F’ Battalion attacked south of Cambrai: on 21 November they were part of the successful attack at Marcoing and pushed on towards Rumilly; the next day they continued their attack. The Germans held the attackers off at Rumilly and the offensive ground to a halt. The attack was a great success for the British and news of the advance was greeted with the ringing of bells across the UK (including at St Paul’s) – but the victory did not last long, with a German counter-attack a week later taking back virtually all of the captured territory.

An F Squadron tank at Rumilly. Was it San's tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War By W.H.L Watson)

An F Battalion tank at Rumilly. Was it Private San’s tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War
By W.H.L Watson)

 

Tun San was in the thick of the action near Rumilly and was wounded in the hand while he was in his tank on 22 November, with shrapnel injuring his left thumb and fingers. He was captured by the Germans on the same day. Unfortunately, I don’t know which tank he was in. The photo above shows tank FW1, which seems to have been the only one lost by F Battalion in the offensive, so perhaps that was his vehicle. Official news of his capture was received in January 1918 and he remained in German hands for the rest of the war, before being repatriated straight after the Armistice – he was back in Britain before Christmas.

Tun San did not hang around in Britain for very long after the war. He was demobilised in May 1919 and returned to Burma during the summer. His address there is given as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Thayetmyo (or Thayet, a coastal district). Sometime that summer, though, he would have heard that he had been awarded the Military Medal. Sadly, most awards of the MM during and immediately after the war do not give an account of the action for which it was earned – his name simply appears in the list of recipients in the London Gazette on 20 August 1919. We do know that it was earned for bravery in action, because that was what entitled people to earn the medal; perhaps it was for his actions at Rumilly. He received his actual medal early in 1920. I don’t know how Tun San’s life panned out after 1920, save that he was Deputy Superintendent of Police in Tavoy (now Dawei) in 1931.

The UK’s war effort took all sorts: men and women from all walks of life and from all around the world – primarily from around the British Empire. Tun San was one of from the furthest reaches of the Empire who served in Britain’s armed forces, not only that but doing it with great distinction, being wounded and captured and earning the Military Medal.

 

*Apologies for any bad spelling of Burmese names and places – a combination of early-twentieth century transliteration and handwriting, and my own lack of knowledge of the region, means that I have probably made mistakes.

 

Sources:

 

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Posted by on 24 November 2015 in Award-winners

 

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