So reads the rain spattered headstone. We stood by the grave of Harry Hannay and a tropical storm brewed.
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the main prisoner of war cemetery associated with victims of the infamous Burma Railway. It is located in the eponymous town and province west of Bangkok and maintained, beautifully, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). There are some 6,982 former POWs buried here, mostly Australian, British and Dutch.
Lest we forget let us recall how many worked and died on this railway:
|Workers on the Burma Railways||
|Asian Laborers||200,000||c. 80,000|
|American POW’s||700||c. 356|
|Korean & Japanese soldiers||15,000||1,000|
When we are in Kanchanaburi province we usually try to visit at least one of the two CWGC cemeteries. The Burma Railway has touched our family in a number of ways. A cousin who survived the travails of the railway (and Changi POW Camp) but spoke sparingly of the experience. The Galloway postman, similarly forced to work on the railway, who delivered my letters, postmarked Thailand, to my father, when I was posted to Bangkok in the early 80s.
Visiting these cemeteries usually makes for a reflective and atmospheric occasion but this time there was added poignancy. One of my sons, like many teenagers “a master of the internet”, came across Private Harry in the CWGC “Debt of Honour Register” (try it with your own family name you may be surprised) buried at position 4.F.77 in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Not long after our family were standing by his grave.
Who was Harry Hannay? A relative? Certainly I was surprised to see the Hannay clan motto “Per Ardua ad Alta” (shared incidentally by the University of Birmingham) on the head stone. I decided to do some more research. My father, the family genealogist, had not heard of him and drew a blank when he made further inquiries with other family members in Galloway. So not related then. Nonetheless I felt it a kind of duty to try to piece together a history.
The graves of most of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma Railway (except for the Americans, whose remains were repatriated) were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is only a short distance from the site of the former ‘Kanburi’, the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the prisoners passed on their way to other camps. The Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries comprise a consolidation of graves found on the southern half (effectively the Thai side) of the Burma Railway from Ban Pong to the Three Pagoda Pass.
So what of Private Harry’s regiment, the Penang and Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps? First the area. Penang of course is well known. Province Wellesley? The province was originally named after Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, Governor of Madras and Governor-General of Bengal (1797–1805). It is now known as Seberang Perai and comprises a narrow hinterland opposite Penang island on the Malay Peninsular, which together with the island today forms the Malaysian state of Penang. Its principal town is Butterworth. Penang and Province Wellesley were once part of the Straits Settlements. Originally established in 1826 as part of the territories controlled by the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a crown colony on 1st April 1867. The colony was dissolved as part of the British reorganization of its South-East Asian dependencies following the end of WWII. The Straits Settlements consisted of the individual settlements of Malacca, Penang and Province Wellesley, Singapore and Labuan.
I think actually that Harry Hannay probably came from the adjacent Perak State but more on that later.
Back to his regiment. The Penang and Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps were part of the larger Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF) which was a military reserve force similar in concept to the British Territorial Army, but were organised within 3 separate groups according to which administrative area of Malaya they came from. While the majority of the personnel were from Singapore, some lived in the other aforementioned parts of the Settlements. The SSVF had its origins in the Singapore Volunteer Artillery Corps formed in 1888. In 1915 it helped suppress the mutiny of Sepoys in Singapore. The SSVF was officially formed in 1922, following the amalgamation of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery Corps, Penang and Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps, Malacca Volunteer Corps, and Labuan Volunteer Defence Detachment. In 1928, the SSVF infantry was re-organised into 4 battalions. The 1st and 2nd battalions consisted of members of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, the 3rd battalion consisted of the Penang & Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps and the 4th Battalion consisted of the Malacca Volunteer Corps.
As international tensions heightened during the 1930s, an increasing number of men, and women, of the various nationalities in the Settlements answered their country’s call in the years running up to WWII. They came from all nationalities and walks of life in British Malaya. The Volunteers were not only Europeans, but Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. They came from all branches of the Malayan Government Service, from the mines and plantations, from the business communities, from the medical profession and from the church. Whatever their background, they were all motivated by a profound sense of wanting to do everything in their power to defend the Crown Colony of Malaya and her dependents. It is a shame they were not, on the whole, well led but Malaya was probably doomed when Churchill had to make the hard strategic decision, Egypt or Malaya? Britain couldn’t adequately equip and reinforce both. Anyhow I digress. The SSVF took part in the Battle of Singapore in 1942, and most of its men, including Harry Hannay, were captured on 15 February 1942 when their positions were overrun.
What else of Harry Hannay. Well here is the extract from the war diaries of George Wiseman similarly interned to work on the Burma Railway. This was his entry for the 11th November, 1942 whilst in the Tarsau camp hospital:
I was discharged from hospital as the space was required and my throat was nearly okay. Near me in hospital was Hannay of the SSVF, a son of old Major Hannay of Ipoh. Mary Hannay got a job as a stenographer on Wavell’s staff and got away to Java. Major and Mrs were in Changi jail, but got separated. The first the old man knew that his wife was ill was when he saw her carried away on a stretcher. He heard through friends that she was seriously ill with dysentery. He did everything to get Nip permission to see her, but there was nothing doing until later. When he arrived he was too late, she’d died the day before. He is 68 and she was 62. Rather needless for the Nips to separate them.
Who was Mary Hannay? I can only conjecture that she might have been either Harry’s wife or, probably more likely, his sister. Why? Because the CWGC are usually meticulous in detail. Harry is recorded in their records as “……. son of Harry Campbell Hannay and Katherine Louise Hannay”. There is no “….husband of…..”.
Harry’s parents lived in Perak State in Malaya. Perak incidentally means silver in Malay and the name comes from the silver colour of tin. The the global tin industry collapsed in the 1980’s resulting in the closure of many of Perak’s tin mines but during the colonial period Perak was one of Malaysia’s wealthiest states and this wealth was built on tin. Major Hannay, Harry’s father, was a mining engineer and lived in Ipoh, Perak’s capital. They all must have fled the advancing Japanese and ended up in Singapore where Katherine Hannay, a red cross nurse, died aged 62 in the Miyako Hospital (formerly the Woodbridge Hospital in Singapore’s Yio Chu Kang district) on 11th April, 1942.
Major Hannay returned to Perak after the war and died in Ipoh in 1961 (at that time I myself was a toddler in Singapore).
I do now feel an affinity with this colonial family who now lie apart in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – a world far removed from the Galloway hills from whence they once came.
Indeed perhaps too I am of the Galloway diaspora and destined to lie in some corner of a foreign field.