Article

History at our doorstep: the French School in the middle of an old battlefield

By Victoria, Mahé et Tara, 1ES1

On the 20th of March 2017, the French International School (FIS) of Hong Kong was mentioned in an article published by the Hong Kong Free Press: an amateur historian, Philip Cracknell, found vandalised bunkers that dated from the Second World War. Located at Wong Nai Chung Gap, the site is strewn with rubbish and covered in graffiti, some of which are written in French. The pupils of the school, who are about a hundred meters from the site, are obviously presumed guilty. These degradations caused the reaction of the local and expatriate communities. Because of these events, the administration and the students, directly affected, got together in order to react in the best way possible and to show their utmost respect for this country that welcomes them and for its history.

After receiving a message from Philip Cracknell informing him of the situation, the Headmaster, Mr. Soulard, immediately took matters into his own hands. Unlike what the historian dreaded, he does not deny the probable responsibility of certain students. On the contrary, accompanied by the pupils, he promises to do everything in his power to try and repair the damage done in the best way possible. Interventions took place the next day in classes to emphasise on the historical importance of the sites and stress the seriousness of the situation. The administration, teachers and pupils took the initiative to put in place concrete actions: a class of Première students went, for example, to clean the bunkers, returning with several bags of waste accumulated over the years.
Many students felt personally affected by the matter. We have asked two of them to share their thoughts:

Baptiste Van Gaver, 1ère ES: This matter disappoints me for two reasons. First of all, I’m a fan of Street Art, and I feel that what happened to the bunker is nothing more than vandalism – on the contrary to what those who are responsible might think. Furthermore, I am convinced that it is necessary to preserve these vestiges because of their historical and spiritual value to the population of Hong Kong, and to those who fought here. This is unacceptable, and I’m glad to see that people do not remain passive about the matter.

Edouard Chardot, 2nde: As a student of FIS, I am deeply saddened by the behaviour of some of the students. Through numerous interventions and conferences, our school has always condemned vandalism and damage to public property. It is important to remember that we are “guests” in Hong Kong and as such, we must not only respect local laws but also represent France with exemplarity.

Students discover the unsuspected echoes of the Second World War

At the request of many pupils who wanted to know more about the events that took place in Wong Nai Chung Gap during the Second World War and to learn about the historical sites that surround them, the school asked the historian Philip Cracknell to organise a visit of the sites with some of the classes. Delighted by this willingness to learn and glad to be able to share his passion and his work, he accepted. The class of Première ES1 inaugurated a cycle of visits to the sites on the 29th of March this year.

Eager to finally explore the vestiges that surround us daily but which were yet unknown to us, we joined Philip Cracknell in Parkview, above the school, at around 9:30 AM. The visit starts with bunkers on the hillside, difficult to access. We would never have suspected the presence of such structures only a few meters from the road. Philip Cracknell tells us throughout the visit the stories of soldiers who fought in the places that we come across. We remain captivated for three hours, despite the passing showers and cloudy sky.

Arrived near a pillbox where the gunners were operating, we sneak in one by one into a small crack in the ground, the door having been sealed. We discover the interior of the building: the walls are furrowed with cavities left by Japanese grenades, thrown through the ventilation shafts. Later on, we also explore an unfinished Japanese tunnel, where we meet a sympathetic bat hanging from the ceiling.

The experience ended in front of the vandalized site, named in homage to Canadian brigadier-general Lawson, who died on the front line against the enemy in December 1941. We were very touched by Philip Cracknell's final speech. In the face of polemical graffiti, the historian thanks us for the interest we have shown in everything he had to teach us and the vestiges he puts so much energy to protect.

December 1941, Wong Nai Chung Gap in the turmoil

"This is all wrong". This was the reaction of Winston Churchill on December 7, 1941, when he received the telegram from the British Far East Commander, urging the sending of additional troops to Hong Kong. "If Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong". The next day, December 8, about 30,000 Japanese crossed the border ... This was the beginning of the battle of Hong Kong. Left without English reinforcements, the allied soldiers were by far outnumbered, despite the Hong Kong voluntary defense corps and Canadian troops joining the fight.

Philip Cracknell's research now allows us to better understand what these men have experienced, determined to defend the territory of Hong Kong in the face of a terribly violent and numerous Japanese army. Wong Nai Chung Gap, the area surrounding our facility, was one of the key points of the battle of Hong Kong. These places were indeed occupied by essentially Canadian troops; 275 men who, on the morning of December 19, 1941, were caught in a vise by 6,000 Japanese soldiers, having disembarked in North Point and joining the heights soon after.

Splinter proof shelters:

Luckily, some of the bunkers, accommodations in which the soldiers took refuge, are still accessible today. These bunkers (15 m2) could accommodate somewhat of nine to ten men, which is approximately an artillery battery. Nowadays inside there are only iron hooks left on the walls. Therefore, we can only assume their utilities: somewhere used to support the upper bunk bed, others to support storm lamps dangling from the ceiling, others probably to hook the soldier’s equipment. We can only imagine the austerity and the promiscuity of such a place. Sometimes, to our surprise some military equipment are still left such as rails for machine guns in front of narrow openings, a strategic opportunity for the soldiers. Adding to that, all doors and windows were un impenetrable, the only weakness of these buildings are the ventilation holes. Thanks to certain traces left that in some bunkers the Japanese would glimpse grenades into these ventilation holes, tempting to hurt and kill the fastest way possible the soldiers.

Pillboxes of artillery

The artillery would fire from bunkers named pillboxes, (casemate in French). These buildings would contain an observation tower, facilitating the soldiers to locate the enemy location. The pillboxes were cleverly camouflaged thanks to rocks, pebbles trying to make it perceived as a huge rock. Therefore, the enemy was unable to see these pillboxes and thanks to narrow holes made in them they could shoot easily at the opponent. The 19 December, soldiers from PB1 (pillboxe1) heard footsteps on top of their heads, the Japanese had found them. Necessitating help, they called urgently PB2, unfortunately the batteries could not be helpful since the pillboxes was facing the opposite direction. Fighters from PB2 quickly crept onto the Japanese and a skirmish took place. Nevertheless, outnumbered the British army found themselves obliged to retreat; the Japanese took with them only the valid soldiers. All the wounded were then shot to death by the Japanese. Most of the men that left their lives in the pillboxes in Wong Nai Chung Gap were from “forces voluntaires de defences”, from Hong Kong, as well troupes from Canada, mainly coming from Winnipeg.

The Black Hole

Taking in counter that most of the soldiers were held prisoners in bunkers, often starving to death or terribly wounded, they accepted on the 20 December to surrender.  Unfortunately, most of these men left their lives in Wong Nai Chung Gap, the Japanese tortured the fighters left to death with r helmets, with bayonets, even with their boots. Consequently, leaving the prisoners at the mercy if their executioners. Very few men were left alive after these dreadful beatings.

The resting captives were temporary imprisoned in a building. 130 men were piled one un top of another, often dying because of agony and hunger. Today this edifice is renamed “the black hole”, because of its turbulent history. Nowadays, it is camouflaged by the jungle and totally abandoned, adding to that it is located only 200 meter away from the school.  After a short while they transferred the living prisoners (if we can qualify them as living) towards north Point by hike, the soldiers too weak to make the journey, where shot to death leaving their corps on the side of the road. 

Philip Cracknell explained to us that “the loss at Wong Nai Chung Gap was crucial. The allies tried to gain back territory in the 19th and 21st, however they failed. It was the start of the end, it was only a matter of time before the occupation. The allies now had to fight an unwinnable war, and had to keep in between their possession Hong Kong as long as possible, which they achieved until the capitulation on the 25 December 1941”

Philip Cracknell, digger of memories

Philip Cracknell was a British banker who lives in Hong Kong since 1985. History has always fascinated him and he has been practicing history for years. In 2013, he decided to devote his time to his passion and become a professional historian specialised in the second world war in Hong Kong.

To make his way through the numerous historians in the academic world, Philip Cracknell devoted his entire time to his researches: he dedicated hours and hours of work, digging into the achieves in London and on the field, learning more and more about the events that occurred in Hong Kong in December 1941. By his ruthless work, he was able to launch a blog in 2013 which has today more than 134 000 readers. After, his monthly publications he concentrated his time and work into the publishing of a book on the battle of Hong Kong which is planned to be published by the end of 2017. The historian, also proposes visits around these prestigious history sites for the member of the Hong Kong Club, the Aberdeen Marina Club or even any person interested in a tour into the past.

His father was engaged in the British Royal Navy, deployed in Japan. However, that wasn’t what pushed Cracknell to start his researches. His main interest was the soldiers who fought in the Hong Kong battle’s personal experiences. Philip Cracknell has a very human approach to history: he concentrates on details, recreates, through his research, the lives of the army men in Hong Kong’s defense, a battle some call “the Fall of Hong Kong”.

He spends hours excavating battle grounds in hopes of finding treasures. His most precious tools are pre-war maps and a metal detector to try to find objects of the time. In addition, to find and to contact the soldier’s descendants, Cracknell simply uses Facebook and genealogy sites on the Internet. While on the old battlegrounds, this historian has found things such as two ancient jewels lost during the war: a watch belonging to a 21-year old Canadian soldier and an identification plate belonging to a British soldier from the Royal Navy. The two treasures have encouraged Cracknell to continue his searches, as other precious finds are still to be discovered and brought to the family of their owners.
While reading some soldiers’ diaries, Philip Cracknell has often found himself in tears. He feels like he travels back to that time through the knowledge he has acquired. His researches have been made possible by the abundance of remains from the battle, which allow him to tell the story of what happened during the “Fall of Hong Kong”. “History is all around us,” he says.  As students from FIS, surrounded by remains from the Wong Nai Chung Gap battle, and we are all concerned.
When we asked Philip Cracknell what he thought about historians who say that personal stories are “minor History”, which doesn’t hold up to the facts of “major History”. He answered that “minor History” is extremely interesting as it talks about people, like you and me, who have lived incredible adventures and for the majority, these adventures were not easy. Also, he says the Hong Kong’s history is necessarily “minor History” as it cannot have a major impact on the rest of the war. However, for the local population, or even for the soldiers’ descendants, it is “major History”, as it has shaped their lives and still represents a wound unhealed.

The scars of Hong Kong’s painful stories from december 1941 - the loss of the battle which led to three and a half years of severe japanese occupation - are still visible today in Hong Kong. Every day we pass by bunkers like the ones in Wong Nai Chung Gap or the New Territories, we roam around on the places in which many men have lost their lives to defend their country or ally’s freedom. It is crucial for us to be conscious about this so we can honor their actions and tell their stories.

We are only able to commemorate these heroic men and remember them thanks to the hard work and devotion that historians attribute to recreating history. We would like to thank Philip Cracknell for his incredible work and the huge amount of time he spends to discovering hidden gems of Hong Kong’s history.

Originally written in French by

Victoria AIRAUT, Mahé MONTOCCHIO, Tara MOTTET, 1ES

Translated by:

Lucy COTILLION, Baptiste VAN GAVER, Matteo BENDOTTI, Chloé DARBON, 1ES