The Good Soldier Schuberth

In Stand Easy, the final volume of the Australian Military Forces series of accounts published during the Second World War, a poem entitled ‘Reverie of a Soldier’ included the following lines:

There were old days before the time when we

Cast off the tattered remnants of our youth

And donned our manhood, when our lives flowed smooth,

Unrippled by the tempests of war.

Those days are done. There only now remain

Dear memories in our hearts of long-lost loves.

These words could probably be applied to almost every man, and woman, who served their country during the conflict many still simply refer to as ‘the war’.

I am fairly certain the words apply to Private W.F. Schuberth, one of 23 Australian service personnel buried in the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Myanmar, although he and his comrades would have breathed their last calling the country Burma.

Administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the Taukkyan cemetery is just north of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. Schuberth would have known the city as Rangoon.

The hushed comments of many who visit these memorials to the fallen usually revolve around the youth of the dead. “He was only 19,” they murmur. The youngest I saw in Taukkyan was 17.

Yet for me it’s the older men, in their thirties and some in their forties, who strike me as just as tragic. The graves of the teenagers bare the heartfelt sorrow of a mother and father as well as sisters and brothers.

For the men who reached their third decade and beyond you can usually add a wife and children as well, compounding the tragedy and extending its reach beyond a single generation.

Anyone who tries to tell you the horrific events of the Second World War are so far in the past as to be all but irrelevant today is blind to the long-term impact of that conflict as my encounter with the grave of Private Schuberth revealed.

I first spotted a cluster of small Australian flags fluttering in the low-cut grass behind one of the graves. They were placed at the final resting place of the faceless man I now know as Private William Forbes Schuberth of the 2/30 Infantry Battalion, a part of the ill-fated Eighth Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Schuberth’s battalion staged arguably the most successful ambush of the Second World War: defeating the Japanese at Gemas, in Malaya. After attempting to defend Singapore he was among the thousands who surrendered to the Japanese and became prisoners of war in the loss that marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

The grave plaque in Taukkyan revealed that Private William Schuberth died on 30th July 1942, aged 35. According to the records of the 2/30th battalion, Schubert (who was originally from Sunderland in England) was ‘executed at Mergui, allegedly for attempting to escape.’

Four notes written on white paper with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ stenciled along the bottom were laid in front of the grave and held in place by small plastic flowers. From the look of the flags and the notes I would surmise Private Schuberth’s graveside visitors had been just a couple of days earlier.

I knelt down and read what I could of the notes, not wanting to disturb the arrangement.

On one was written, ‘To Dearest pop Bill, Today is one I will treasure forever’.

On the other, ‘To Granddad Sorry myself and the children didn’t get to know you Love you…’ The note was torn at the bottom edge and only two of the three names on it were clear: Travis and Greg. I suspect the first name, and the author of the letter is a female.

The CWGC website indicates Private Schuberth was married to a woman named Mary, from Ballina in New South Wales. From the handwritten notes at his gravesite it seems it was his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who made the long journey to Myanmar to pay their respects and grieve for a man they would only have known from faded black and white photographs and the words of those who knew him.

The tragedy that was the Second World War still possesses the power to impact the lives of many who have come long after the guns were silenced. Visit any war cemetery anywhere in the world and the evidence is right in front of your eyes.

At any one time there are hundreds of handwritten letters and notes, wreaths, crosses, or flowers marking graves recently visited by the wives, the sons, the daughters, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those who never made it home and lie in foreign soil. ‘Lest We Forget’ was never more appropriate.

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Dominating the landscape: the Shwe Dagon Pagoda

Jean Cocteau, the French man of letters and esoteric films, was among many so-called celebrity tourists who traversed the crescent from British India through British Burma, British Malaya and on to British Singapore during the heady days of the 1930s.

The enfant terrible of French literature, Cocteau stopped briefly in Rangoon (modern-day Yangon) and for the first time experienced ‘an amalgam of India, Burma and China’. He saw his first Chinatown and visited an opium den. He also took in the great Shwe Dagon pagoda which he claimed was ‘in the same class as the Acropolis, the Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Pyramids.’

The first sight of the symbol of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, and which officially changed its name in 1989, is one which cannot fail to impress. Whether it really deserves to be placed in the same category as the likes of the Acropolis and the Pyramids as Cocteau would have us believe is down to individual taste.

Although it no longer dominates the city landscape as it once did, the Shwe Dagon’s gilded spire remains visible from many vantage points.

Approaching it from almost any direction you just know this is indeed the centre of Burmese Buddhist life. Sheer size is where it achieves its presence, as well as the ornate work which adorns everything from ceilings to walls. A lot of people with a lot of time on their hands clearly spent a great deal of that time engaged in enriching the tapestry making up the internal attractions of the Shwe Dagon.

The pagoda was lucky to have survived the ravages of the Second World War. When the British prepared to flee Rangoon in early 1942, they were determined to deny the invading Japanese anything of value.

So, while the defeated British governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith and his aide-de-camp hurled billiard balls through the portraits of past governors in Government House, other British and Anglo-Burmese troops, officials, and businessmen were intent on a more constructive form of denial, setting fire to much of the city. The religious buildings around the Shwe Dagon went up in flames and the pagoda itself barely escaped the arson.

Unlike the British, the Japanese occupiers attempted to curry favour with the Burmese and, in particular, the monks, by making generous donations to the Shwe Dagon during their period of occupation.

The Shwe Dagon is not just a magnet for tourists, who are charged US$5.00 for the privilege of entering the main centre of the shrine, but is still the main place of worship for many local Buddhists.

At the south entrance my friend and I sat on steps off to the side to watch the late afternoon visiting parade. Also sat on the steps was an attractive Burmese lady eating a strawberry ice-cream in a cone.

I smiled. She smiled, and proffered the half-consumed treat. I declined with a smile. I’m not much for ice-cream at the best of times, especially half-eaten ones.

The lady asked, in halting English, from where we came. We told her and then I asked her name.

“Thiri,” she replied.

“How old are you,” I asked.

“Twenty-eight.”

Thiri was dressed in the conservative Burmese fashion: a long, figure-hugging, floral skirt, and blouse firmly buttoned up.

I asked if I could take her picture. She seemed pleased and replied in the affirmative.

When I showed her the picture, she decided it wasn’t a very flattering result and insisted I take a second version. Thiri arranged her hair and smile and was pleased with my second attempt.

A Burmese man appeared before us. Thiri smiled and said, “My boyfriend.”

He didn’t look especially impressed at finding his girlfriend chatting amiably with two foreign men old enough to be her father.

He didn’t quite scowl, remaining passably civil, although I suspect Thiri was in for a stern lecture on the predatory potential of aging foreign male tourists. Perhaps it’s fortunate he didn’t see her trying to entice us with an ice-cream.

Another man joined them and he became the chief interlocutor; probably because he had no need to feel a threat to his masculinity.

Thiri and her boyfriend and friend soon bade goodbye and moved off into the depths of the pagoda.

By the time we left, a number of traffic police were on duty directing the numbers of people making their way in and out of the southern entrance of Shwe Dagon. I imagine in a few years the locals will almost be outnumbered by tourists, but for now we visitors are very much in the minority.