JAKARTA (JP): It was November, 1983 and my first trip to Indonesia. Getting off the train in Surabaya and not knowing what to expect, I looked around for a taxi. The vehicle I got into outside the main railway station was unmarked and a shade unroadworthy. Not to worry, the driver seemed friendly enough.
""Where do you come from, Mister?""
""Britain. I am British.""
A huge smile spread across his face. ""Ah, we killed a British general here in 1945.""
""Oh,"" I replied and floundered for a proper answer. ""What was his name?""
And so it was that I developed an interest that took me to the beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the Jakarta suburb of Menteng Pulo. This seldom-visited spot, tucked away behind the Dutch church (Gereja Belanda) off Jl. Casablanca, is where I went to find the spot that commemorates the man that the smiling Surabaya taxi driver spoke of.
And to check out a little-known corner of British history, our involvement in the post-World War II attempt by the Dutch to reimpose colonial rule in their former colony, the East Indies.
Brigadier (not General) Mallaby of the 2nd Punjab Regiment was the British commanding officer on the ground in Surabaya in October, 1945. The date on the plaque on his grave -- immaculate like all the others in this cemetery -- is Oct. 30, 1945. To the inquiring mind, it, and many other dates here, raise many questions. First and foremost: ""What were the British doing here? Had not the Pacific War come to an end officially on Sept. 3 when the Japanese signed the surrender document aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay?""
Wars seldom come to tidy ends and the Pacific War in the Indonesian theater was no different to most. The Japanese had capitulated three days after the bombing of Nagasaki, but there were to be some very serious complications. Indonesia, seizing the hour, declared its independence on Aug. 17, five days after the Emperor Hirohito's surrender notice was broadcast to the dumbfounded Japanese people. The Allies, under the overallSoutheast Asian command of Lord Louis Mountbatten, were presented with several tasks, including the release of Allied POWs and the demobilization of the Japanese forces.
There were, to put it mildly, several competing agendas, and, despite an almost universal wish on the part of the Commonwealth troops to go home, the British and the Indonesian nationalists soon found themselves on a collision course. The British, partly because they had no advance intelligence to warn them of Indonesian desires, did not recognize the Indonesian Republic of Sukarno and Hatta and instructed the Japanese to maintain order prior to the arrival of a force called RAPWI (Return of Allied Prisoners of War and other Internees).
A British naval force arrived off Jakarta in early September. Its commander, Admiral Patterson, was directly responsible to Mountbatten and he was in no doubt that the Indonesian nationalists were to have no say in the matter. Meanwhile, the first of the Dutch prisoners, who had been instructed to stay where they were until RAPWI arrived, were back on the streets of Jakarta determined to restore the 'status quo ante'. Robert Cribb in his excellent Gangsters and Revolutionaries; the Jakarta People's Militia and the Indonesian Revolution 1945-9 has described how an irregularDutch formation called Battalion X -- because it worked out of the pre-war headquarters of the KNIL 10th Battalion in North Jakarta -- appeared on Jakarta's streets intimidating and beating up anyone daring to show the Indonesian flag.
Everything came to a head rather quickly. The main locus of combat was Surabaya where three weeks of fighting took place between the ill-equipped nationalists and the battle-hardened Commonwealth troops. British military observers were to remark on the bravery of the Indonesians, faced as they were with the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force and the Bren Guns of the ground troops.
Menteng Pulo is, as stated earlier, immaculately kept, its lawns trimmed,its flower beds well turned. An air of respect and due honor prevails. To walk around the carefully tended plots is to feel what the great WW I poet Wilfred Owen called ""the pity of war"" and sense the poignancy of ""golden lads all gone to dust"".
There are 715 British, 304 Indians (including Nepalese) and 96 Australians, as well as smaller numbers of other nationalities, commemorated here in land which ""is a gift from the people of Indonesia"", as a plaque in the entrance arch tells the passerby. There are women as well as men, one Lt. Ann Allingham of the British Red Cross Society among them. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews are all honored here, although not in contiguous plots. Officers and other ranks are buried side by side in democratic recognition of their service.
The last date on a plaque here is for Major P.J.W. Cuckney of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry who died on Dec. 14, 1946.
Visitors to this site and to the much larger Dutch cemetery on the other side of the splendid church may ponder on the nature of unnecessary sacrifice and the waste of mainly young lives; the youngest soldier honoredhere is a 17-year old of the British Indian Army. Of course, not all of them died after the end of the war or during the course of the hostilities with the Indonesian nationalists. Hostilities, it might be argued, that delayed the development of this country by several decades.
Some had died in the early days of the Japanese invasion in 1942 and there was a heroic Anglo-Dutch resistance then around the Sumatran oil cityof Palembang. Others still died in the appalling conditions of the JapanesePOW camps, where women and children also suffered terrible privations. One of the bitter ironies, however, of the British presence here in 1945-6 is that instead of expediting the release of internees from these hell-holes it actually delayed it, and numerous prisoners were not released until mid-1946.
Menteng Pulo is a fine memorial to the Allied men and women who died here, a lasting tribute to the generosity of the Indonesians who donated the land and another sad reminder of the folly of war.