The Battle of The Hook and the Korean War Armistice
Image above: Members of C Company, 2nd Battalion, keep watch from their position on The Hook after the ceasefire. The Bren gun (left) and the Owen gun (right) and the British Mk 36 grenade are within reach should the ceasefire conditions be violated and hostilities resume.
At dawn on the morning of 28 July 1953, Brigadier John Wilton, the Australian commander of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, joined the men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, as they emerged from their fortified bunkers at the position known as the Hook. The scene which confronted Wilton had more in common with the trench warfare of the Western Front than the first major conflict of the nuclear age, as two to three thousand Chinese dead littered the battlefield in front of the Hook.
Left: Majon'ni, Korea. 1953-07-27. View along the valley of No Man’s Land in front of The Hook defences at the 1 Commonwealth Division lines at the cease fire.
While the Armistice had been signed the day before, the Australians were understandably nervous about leaving the security of their bunkers since over 4,000 mortar and artillery rounds had landed on the 2nd Battalion’s position alone during the previous nights. Nevertheless, the cease fire seemed to be holding and, standing on top of their bunkers, Wilton and his fellow observers at last had a clear view of the valley below. Wilton later wrote:
The floor of the valley between the Hook and the Chinese position was almost covered with dead Chinese who had been caught by out deadly defensive-fire artillery concentrations. On the immediate approaches to 2 RAR the bodies literally carpeted the ground sometimes two deep…Most of the bodies had been there for two or three days and in the hot, humid weather had commenced to putrefy and there was a strong nauseous stench of death. It was a terrible sight which I will never forget.
The Armistice negotiations which were to end this killing had first begun in July 1951 but proceeded slowly, as agreement over the armistice line and prisoner exchanges could not be reached. The communist insistence on the indefensible 38th parallel being used as the armistice line, rather than the existing battle-line, saw the Chinese launch a series of limited offensives on the United Nations positions seeking an advantage on the battlefield in order to bolster their negotiating position. The United Nations countered these attacks by developing elaborate field defences, supported by artillery and air support. Like on the Western Front, the expenditure of artillery shells was prodigious, with the guns of the Commonwealth Division alone firing some two million rounds between July 1951 and July 1953. In the face of such firepower the Chinese attacks inevitably faltered, with the heavy losses drawing the communists back to the negotiating table at Panmunjom, a small village close to the front line.
The Armistice itself was signed in a specially constructed ‘peace pagoda’ built by the communists. The building did not have a south facing entrance because the North Koreans wanted the United Nations delegation to enter the building through North Korean territory. General Mark Clark, the American commander of the United Nations forces, insisted that a southern entrance be constructed before the signing could be conducted. With the new entrance duly completed, at 0957 hours on 27 July 1953 the two delegates, North Korean General Nam IL and American General William Harrison sat down to sign the Armistice. The formalities were completed in 15 minutes and, as the two men rose to leave, they momentary locked glances, but both left without shaking hands or exchanging a word. That afternoon Clark countersigned the Armistice, noting that this was only a military agreement to implement a cease fire and that the opposing sides still had to reach a political solution to end the conflict. A peace conference to conclude the war was held in Geneva in April 1954 but failed and a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula has yet to be achieved.