Lalin’s Coloumn: First Battalion the Gemunu Watch –The Golden Jubilee- 7 December 2012
The First Battalion Gemunu Watch celebrated its 50th Anniversary on 7th December 2012 at its spiritual home in the garrison town of Diyatalawa. The Gemunu Watch, SL’s third senior Infantry regiment has 24 battalions now. The colours of the Watch are red, gold, blue and silver. The emblem on its silver and gold cap badge and on its Regimental Colours is a proud peacock.
The ‘Highlanders’ , cheerful, tough and willing, having proved themselves in nearly 30 years of unremitting combat, were back home in the emerald green hills of Uva. They organized an exhausting but joyful month long celebration giving themselves 50 projects to be met in the year.
Where ever the Battalion was, and it was in 20 different locations except at its home during all the long years of conflict, (1980-2009) week long celebrations were held. Unlike in peace time, armed sentries were posted then to give all round protection.
“I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of your country, until you become filled with love of her….reflect that this ...has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it. Who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise , would not allow their virtues to be lost to the country but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering they could present……..
… There dwells also an unwritten memorial to them graven not in stone but in the hearts of men” (Pericles 430 BC)
In this jubilee year the celebrations took one month as there were inter battalion as well as inter company sports, games and military competitions, in addition to the traditional remembrance ceremony, gifting of presents and mementos to the next of kin (NOK) of the war dead and to the disabled, multi faith religious ceremonies, a blessing of Presidential and Regimental Colours at Kataragama and gifts to civilian staff. The Regimental Sergeant Major’s and the Adjutant’s parade built up to the finale. This was followed by a traditional all ranks lunch.
The observation of religious practices and age old traditions in the midst of mortal combat were not mere gestures. They fortified the spiritual needs of the troops. Together with the selfless leadership they received, it helped strongly to sustain their morale, integrity, discipline, fighting spirit, honour and espirit d corps. Consequently they were able to cope with post trauma stress disorder (PTSD) better than most.
It was a happy coincidence that the founding father of the Watch, the legendary Lt Col (later Brigadier) John F Halangode, (1962-68) his son Brigadier Hiran Halangode (retired) who commanded in 1988-91 and the 26th and incumbent commander Lt Col Nadeeka Kulasekera , all hailed from the Kandyan hills.
The First with its sister battalions fought in all battle fields of the Eelam conflict from the start to the end. It saw gallant deeds and victorious battles from the earlier skirmishes to the first major battle at Vadamarachchi in Jaffna (under Lt Col later Brigadier VS Botejue- 1987) to Kiran (under Major later Brigad ier Hiran Halangode) in Batticaloa, in Trincomalie and Mannar and Jaffna again. The battalion under Lt Col MWA Wijesuriya fought without let up to the climatic and dramatic end in the Wanni in 2008-9.Thirty two (32) Battalion soldiers died in this phase alone, most of them at Pudukuduirupu.
The Battalion with great sorrow and sadness remembered the 20 Officers and 317 soldiers who laid down their lives for regiment and country amongst the Regiment’s 24 battalion toll of 150 officers and 3,031 soldiers less those missing in action now believed dead. They will not be forgotten.
The Param Weera Vibushana, the highest gallantry medal of the nation was awarded only to 19 valorous men in all 3 Forces, all posthumously. Four of them, Lt Col Lalith Jayasinghe, Lt UGAS Samaranayake, Capt HGMKI Megawarna and Corporal Pushpakumara OHN were from sister battalions of the Gemunu Watch. Officers and men of the First Battalion were awarded 7 Weera Wickrema Vibushanas, 12 Rana Weera Padakkamas and 148 Rana Sura Padakkamas for acts of bravery in the face of the enemy. No one assails the battalion with impunity and survives.
The Battalion had also seen off the JVP insurgents beginning from the day they attacked Wellawaya Police Station on 5th April 1971 until the insurgency ended a month later. It had one soldier (BMR Perera) of 12 Forces men killed and its first officer casualty Lt (later Major General) Gibbrey Muthalib.
During the phony IPKF peace between 1987 and 1990, it saw off the deadly second JVP terrorist campaign too, losing eleven soldiers.
While 2 officers of the Battalion served on the UN India Pakistan Observation Mission in 1965, troops of the battalion have so far also served with composite Gemunu Watch battalions on 3 deployments in the ongoing UN Peace Keeping Mission in Haiti.
The First Battalion was awarded President’s and Regimental Colours in 1980.New colours were awarded on the very same day, 15 August in 2012. Colours are awarded to infantry regiments of the Army for loyal, steadfast, honourable and enduring service to the country. They are the heart and soul of the Regiment, a symbol of its loyalty, spirit, history, pride, prestige and traditions. They are a constant reminder of comrades who laid down their lives for the honour of the Regiment. However despite 30 years of conflict there are no battle honours on the Colours as they are not awarded when fighting one’s own people.
Old comrades arriving in the evening of 6th December saw the twin camps of the Battalion perched on hill sides aglow with myriad coloured lights. The lights festooned on pine trees around the Officers Mess could be seen from Haputale and beyond. Even the railway workers struck work for 2 nights so that the men of Gemunu would not be disturbed!
The seventh morning dawned with mist and a slight drizzle. The highlight of the celebrations was the Commanding Officer’s parade. The mist lifted as the Battalion marched with a confident shoulder rolling swagger on to what must be the loveliest parade square in the country. Cypress, acacia and gum trees dot the verdant hillsides of the camp. Regimental flags fluttered at the far end of the square.
The salute was taken by Gen GH de Silva (Retired) who was the second SL Army Commander from the Watch. The Colonel of the Regiment Maj Gen Susil Udumalagala and his predecessor Maj Gen Leonard Mark and other flag rank officers and Colonel Priyanka Fernando Centre Commandant of the Home HQ as well as the commanding officers of all 24 battalions of the Regiment, were present.
The new Battalion Colours were proudly trooped for the first time on a typical blustery, cool, sharp, grey December Diyatalawa morning that threatened rain. The firm above however held it back until the parade ended.
The drill was brilliant; undoubtedly inspired by the uncertain weather that always makes the Battalion drill shine. The soldiers wearing their distinctive Red Hackle, and their Officers cut a striking picture as they stood well turned out, tall, steadfast and proud. It would have, as it did everyone else, delighted the incomparable drill instructors and later Regimental Sergeant Majors, Warrant Officers late Raphael Singho and Jayasinghe JKC, had they been there to see it.
The Army band was in attendance. It filled the air with traditional martial airs including the lilting regimental quick march ‘Highland Laddie’ and a lively selection of popular music.
After the parade ended, everyone retired to the old Gymnasium for tea, even as a slight drizzle finally came down to hurry them on. It was a gathering of gallant young men who had seen the light of battle from the start of their careers and veterans who had come to see them and had shared a part of their lives. There were also the wives of the hill tribe who had kept unending vigil for most of the nearly 11,000 troubled days.
Veterans, elderly and not so elderly, came by road, rail and air to answer the roll call and celebrate. The 6 foot 2 ins Lt Col Nimal Ratnayake the first regimental soldier to be given a field commission and his wife had come from California and Major Mahen Abeysekera, the brother in law of Lt Col Srimal Mendis the third officer killed in action (1985), had come from London.
Old comrades reunited after decades with lifelong friends felt their hearts wrench on recognition. The years slipped by as they reminisced about their tramping days. Fading memories were spiced with well polished yarns of yore. Prominently absent was Warrant Officer S Visvalingam from Jaffna who never misses the Gemun Watch Ex Servicemen’s AGMs. The presence of the old retainers like Muthu Banda who had graduated from being Sinha Regiment officers’ batman to Gemunu Watch regimental cook would have pleased the late Founder Commander no end. He, like his successors, never forgot the humble but utterly dependable and loyal ‘civil servants’ at all regimental celebrations.
The chief guest together with Brig Hiran Halangode (retired) then unveiled a tribute in marble to the founder commander of the Gemunu Watch Brigadier JF Halangode at the entrance to the camp.
Arrangements were made for the wives of 3 martyred First Battalion Generals, Major Generals Vijaya Wimalaratne and Lakshman Algama and Lt Gen Parami Kulatunge to be present although only one could make it.
All retired officers and their wives and retired soldiers were very warmly received on arrival, taken care of and made to feel at home throughout their stay. They had come to celebrate one unforgettable and hectic day with the Gemunu family.
The diverse arrangements for the month long celebrations and the logistics involved were not inconsiderable. They were admirably planned and executed by the Commanding Officer and his staff who also spared no effort to make the old comrades comfortable, welcome and honoured.
A remarkable 234 page hard cover souvenir was also produced. This, despite the battalion having been continuously on operations during the 30 consecutive years of what appeared to be unending conflict. It was never at its home station. The book is filled with reports, documents, maps and photos carefully preserved. It tells the fascinating 50 year history of the Battalion from its inception. It covers the years of peace and conflict equally well. It has been a labour of toil, dedication and love for the Battalion truly worthy of its Jubilee year and in time emulation by the other battalions of the Watch. It adds immeasurable credit to the Battalion Commander and his team.
Over 600 serving and retired officers and men and a good number of their wives witnessed the parade. There were over 300 serving and retired officers, warrant officers and sergeants for lunch at the latter’s mess. The rest had lunch and dinner at their respective messes. Later in the evening the officers with their spouses numbering about 200 had a splendid dinner dance at their mess. It ended almost at day break. Two paintings of battle, donated by Brig Hiran Halangode, were also unveiled.
The Mess which in WW2 accommodated Admiral (later Viscount) Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command staff dominates the Polo grounds, the Golf course and the Military Academy and takes in Diyatalawa station and the magnificent vista of the Haputale, Idalgashinna and Ohiya hills to the west in one sweep.
The first battalion from the inception made its mark in all army sports and games. It won the athletics championship monotonously especially in the 1960-70s with the likes of Asian Games 400m gold medalist and Olympian W Wimaladasa and a host of national champions, wrestling (national champ BHV Perera) and late Corporal Vadivel D a favourite of all in the Regiment, who also boxed successfully.
The Battalion became Army cricket champion under Capt (later Brigadier) Madura Wijewickrema in a 1979 team that included amongst others 2Lt (later Lt Col) Gamini Talpawilla and Private Quintus (both killed in action (KIA) in Trincomalie) 2Lt (later Brigadier) Neil Akmeemana (KIA at Elephant Pass), Brigadier TD Rajapakse who captained the Army Sara Trophy Division One team and Cpl Amarasena. The team first captained by Brig Halangode senior and later had Brig Halangode junior in it, were often champions in Badulla District competitions. At least four who later became Major Generals also played for the Army.
The Battalion was able to win the Sevens but was not the XV a side rugby tournament. Capt (later Colonel) Saliya Udugama captained the first Army Clifford Cup winning side with 6 players from the Battalion in 1975 while warrant officers GB Gunadasa and PG Gunewardene, not having seen a rugger ball before joining the army ,played for the Army and Sri Lanka. Cpl Wickramage JD was a stalwart army and defence services No 8 for many years. Lt Gen Parami Kulatunge (KIA) played for the Battalion too. The battalion’s most promising player late sergeant NP Abeysinghe played superbly for the army at cricket and rugby.
While Sergeant (later Regimental Sergeant Major) Sheriffudin BH won the prize for the best shot in the army, the battalion also won the march and shoot competition under Lt Col Hiran Halangode.
At boxing the Battalion was only runner up many times despite having TN Yahiya, a national champ. So it was with hockey with Major (later Major General) Vijaya Wimalaratne (KIA) at center half. A revival is already under way as the Regiment has recently won inter regiment soccer, archery and shooting (unbroken since 2002) championships.
On the 8th morning the old comrades bade a reluctant farewell taking with them to the low lands fond memories of the best part of their lives. The Battalion had come a long way in 50 years. It had at all times served the nation and its people honourably. It had kept to the promise it made, that as men of Gemunu their manhood would not allow anyone else to do what was expected of them, whatever the cost.
The veterans were justifiably proud of the great deeds of those who followed who upheld the name of Gemunu, protected the nation and guarded the honour of the regiment against odds and were finally victorious. They knew that the First Battalion in which is reposed the traditions, ethos, customs and culture of the Regiment has developed a magnificent and unshakeable foundation. They had kept faith.
They knew the Battalion was in strong hands. They gave deep thought to those who had borne the cost of war, the NOK of the dead and the disabled. They would not forget.
“Somewhere in America, I once read these words:”
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
(Lt Col Nick Vaux - ‘March to the South Atlantic’ the story of 42 Royal Marine Commando in the Falkland’s war (1982).
The nation and the Gemunu Watch have certainly done that.
Indomitable men of Gemunu- Tarry not. Forward
Lalin Fernando (Major General retired)
- Asian Tribune -