Thursday 19 January 2012

Frank Messervy

The unrelenting hail of shot, shell and fire stopped with the dawn. The rain that had been falling for the previous six weeks continued coursing, a weird syncopation of dropping sounds, a drip-splash-drop-drop-drip symphony that managed oriental quarter-tones, a lunatic cacophony through which the drifting mist made not merely the landscape, but the immediate surroundings take on the quality of Chinese mist paintings of the type seen on screens in restaurants.
It was typical of the Japanese to fill the night with terror and death, only to fall silent with the dawn leaving the enemy exhausted, shell-shocked and desperate with the certain knowledge that the ring had grown tighter. The fourth army corpse lay entrapped in the maze of mountain gorges, precipices, spectacular but unseen waterfalls in probably the world's thickest primeval tropical jungle, where only dynamite may be brought in to blast away gigantic trees so as to clear the way for lieutenant General Frank Messervy to remove his entrapped army from the heartland of Burma during the devastating days of the last war. he did. And with the 7th Indian Division and the reconstructed 4th Army Corps, he drove the Japanese Army through the Burmese mountains to take Rangoon.
That itself is a tale worth telling. For the last three hours, the Japanese Imperial Commander for Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, General Seishiro Itagaki, had been standing at attention with his ceremonial sword held out at arm's length, with his entire officer corps lined up behind him. His army of 100,000 men were drawn up without arms in parade in the open field adjacent to the city of Rangoon, now reduced to ashes. General Frank Messervy entered the open field accompanied by the pipes and drums of the Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise's), and the entire 4th Army Corps for the purpose of taking the surrender. Detachment after detachment formed up and with the entire corps at present arms, General Itagaki handed his sword to Frank Messervy. It was just over 550 years old and had been made by Kanemoto, the most famous sword smith of his day.
Years later, I went to visit Sir Frank Messervy in his thatch-covered, large cottage not too far from London. Tall and gangly, and an older man by now, Frank recalled:
"In all my life, I have never seen a man so overwhelmed by emotion as was Itagaki when he handed his sword to me. He went ashen gray, just like a corpse, and the pupils of his eyes dwindled until there were no pupils at all. I know, because I looked straight and hard into his eyes as he surrendered his sword. It was as though he was surrendering his soul to me, and I though he would drop dead at my feet."
The said sword had killed many people in its time. When the heir of the house came of age, he would go into the family village where the tenants were kneeling on either side of the path. To prove his manhood, he would take a right-hand swipe and a left and so on, severing heads on his way.
Why this story? General Sir Frank Messervy, K.C.S.I., K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O, was the son of Myra de Boissière who married an Englishman by the name of Walter Messervy, who had come out to Trinidad to work in the Colonial Bank, later Barclays Bank, eventually becoming its manager. Myra was the daughter of Poleska de Boissière, who then lived with her husband, Dr. de Boissière, in Champs Elysées, which is now the Country Club. Frank in fact might have been born at Bagshot House, which went to the Bank when his original owner, Valleton de Boissière, got into financial difficulties.
After Myra and Walter had had several other children, and Walter was posted to Jamaica to work in the bank, Frank had the good fortune of being "adopted" by wealthy, childless relatives of his father. They educated him at Eaton and made him their heir. From them, Frank inherited the Twining tea estates in Sri Lanka. He had an exceptionally brilliant military career. Graduating from Sandhurst in 1913, from where he was posted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army, joining the 9th Hodsonshorse in 1914. During the First World War he served in France, Palestine, Syria and Kurdistan. His experience in this war was, as for most of the soldiers, a horrible one. After the Treaty of Versailles, Frank came back to his home country for prolonged visits, staying with his beloved grandmother in Champs Elysées. His uncle Arneaud was Lieut.-Col., the  most senior officer serving on the western front in the war, spent much time with him as well.
Back to England, where Frank passed the staff college course at Chamberley in 1926, going on to become a brevet major in 1929 and a brevet lieutenant-colonel in 1933. During the Second World War, he first served in Eritrea and then in North Africa. Captured by the Germans, he escaped. He rose rapidly in rank, ending the war as  Lieutenant General. Appointed G.O.C. in C. and Governor of Malaysia. He later became C. in C. of the army of independent Pakistan, and served there at the time when India achieved her independence.
Messervy was deputy chief scout to Lord Rowallan.
In his military career, Messervy was known as the "spearhead general". He went into battle with his men, and did not stay behind to direct battle strategies over a map. In most pictures, he is dirty, unshaven, and probably missed his lunch. A deeply religious man, in the last years of his life, he went regularly to Lourdes, where he acted as stretcher-bearer for sick pilgrims. He died in 1974 - a Trinidadian at heart and in genes, decorated with the highest military honours of the British Empire, celebrated in many international publications, a brave hero who our soldiers can be proud of.

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