Throughout my childhood, Great Uncle Clifford was a photograph.
He sat within a frame on the mantelpiece. Silent, absent and yet somehow always present. Many years later, I was to inherit six letters describing the last few hours of Clifford’s life as he led his men in an attack across No Man’s Land at night in October 1916.
Finally he had a voice – albeit not his own. His memory had been preserved and delivered by his friends and colleagues from the trenches. Handwritten in pencil, the letters spoke of the man that was, their love of him and the grief that they felt at his loss. Due to the aborted attack, Clifford’s body was never formally recovered from the battlefield.
Unsure quite how or why, and armed only with a camera, I set out to bring him home.
Curiously, I was to discover that he is still here.
Marking Timecomprises a series of 35 portraits of serving and ex-servicemen and women, combined with their memory of service life and an historic photograph. The portraits span a period of over 90 years, with the most senior sitter a WW1 veteran through to individuals who have more recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The genesis of this two-year project centres on six letters that I inherited, regarding a relative killed in the trenches during the First World War. Thereby the project effectively starts with an inherited memory – a handful of letters and photographs from the front line. This link is continued through a series of portraits and memories stretching from 1918, through each subsequent decade, to the present day.
On one level the body of work simply offers a unique ‘snap shot’ of historical military events; seen and recorded by the individuals that experienced them first hand. The subjects, both male and female cross all walks of life, in terms of both service role and experience. They include a female from the WRAF who served in 1918, a prisoner of war from WWII, a pilot in the Falklands, a corporal in Iraq, a surgeon in Afghanistan through to the recently appointed, Chief of the Defence Staff.
The project is made up of a portrait of the now and a memory of the then. It explores the relationship between both private & public memory; and the influence it has in defining our identity, both as individuals and as a nation. Photographically, the work challenges the viewer to consider if ‘we are who we were’; and if memory, similar to the historical events themselves, will always have a sense of disconnect or separateness from the present.
The work addresses the process of grief and remembrance, and the reader’s experience is far from clear-cut when considering the private memory as it migrates to the public arena. The sitter’s personal testimonies challenge complacency, or any preconceived notions of how we believe they should feel, or remember events at which we were not present.
There is a sense that the memory and the subject in the portrait are still fluid; they are of course intrinsically linked, but neither element singularly, or as a combination, is in themselves a conclusion. Whether this sense of joining together, and concurrent disconnect, of both the portrait and their memory of war (and peacetime service), will prove comforting, or profoundly uncomfortable, will lie with the individual viewer.
I suspect they will experience both.
Michael C Hughes
“Society occasionally overlooks our service & ex-service personnel – they seem to exist in another place from our own. The Burma veteran, or young soldier recently returned from Afghanistan, is potentially seen as being from ‘over there’ – a place that is historically or geographically separate from our own.
However it is these same ordinary sons and daughters, living amongst us, who perform this most extraordinary act of service; and they have continued to do so down through the generations. We justifiably hold a solemn covenant with all these individuals, and Michael’s photographic portraits are a timely reminder that they are real and human.”
I joined in September 1918; there was hope that the war would end soon – we all did, didn’t we?
My three brothers were killed in the war. Two in France, and one in India I think. The ones in France, one had to bury the other. My late husband he was a soldier in the first war in France and he lost a brother too.
I was working in the Officers Mess. Waiting on them and doing their meals, that sort of thing. They were all very nice gentlemen, but they didn’t all come back. We had some happy times; work hard, help one another –that sort of thing. We worked long hours – always on the go.
Never mind – we had some very good times, although it wasn’t a nice time was it? Hope it’ll never come again.
In the inset photo Florence is far right middle row
2 / 35
Dunkirk. Well, that is a story in itself. Stretcher bearers have to carry their stretchers manually; and they are heavy too… made of wood. And of course I only had my old polished boots to wear. Well the polish wasn’t good for the boots, especially if you’re going to be marching in the mud and they actually fell to pieces. My bloody boots fell to piece!
So I had to go and get some footwear from somewhere. We were on the march. Well, of course, along the roads were vehicles left all on the side. So I had to go and look in all those vehicles to see if I could find something. Well, I found a pair of wellington boots – that was the only thing.
They didn’t fit, but they were alright – I was able to wear them. Now I’m a stretcher bearer with wellington boots! Not easy to march in Wellingtons… No, no, not, believe me.
However then came the time of course when we came to the water. The last boat was coming in and they said “It’s the last boat” and if it didn’t get there, I’d had it. So I rushed in and forgot I had my bloody wellies on (Laughter). You know what happened then don’t you? They filled! The next thing was I was on a boat hook. That was Dunkirk, yes.
We lost all our equipment at Dunkirk. The lot – where we were at any rate. Other places, I don’t know what happened… and the Stukas were coming over. It’s not a nice feeling.
I lost a couple of mates. They just disappeared somewhere, I don’t know. In France; never saw them again. And of course there was all the civilians as well you know.
3 / 35
I was involved in relieving one of the concentration camps which was interesting. It was up near Bremen. Word came through that there was this concentration camp where one or two had managed to escape. It had originally been a prisoner of war camp.
They were all absolutely riddled with typhus and goodness know what – all on the point of death. The SS were in there and they were trying to defend the camps and dispose of all the dead. To just try and hide up all the hostages that they’d killed.
At one end of the camp, there was a crematorium where most of the SS were stationed. But otherwise I remember well there were blocks of huts.
We personally weren’t allowed in there owing to the risk of typhus. The medical foragers went in. But so to speak, we looked at it through the barbed wire. It was just like a sort of deep litter of chickens.
There were all the dead bodies on top of the dead bodies, up to a great height. With a few survivors as well. Terrible.
One’s sort of mentality towards death then is quite different, you know, to now. We took it for granted that people were dying. We didn’t have all the hysteria that goes on now I’m afraid.
4 / 35
In one of our attacks, Patrick Nepean’s company captured a Jap. This was almost unheard of; they usually fought until dead or, if heavily wounded, would blow themselves up.
As Intelligence Officer, I was informed by a call on the wireless. At the time, I was carrying a full pack and about 150 yards from Pat’s company. I ran frantically. I knew that all our soldiers knew that, if caught by the Japanese, we could expect to be treated abominably. I was anxious that we hand over the POW to my intelligence superiors; they would be delighted to have the opportunity to question the man.
When I reached the prisoner, I was overcome by emotion. Since the age of about ten, I have been unable to weep when sad or in pain. But when utterly happy or delighted with some happening, I weep. This was such an occasion.
The men, many of whom had been away from home and gentleness for three years, who had lived roughly amid fear and hatred, were giving the Jap a cup of tea. The prisoner had lost his helmet, so someone had lent him a hat against the midday sun. I had to turn away to hide my loss of control. I was immensely proud of having the privilege to command such Englishmen.
5 / 35
We could see this damn monastery at Monte Cassino, but we were on the flank and we were doing our normal role, advance to contact. Unfortunately it was very close country which wasn’t suitable for tanks. Well, in no time at all, we made contact and the forward troops were all engaged with the enemy.
In SHQ we were doing what we normally do – getting the reports back to try and tell them behind what was happening; this was our normal role. The Colonel suddenly appeared and apparently the enemy immediately to our front were bringing down such heavy fire on the main attack, that he insisted that we charge forward as a Squadronto try and eliminate this.
I remember the Squadron Leader saying to me “Right we’re going to have a shoot.” And we thought “We’re going to have a shoot? Squadron Headquarters?”
Next thing we knew we were in a cavalry charge. In other words we went straight in. The Germans were well entrenched and we were in amongst them in no time at all. I was in the turret and in the Sherman, you’ve got the cupola on the right and the Squadron Leader was with his head out.
He was firing his tommy gun like mad and I was passing him up magazines. The next thing I knew, he sort of slouched and I saw this spot appear on his head and that was where the round went in. Where it came out was a frightful mess.
6 / 35
Singapore was bombed; it was bombed continuously. The mortar fire and shell-fire; it was hell on earth in Singapore. I’ve never seen so many women and children slaughtered – the Japanese reckon they killed a million civilians. A lot of them were shoved in the sea, tied up with barbed wire. Just taken out and dumped in the sea.
When people – when little children get blown up and their ears, arms, legs and that all hang around… I thought “God, you’ve got to be tough to stand this.”
It’s very difficult. Some boys and officers killed themselves. It’s just evil. I thought, “If you can overcome it, then you’ve got to overcome it, if you possibly can”.
Well, the Burma Railway was different altogether. I thought Singapore was bad enough, but it was heaven compared to when I got on the railway. Everybody will tell you that. That was the most evil. I used to work eighteen, nineteen and sometimes twenty-four hours. I had no clothes in the end, no clothes at all. Just a g-string.
A lot of boys had their heads taken off. The gate that led to our bungalow had a big head – a human head – of one of our boys on it. Facing the people, you see. They did that as a warning to others.
They didn’t say what they’d done, or anything like that; or who it was. Then when I went on to the railway – there were human heads, tied in buns through the ear and the mouth; big buns of human heads.
I saw too many other evil things.
7 / 35
After a while I thought it prudent to raise my head, ever so cautiously above the lengthy grass and have a quiet look see.
Dead ahead I saw two German soldiers: I was musing whether to take aim with the rifle I was carrying when it happened. Peak physical condition is my only answer as to why I remained fully conscious. I can only imagine the sensation I felt can be likened to being kicked in the face by a mule or more likely to substitute one’s face for a golf ball driven by Seve Ballesteros.
In fact, I had been shot clean between the eyes, by a German concealed on the railway embankment. The bullet just missed my jugular vein and, taking a chunk of jaw with it, made an exit via my neck.
The Battalion medical officer Michael Wilcox made me as comfortable as he could, Tony Hunter, the CO happened to be at the Regimental Aid Post at the time.
Neither of them was confident they would see me again.
8 / 35
Everyone says, “Bletchley Park – Ooh that must have been exciting” Well it wasn’t exciting at all. The work was extremely routine and very, very boring. We were called Clerk (Computers). As I see it now, we were just a tiny cog in a computer. The data that we produced, was then put together by the boffins and turned into something that made sense. But what we did, made no sense to us at all really!
At the time I kept thinking, “Well that’s a bit daft, what on earth do you want weather reports from Norway for? You know, what’s that got to do with a war in Europe?”
However it turns out that they were absolutely vital for coastal command to know whether the weather was good enough for them to go out on patrol and look for U-boats.
In one sense, we did not feel hugely involved with the bigger picture of the war as a whole.
Of course there were people there whose fiancés were killed and they got the news; there were tears and you felt awful for them. But we sort of took it all as – I don’t know, it was just what you did and what was happening; you simply got on with it.
9 / 35
In 1943 I applied to go overseas. When we joined the Army, we had in our minds that we will go and see all the other countries. Remember we did not move away from our village in those days – not even 10 or 15 miles. We didn’t go to big cities even. So we wanted to see other countries – have a big adventure.
We wanted to see the war also. See how it is going? What it was like? We were very young at that time – but also the army is a big part of our family history – for us soldiering is a very big thing. When there was the Sikh War with the British, our family fought on the side of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They were in the Sikh Army.
My Grand Uncle fought in the Army, with the British Army in the First World War – in France and Belgium. As did my two Uncles also. So we learned their stories when they came back. We were very small and they used to tell us about France. They were in the Cavalry. And at that time… when they were in India on leave, they’d bring their horse with them back home. We’d have all these saddles and horses, everything at home also.
We were farmers. These family stories were in our mind, so we had to join the Army. The other thing was other people… there are some very corrupt people in many places; in the Police & in Civil Service. But soldiering was honest – we thought Army Service is very honest and true.
10 / 35
The whole thing with Palestine was that Israel hadn’t been created then. We were still being shot at by the Stern Gang. It was rather like Ireland. It was a sort of roughhouse. They wanted us out.
We were still holding on. The job we had was to go up and down the beaches and stop the Jews from Europe landing – if necessary, opening fire.
So, in theory a tank would try and sink a boat rather than… But no way. None of the Englishmen ever had any idea of carrying out the order.
We owned, you know, Palestine as such – it wasn’t divided into two then. It was one and we created a sort of mandate territory. We were told we didn’t want the Jews in. I mean, in the Army we didn’t know what we were doing.
The Palestinians weren’t any trouble at that time. It was the British who didn’t want foreigners coming into their Protectorate. In hundreds of thousands, they wanted to come. Particularly from Russia and Germany, where, you know obviously the Jews didn’t want to stay around to see what the next lot did to them.
But there was no way we could have opened fire on them. They were women and children, you know. It was ridiculous.
11 / 35
I had a good time. I did; absolutely adored the Navy. I lived up in Derbyshire. In a little village called New Mills. You blink and you’ve passed it. One of those places. Just a little village and it was just so boring.
The war was on because we did have a bomb drop in our street. Right outside our window, but luckily it broke in half and shot through the labour exchange. Because where we lived was the main London to Manchester express line. And it used to shake the houses as it went by – but that was another story that, that’s what you got used to.
The bomb broke in half, went through the labour exchange and it went almost into the viaduct but just missed it because it went into the bank.
He was after the viaduct and was escaping from the Spitfires. Apparently, as they said he was trying to get away. But the Spitfires was after him and he fired at the children on the cricket ground, dropped another bomb, a lighter one apparently, I don’t know. Now I forget.
And all they found of this young girl was her hands on the piano. Demolished the house and she got blown to bits, and her hands was there on the keys of the piano…She was only about eight or nine.
12 / 35
In Korea, a vast amount of ammunition was fired in support by our own artillery and mortars during the action. This caused serious casualties to the Chinese in the open on top of ‘the Hook’ position and, in the forming up areas for their assaults.
It was estimated that the Chinese losses were about 250 killed and up to 800 wounded. ‘The Dukes’ losses were 24 killed, 105 wounded and 20 missing, of whom 16 were later confirmed as prisoners.
In ‘the Hook’ Company command post, they lost communication with the forward platoon when the initial barrage came down. The Company Commander, irate at the loss said to the Lance Corporal of his signals detachment “You are my b… signaller, if you can’t get through, get out there and find out what is happening.”
The Lance Corporal set off with his weapon along the remains of the communication trench to the forward platoons and after a while met two Chinamen coming the other way. He hit the front one with his rifle butt, who dropped his Burp gun (SMG) and they both ran away.
The signaller returned to the Command Post and said “There are Chinamen in the communication trench” The Company Commander in response said “Don’t be so stupid.” Upon which the Signaller produced the Burp sub machine gun causing a degree of consternation all round.
13 / 35
In Suez we’d only come across the odd firing sort of situation. The Egyptians heart wasn’t really in it. It wasn’t heart so much, they just didn’t have the will to fight and we were just walking through them.
We killed a few and a few of ours had been killed. But then again, that wasn’t the fault of the Egyptians.
A lot of that was what they call friendly fire nowadays and that was mostly marines that followed us in. Some of them had come down the canal to take the canal houses along the canal and again, a bit of a slip-up. The Egyptians had one house at the beginning of the canal, which they were defending and the marines decided that they would stop at the entrance and call an air strike.
During the time the aircraft got off from the aircraft carrier offshore for the air strike, the Egyptians had decided to give in and had left the place. The marines came in, but so did the air strike, and killed some of the marines.
Looking back as Suez. The battalion had got halfway down the canal. Another 48 hours at the most and we would have been in Cairo. Had that happened, the general feeling is that there wouldn’t be so much trouble in the Middle East now, had they been allowed to carry on. Like the first Gulf War.
14 / 35
In Aden we had everything thrown at us. We had to guard not only the Al Masari Prison, but also the Dhofar Road which is the main thoroughfare in and out of Aden. It was our job really to make sure what was going in was legit and what was coming back out was legit; it was bloody hard actually.
We were getting hit every night of the week.
We had a bloody big area, we had roughly about three square miles to cover, on foot, including salt pans and we were getting hit regular by mortars. We were only there four days and we got mortared.
Ambushed. AK47s were the main weapons. They were getting rather bold. And they weren’t doing too bad actually.So we had to sort of resort to underhand tactics before the… so-called ‘rules of engagement’ had been brought in. We had to nick in there rather smartly and make examples. ‘Introduce ourselves‘ as we call it.
It really hotted up down there, we lost our first three blokes down there, in the space of two days. We had four wounded and the old man, Colonel Walsh, he said “Right fuck this, let’s get in there and let’s take them out, let’s go for it.” So we did, we hit them hard.
We’re going in there – so of course we hit it hard – with the bagpipes coming down! Yes that went on roughly for about three months and then the word came through – well actually, the withdrawal was inevitable.
15 / 35
In a way, I was very young, only being 18 compared to the others on the boat – submarines were always called a boat.
I was sort of like the mascot; and I was living with older people, which helped immensely. However, living so closely together you knew everything about each other. That’s why it worked. But you did have your private moments.
I reflected lots of times. I would never have been able to have stayed in the Navy had I been on a ship. I remember once we tied up, I can’t for the life of me think why or what was the reason, to the Ark Royal. And we all went for breakfast on board and they were sort of absolutely astounded at our condition. You know we had sort of dirty ripped t-shirts, jeans on, long hair and were unshaven.
I remember walking around the Ark Royal and it just sort of seemed like there’s a mass of people. And I was thinking “God people are actually living like this.” They must have been doing exactly the same. They must have been looking at us and saying “Oh my god, not for all the money in the world would I go into that tin can.” And yet at the same time, we were looking at them and saying “God no way I could live in this metropolis”.
16 / 35
When we were in Northern Ireland, you came home straight off the streets. This was an R and R period – that’s rest and recuperation period. Where we’d been on the streets in Belfast and the surrounding areas in, I guess it was the early part of ’74. So it was quite hot, things were happening.
On Friday you’re on the streets. Friday evening you get put on an aircraft from Aldergrove airport flown back to Heathrow. So Friday night, you are at home with the wife.
Saturday morning she wants you to go walking up Guildford High Street. We had two little boys and we were walking up Guildford High Street, a bit of a hill with a cobbled surface and she looked back and said “What an earth are you doing?”
I had no knowledge of it, but I was hard against the wall, walking through the doors. Basically what is called hard targeting. I’m just going to go down in case they do another run; because they’ll be looking for me.
I was basically hard targeting up the High Street. But you had no knowledge of it – never walk anywhere without your back to the wall and that sort of thing.
And there was no thought of preparing you to come home at that stage. It was straight into the business.
17 / 35
Throughout the Falklands War, we were based on the island. At a place called Portsmouth Carlos. Our role there was anything that was thrown at us from carrying troops, ferrying under slung loads, ferrying ammunition, ferrying guns and insertions.
Here we’d been told, helicopters don’t go beyond the forward edge of a battle zone. Absolute rubbish. We were constantly doing that. We did it on one night, when we were on a SAS mission, inserting three 105s plus Royal Marine artillery – so artillery attached to Royal Marines.
We dropped them onto Cedar Mount Kent which was in enemy hands. Although the SAS were there and supposed to have secured it. We landed on it and suddenly found, well the SAS were obviously there, but so were the Argentineans of course.
Tracer’s going all over the place and it took us 45 minutes to get all the guns off because we landed in a bog. We didn’t land on solid ground and so we had to do a little bit of artistic manoeuvring with the aircraft to get the back off the aircraft out the bog, but at the same time provide a ramp to get these guns out. Then our winch packed in, so we just had to free wheel them down – so you got these couple of tons of 105s going down and do they miss the side… “Is it clear yet?”, “Yes”, “Okay let it go.”
We did it, but after we had lifted off, we shot off down the side of Mount Kent. For whatever reason, we hit the water at the bottom at about 120 knots and everything wound down. The engine slammed out. The co-pilot and myself were about to jump out and suddenly the other two crew members said, “Wait a minute, we’re now at about 1500 feet.”
18 / 35
The General Belgrano had been torpedoed and sunk.
Contrary to popular perception, there was no jingoistic celebratory whoops and cheers or whispers of ‘Yes’ through clenched teeth. Just respectful silence, the acknowledgement that if any lingering hopes of going home any time soon was rapidly disappearing.
The silence and absence of celebration is deeply entrenched amongst seafarers. A shining truth that the ocean doesn’t favour one individual from another, but is capable of devouring all. It speaks of your raw vulnerability.
The atmosphere onboard had irreversibly changed.
Apprension and a vigorous sense of purpose had taken over. Two days later, as the seascape changed appropriately from clear blue to threatening laden grey, we were solemnly informed by the Commanding Officer that Sheffield had been fatally hit by air launched exocet.
The silence was deafening in its impact. I don’t expect I was alone in feeling sad, fearful and a foreboding sense of responsibility to each other.
It was now impossible to pretend that this was going to be anything other than messy, which was reiterated by the transformation of the wardroom and our general mess hall into emergency operating theatres.
19 / 35
In Bosnia I saw good and bad of mankind out there. We was out there when they were exhuming mass graves. That’s what cost me my eyesight. There are certain things that I did to save my men and women seeing. You know, I remember what I was like at 18 or 19 and I didn’t want, if possible my young men and women seeing the horrors of what man is capable of doing to others. In particular innocent people, women and children.
They don’t know exactly, but where we were in Sanski Most… this is only rumour, there was a lot of reports of chemical warfare and all sorts. They tried every dirty trick campaign with each other; they hated each other. They’d use anything to eradicate each other’s communities.
It’s as simple as having invisible bacteria or virus on your hands and then just rubbing your eyes. And I would cry when I see a dead body. When I see a woman cuddling a new born baby or something that’s just been brutalised… that’s been laying there for six or seven weeks in a house. God knows what she’d been through before that.
Each body tells a story and you try not to get emotionally involved. For example, you have to eradicate the pets.
Something the public don’t realise is, when you’ve removed all the human beings from a village or a town, the pets are still left – the cats and the dogs. They become feral and they have to be destroyed because they’re then riddled with disease and god knows what else. I shot hundreds of dogs out there.
20 / 35
The wonderful thing about training in wild country like Dartmoor or Brecon Beacons is that it’s a great leveller. When you’re cold and wet through, and you’re carrying heavy kit and you’re still trying to think on very little sleep, it’s a wonderful leveller.
You may be the officer with the proverbial bit of ‘birdshit’ on your shoulder, the guy next to you may be a very impressive body builder in a gym, but actually out there in the open, in the elements, when you’re short of sleep, you’re all the same.
It’s a great equaliser and it doesn’t matter what educational qualifications you have. It’s about leadership and it’s about comradeship and good planning; and clear thinking which we don’t always get right.
I enjoyed my time in the TA in the ‘80s hugely… there was a sense of purpose at the time. Although it is very different from what it is now. Back then it was about the Cold War. It was about training to deploy, in the event of an escalation with the Soviet Union, to defend a West German village close to the border; expecting to be soaked with Soviet chemicals weapons in the first 24 hours; and then to delay the 3rd (Russian) Guards Shock Army for a few hours before they rolled across West Germany and somebody pressed the nuclear button.
21 / 35
I think the thing that strikes most people that day in Macedonia, preparing to enter Kosovo, was the big spat with the Russians who had decided to come in from the north.
They were launched to take Pristina Airfield and that was when, the well documented big spat occurred between General Mike Jackson. His reluctance to start World War III.
We were stood to as the Battle Group to go and face off the Russians – which was an interesting six hours. It was tense, I think it’s safe to say. We spent six hours sitting in a cornfield waiting to get on the Chinooks – waiting for the order to go.
Suddenly we had got very, very fast orders to grab our gear and prepare to go and dig in on Pristina Airfield and wait for the Russians to arrive – I think we had about 45 minutes to recheck our kit, ammunition, bayonets and all the other good things, get out into the airfield as the Chinooks came in at the same time.
Undoubtedly some of the blokes were concerned. For the first time I suddenly saw, in some cases, genuine disquiet for what we were being asked to do.
It was an extraordinary little piece of history. I felt very privileged to have been part of it.
22 / 35
Then the warrior went down the berm and the driver must have got a bit of a fright I think – I don’t know, but he applied the brakes. When you apply the brakes on a warrior it tends to jerk slightly, and on that jerk movement, as I faced the warrior, I saw these sort of seven to eight flashes, with flashes coming towards us; and then a sort of smell, burning smell sensation that hit my nose, as I landed on the ground.
Then I could feel a sort of warm sensation running down the back of my hand because my finger had been hit as well. So I had been hit several times in both legs and once in my hand.
They then sent me to Row 3, which was the Field Hospital where they then took my leg off. The thing is, once they got to Row 2, the dressing station, a sigh of relief came over me, that’s when I conked out and went unconscious.
Just went to sleep. I knew I was in safe hands, and so that was it – I was out cold. I woke up once. I don’t know where I was. I was either at the dressing station or field hospital, I don’t know, with silver things in front of my eyes and this chap pushing me saying “It looks like it is going to have to come off.”
So when I woke up two days later in the UK, my leg had been taken off, but I was aware of that, I knew it was gone.
23 / 35
Then we moved and do you know, the night before the invasion was just like any other night in so very many ways. It’s not like it stuck out particularly with everyone being really nervous. We were obviously more concerned about things like all the trigger points – whether the first people crossing the berm would trigger a weapon of mass destruction.
Well, the thought of having to be up close and personal with a bunch of chemicals is never very comfortable… therefore everyone is on much higher alert or simply being around the shell scrape. But we were already kind of prepared for it anyway. And then of course going into Iraq. I remember going in and just being massively surprised by the amount of rubbish there was just strewn around the villages.
After the invasion, those who went out subsequently from the regiment and did peacekeeping operations, they faced very different threats and pressures – which would be that you never knew who the enemy were. We always knew who they were, it was really bloody obvious. We knew who the allies were and we knew who the enemy were. Anyone who wasn’t an ally was a potential enemy.
24 / 35
I walked into the MOD and said in a rather sort of Cavalry Officer fashion “Anything going on in this place?” And somebody said “Well we’re about to invade Iraq. We’re going to need 8,000 reservists. And he said “Don’t worry old chap we won’t get them, but you’ve got to be seen to be trying.” And so I said “Okay.”
I said “What’s the template?” And they said “Well there isn’t one.” So actually I made up really that whole mobilisation scheme.
I said “Well okay I’ll give it a go. “ Bearing in mind that the reservists were on 190 days notice to move, we got the Territorial Army Port & Maritime Regiment out in four days; and we had over eight and a half thousand people in training in about a week and a half.
This was January ‘03 – or over Christmas basically. We hadn’t done a mobilisation like this for reservists since World War II.
I think the thing that exercised my mind, and if there was one thing that kept me awake at night, was to try and ensure that the soldiers had a level of training that was appropriate for a combat situation.
You know, there were these people waiting for the Cold War and suddenly being scooped up for a large scale deliberate intervention. In the Middle East.
25 / 35
Two Squadrons from the regiment deployed to Iraq in March – so we had this strange two month phoney war… which happily coincided with the relocation of RHQ, which actually was on the very same day they invaded Iraq, having been delayed by six months. So we had a busy and interesting time on that day!
Keeping the ‘home fires burning’ was quite interesting as this had never happened before – well, not for 50 years.
All of a sudden you’ve got wives, families, girlfriends asking “What’s going on?” You have to organise the whole welfare support infrastructure from nowhere. This meant squadron parties, as you’ve got to bring the families into the squadrons.
Don’t forget for TA squadrons, the families, the dependents come from a 30, 40, 50 mile circular radius around the drill hall; and the Regiment covered many counties – unlike a regular regiment based in one location.
They often don’t know each other, there is no patch or quarter for them to go and talk to each other, there is nothing. We had opening evenings, days, coffee parties, websites, tea parties, newsletters and so on.
What we created was a big family network and gave them that support framework, vital in such new and frankly worrying times.
26 / 35
That day in Afghanistan we’d had no warnings about suicide bombers. We were just packing up to go and I was sort of the last man sweeping the road at the back – I was the last man of the patrol, which meant that I was first out of the gates.
I was on foot and came out of the gates. I was on the corner of the gateway waiting for everyone to peel through and take up position in the road.
They pulled their vehicles out onto the road and obviously what had happened is that the guy, who wanted to blow himself up, he had focused on this vehicle and went to get that.
Obviously if you’re in the middle of a town, you can’t just sort of close off an area completely. You can’t just march along the main road in the town and expect no-one around you, you have to let people through. I guess you could push them over to one side, but that is hardly not going to help hearts and minds!
Therefore this guy, who I don’t think any of us had really noticed, wandered along the road towards the vehicle. Once he was within five-ten foot from the vehicle, and about fifteen foot from me, there was suddenly – well, I was looking the other way ready to start moving off and suddenly there was this bang behind me.
I turned around to see a big puff of red mist coming out of him and he fell over; he’s got a big hole out of his side – he’s got no arm & all his hip’s are taken out. Immediately I dived into a ditch and started scanning my arcs, but I had no idea what was happening.
That’s the weird thing about the suicide bomber. It’s so completely odd – you know, you’re trained all the time to react to a bomb going off and also to have people shooting at you; that is normal.
Instead there’s this guy who is lying on the road – only half dead.
27 / 35
The last tour had a different emotional feel to it. It is strange to go back to Afghanistan. Again you see progress, but it’s not the progress that makes good headlines or exciting newspaper copy; and that’s very hard and painful. Because you wish people could grasp what’s going on. And we had tragic losses. We lost five men from the battalion. That’s very difficult.
I mean my first tour, nobody from my immediate regiment was killed, which was fairly remarkable. This tour, losing five men, I came to feel that pain of losing a comrade. It’s a very peculiar situation because as a Padre, your response is to administer to the others. And yet you yourself of course are grieving. You knew them too.
You’ve had conversations with them that other people hadn’t had; about their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their aspirations. You knew a different side to them. So you do grieve in yourself.
Having stood in the back of a number of large transport aircraft – with the flag draped coffins in front of me, there’s a part of me that thinks “I never, ever, ever want to have to stand there again” because it’s hard. It is hard.
28 / 35
I told my missus of course that I was going to be the Master Cook at Bastion. I wouldn’t go out, I wouldn’t do anything because it’s easier to say this.
And then, just before I went on R&R, she thinks, “Oh, I’ll just have a look at the Battalion website” and there’s a picture on there. Underneath it said, LCWO and Master Cook on foot patrol in Afghanistan.
Anyway I phoned that week and I thought there’s something wrong with her – you know, she’s just being a woman.
She said, “I haven’t really slept this week. I had a bit of a shock earlier in the week.” I said, “Oh, right. What’s happened, babe?” She said, “I saw a photo.” “Yes, go on.” She said, “I’ve been on the website and there’s a picture of you out patrolling. You’ve got a gun in your hand and there’s not even a spatula in sight. Bastion Master Chef, giving me all that.”
I said, “Well, it’s probably some publicity thing, babe. Are you sure it’s me?”
“Yes, it’s got name underneath it. It’s got the badges that you wear and it’s got your eyes.”…
I said, “So how’s work anyway, babe? How you getting on?”
29 / 35
One day we had a child injured in the cross-fire, and she was tucked into the helicopter by the doctor on the ground, when the rescue team arrived to evacuate a soldier. The little girl was badly burnt. Nothing that we could not cope with at Bastion, and soon she was on the mend.
She was a lovely child and very popular with the staff. When the time came to discharge her, however, there were real problems finding her parents, and when we did find them, they refused to take her back. The story we were told was that as her face was now scarred, she was no longer marriageable; therefore they did not want her. That clearly was not acceptable and so more pressure was put on them.
This time they claimed that if they took the child back, both they and the child would be punished by the Taliban for co-operating with the enemy. We didn’t believe them and the child was duly discharged.
I believe that both the child and her parents were executed by the Taliban, just as they had predicted.
30 / 35
We didn’t know where the main charge was or anything like that at all. I was on my belt buckle drawing sand away and then we came under contact and a load of small arms fire ripped into the wall beside me and an RPG exploded.
Meanwhile my ECM operator was trying to dig a shell scrape with his belt buckle! I’m trying to do the same. Even my eyelids are joining in trying to dig a hole!! So that kicks off – the RPG explodes and we jump a mile. The cordon then engage the enemy, and while they are all doing that, I’m lying on the ground.
By this time I’ve caught my breath and I look for my friend Gaz – but he is not there. I think “Oh my God where is he?” He had dove into a ditch. We had cleared all the area, but he had dived into a ditch that hadn’t previously been cleared. However it was also under a hedge, so the likelihood of an IED being in the hedge was slim.
I look up and say “Gaz, Gaz where are you?” and he goes “I’m over here” “Oh right, okay” and then I started chuckling because normally I say “Don’t leave this clean area”. I always mark the ground and say “Don’t leave this box because nothing else is cleared. If you do, you go back via the way that we’ve marked all the way back to the ICP”.
So I shouted “Gaz, Gaz are you alright?” He replies “Yeah I’m fine.” “Okay, Gaz – that area you’re in?” “Yeah” he replies. “Well, that’s clear now. You just cleared it.”
Then I hear him laughing and he sees the funny side as well; and we were both rolling on the floor laughing while there is this fire fight going on. It was only a few seconds of laughter, but then I kind of got my breath again and go “Right okay, let’s crack on.”
31 / 35
Initially Afghanistan in 2006 was a bit of a shock, because we first got in to Sangin, and nothing really happened for about the first month. We were patrolling in soft hats, with just your body armour on. And then all of a sudden we’d be getting attacked – everyday – four, five times a day, but shoots. So as we started getting shot at, obviously we then started ramping up the protection. The Sangers got bigger and better. Helmet and body armour were constantly on.
But initially, once that adrenaline started pumping the blokes loved it. It was almost as if “Is this really happening? This is brilliant.” And then all of a sudden the contacts got bigger and longer. Then they became more sophisticated and started bringing in IDF from Mortars, and Chinese rockets and stuff. And that’s when the contact kind of, went beyond being a good laugh, because it’s all exchanging fire, the adrenalines pumping. Everyone’s enjoying it. Until “shit, I better start taking cover here, because realistically there’s a good chance you’re not going to make it.”
I didn’t lose anyone from my section, but most of them were in Sangin, but we lost a few lads. And from the support company roof that I manned, I was the commander of the anti-tank gun and missiles that were on the roof. There was a small building behind – that’s the picture on the wall there (seen to the left).
And you can see in the forefront of the picture, you’ve got a bloke running. He’s running from cover, it’s a small concrete building on top of the roof. Basically, the INT guys and the signals guys just used to sit in there. And that was hit by a Chinese Rocket that had come between my sanger and the mortar sanger. There was three people killed in that incident.
32 / 35
Working with the lads of B Company in Afghanistan, watching them every day and watching the younger ones – like 18 year old lads go out with the metal detectors to find the IEDs.
We walked past two the other day and one of them is going “No I’m going first.” He goes “No I’m going to go first.” They’re arguing who was going first.
They go out and they stop, they dig. And when we first got there, it was all very slow and methodical – but after a couple of months they’re out whizzing past “Stop! don’t like the look of that.” “Right O” – they’d turn around and go another way and off they’d go. And you’ve got these two young 18 year old lads at the front – who’ve got all their kit on. Who’ve then – not looking out in front of them; because they’ve got look at the floor and look for ground sites and then stop and have a look and all this.
They’re walking along, and you consider the amount of people that have got hit by IEDs doing that job, and they’re still every day pushing. They’re going out and they’re still doing their job. Not one of these lads complained or whinged at what they’re doing. And these are only young lads.
The thing, is they do it because they know everyone behind them has to walk through it. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes, through no fault of theirs, the patrol would still get hit.
That’s just the way the ground works out there. It was all about chance.
33 / 35
Once when we reached a compound, my platoon are told to do an ambush on the compound.
We stayed there until five o’clock in the evening. We were inside there for 14 hours in the compound. It was like a garden compound and we we just stayed in there waiting. And then around six o’clock, we were ambushed by the enemy.
We are not ambushing the enemy, but we were being ambushed by the enemy! The Taliban fired on us in open ground & fired into the compound, I was at the base of a big tree – all the branches landed on the ground and landed just next to me.
“Oh, oh. oh!” I was really scared by the big branches falling on me. There was no where to run. Because I was already down on the ground. And then immediately the Taliban was firing all the way through the ground. But then all the rounds hit the fallen branches and not me. After that, we fire all the way, tu, tu, tu, tu. And we got fire support. This I never forget.
If the branches had not landed, & the rounds not hit the branches, then it would have been me. I was lucky.
34 / 35
Here was an occasion when we, well I, ultimately I suppose had to find the moral courage to resist bad orders and do what we felt was right. I sensed that this was what actually the Prime Minister (Tony Blair), in this case, really most wanted – although perhaps he didn’t know it himself. So that was an occasion, as a Brigadier, that I had to find the same route through the problems as a younger Officer might face in direct combat.
In the case of Sierra Leone for example, and everyone will tell you this, we undoubtedly prevented a huge loss of life and terrible atrocities. If I had only ever done that, let alone other things, I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in, that’s one hell of a thing and I’m glad I did. Those are the things that probably only a soldier can experience, give or take.
After 39 years of serving the Crown, not one day goes by when I regret joining. Even though I’m not very wealthy, I’ve got (and everyone else in the Army has also got) something that they can hang on to that is very special.
It’s usually about doing good, rather than doing bad; certainly collectively. And so that’s pretty special I think.
35 / 35
On the day of the incident – it was a day that the men all say they will never, ever forget. It was the worst day of their tour they said. They went out on a foot patrol for about 25 minutes, they got ambushed, 360 degree ambush.
Mark was completely trapped. He got half of his men to a place of safety and he had to make radio contact with the other half & ask for air support, but the comms were very bad. I think he was trying to get decent comms basically, decent radio support and at that point the Taliban who had been coming from the south, the west and the north– anyhow he was trying to get radio contact. Suddenly they came from the east and shot him in this compound. It was all by chance really.
At first it was a bit of a muddle as to whether he had been shot in the back or his front; but he seemed to be alright at first. He sort of fell over and they got medical help. He became very pale at first and then apparently asked for a cigarette. So Mark lay there in the middle of a battle on a stretcher smoking a cigarette.
They carried him back, initially on a stretcher but it was too difficult to carry through the ditches. Finally one of them put him on his back and carried him under fire, and he has been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. They got him back to the Platoon base and had to wait for a helicopter before getting him back to Bastion Hospital.