Fifteen Years On…

Monday marks the fifteenth anniversary of a minor action in a very little war which took the life of a Territorial Army soldier in my Company.  As I sit in my comfortable study in Aldershot surrounded by my beloved Jack Russell’s, listening to Albinoni’s Adagio, I muse on the last fifteen years, and wonder if he’d recognise the fat, old man sitting here tapping away at a laptop?  Those of you who read my Blog will know that I commemorate the event every year, both for Beestie and me, and this year will be no exception.  Each year, I find something different to help remember him, the events of his death, and bring solace to this old wreck.  This year I discovered Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War which, together with my regular visits to the battlefields of the Somme, has brought me a great deal of peace in 2018.  In 1973, a year before he died Blunden remarked, ‘My experiences of the First World War have haunted me all my life, and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’, I fear this will be the fate of too many of my comrades too.  Once again,  I am going to copy something I wrote in 2004 by way of therapy, which found its way into the Borderer’s Chronicle, the Regimental Magazine of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the finest Regiment with whom I have served. I have redacted all names except two, mine and a man who cannot give his permission. This Blog is in memory of a big Glaswegian Territorial, Fusilier Russell Beeston, who will forever be 26 but would have been 41 this year:

‘In every life there are moments of definition, points in time when one’s life seems to have a purpose and meaning. A moment of clarity, of sharpness. In most cases it is the birth of a child, a wedding or even a funeral, for me though it came at 2140 hrs at a small Iraqi town called Ali Ash Sharqi about 60 kms north of Al Amarah in Southern Iraq.
“Go, Go now, Go”, the OC shouted into his PRR. The small convoy lurched into action and headed up the raised road which led from the centre of Ali Ash Sharqi to Route 6,the main artery of Southern Iraq. 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, then 70 kph, crashing through the gears, the warm night air rushing through the side window of my Land Rover Wolf. A strange red glow like an errant firework flew, arcing over my vehicle; only when it exploded did I realise it was an RPG. Just in time, I hit the brakes as a second dissected the space between us and the lead Land Rover. Suddenly, the night was alive with the staccato rattle of machine-gun fire and the whizzing of bullets like angry hornets zipping past, my head was down over the steering wheel, my foot now flat to the floor, and my heart in my mouth as we dashed for the sanctuary of the Six. The OC opened his side window and engaged an enemy machine-gun with his rifle, brass bouncing off the windscreen and rattling around the cab.

“Stop, Stop, Stop”, came the OC’s order and we screeched to a halt. I stopped and turned off the engine somewhat surreally ensuring the vehicle was left in gear with the keys in the ignition. I placed my hands on my rifle and was alone. The time between halting and debussing was seemingly endless… I dismounted into the sultry night, alive with deadly fireflies and sought cover on the right hand embankment, suddenly we were illuminated by a Schermuly Paraflare and an enemy machine-gun opened up with rounds scything past our bodies. Two yards away Fusilier Russell Beeston appeared to be dead, a round having hit him in the chest, having first shattered his arm on its deadly journey. I ran for my life, instinct expecting another round to take my head off, I tasted blood, it was an expectation rather than fact. I found cover behind my Land Rover, a Private came running past screaming “I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot”; his voice full of disbelief. I grabbed him and dragged him to the ground, helping to administer First Aid; we managed to staunch the flow of blood and laid him in cover, behind the Land Rover.
The confusion cleared a little and I gathered a small band around me, the adrenaline hammering through my veins, as I directed a Private’s Minimi machine gun fire with my tracer rounds onto an enemy position, shortly thereafter it was neutralised. Suddenly, the air was alive with someone shouting, “Beestie’s dead, Beestie’s dead” and I though this is real, this is not Salisbury Plain. A Corporal shouted for a stretcher…no one moved…everyone was paralysed by fear, again he shouted and I headed off into the 30 metre gap in clear view of the enemy to the vehicle with the stretcher in it. Every pace was alive with steel, I could feel it breathing on my face, the return journey was worse, the knowledge of what was to come. I brought a cot bed to where Beestie lay on the road, a Lance Corporal kneeling astride his body, pounding his chest, screaming at him to come back, covered in blood, working in vain to save a life already gone. I returned to my firing position and told the Minimi gunner to move to the defensive position which had been established on the left-hand embankment, the road was now clear except for vehicles, the small team working on Beestie and me. I stood on that vigil, and except for the barking of dogs, there was silence.

Death had come, visited in an instant and moved on. I fully expected to die that night as eight others had done in the 1KOSB AOR in the previous two months, and yet I live, the randomness of it defeats me. It was an experience I wished in vain never to repeat, although I’m privileged to say I was there. If there are such things as heroes in battle, the only one I saw that night was Beestie, who died quickly and quietly, with dignity in the service of his friends.’

This blog would not be complete without a word from Edmund Blunden and so I offer the third verse of his The Ancre at Hamel: Afterwards as an epitaph to those who cannot say goodbye:

The struggling Ancre had no part

In these new hours of mine,

And yet its stream ran through my heart:

I heard it grieve and pine,

As if its rainy tortured blood

Had swirled into my own,

When by its battered bank I stood

And shared its wounded moan,

www.IraqWarHeroes.org

Nisi Dominus Frustra

War Talks – Third Season – 2018

Almost a month ago, I published a provisional list of War Talks for our third season.  The original list comprised five Talks between September and Christmas 2018, this has been expanded and one date clarified.  I have attached the latest list of Talks, and the poster for the first Talk in the Series, but thought I’d take this opportunity to give some detail on the recent editions and give a full list of Talks for the rest of the year.

The first addition, and the first in the Season’s talks, will be given by Professor Charles Esdaile of the University of Liverpool, and formerly the President of the British Commission for Military History (BCMH).  Professor Esdaile will speak on the subject of ‘Waterloo: The Unknown Battle‘ on Thursday 13th September 2018.  The Talk will take place on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, and will be limited to around 35 places.  Those fortunate enough to attend will not only have an opportunity to listen to perhaps Britain’s foremost historian of the Napoleonic era and enjoy a guided tour of the historic warship afterwards, but will be able to do so free of charge, although a donation to HMS Victory’s nominated charity is gratefully received.

Our second additional Talk will be delivered by bestselling historian of the First World War and former Army officer Brig (Ret’d) Allan Mallinson.  Allan will speak on the subject of ‘1914-18: Cavalry, what was it for?‘ on Tuesday 27th November 2018.  The Talk will take place at the Aldershot Military Museum in Aldershot.  Whereas the talk on HMS Victory commences from 1800 hrs, the Talks at the Museum in Aldershot start at 1900 hrs in order to allow attendees to look around the Museum.  The Museum is a must for history buffs, telling the story of the Home of the British Army and the wider area but including a large collection of military vehicles including a First World War GS Wagon and perhaps more impressively the jeep driven by Lt Gen Sir Brian Horrocks throughout the campaign in North West Europe 1944-45.

My final amendment is to the second of our ‘On the Road’ initiatives:  In July, I stated that Maj Gen Mungo Melvin‘s talk in cooperation with the Tonbridge FWW Talks initiative at Tonbridge School was to be held on 19th November 2018, in fact it will be held on Monday 7th November 2018 at the School. So the full list of Talks up until Christmas 2018 is as advertised below:

 

I hope you can make one, or all of the Talks, they are all free and exceptional pieces of professional military education for serving personnel as well as entertainment for history lovers.

All the best,

Barney

Amiens 100 – International Student Tour – Part Two.

I concluded Part One of this Blog at the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.  Over the preceding day and a half, our multinational group had visited sites associated with the Battle of the Somme 1916, the Michael Offensive of the Spring 1918, the Battle of Amiens 1918, and the subsequent 100 Days’ Offensive.  In doing so, we had dispelled many myths about the Western Front: discussed the adaptive nature of tactics on both sides, the effects of innovative technology, and the nature of command on a modern battlefield.  Throughout the Tour, remembrance and memorialisation had never been far away, whether at Lutyens’ gargantuan masterpieces at Thiepval and Villers-Bretonneux, or in the more intimate cemeteries and memorials in Beaumont Hamel and Moreuil Wood, we now headed off to pay our respects at the British Government’s Amiens 100 commemoration.

The centenary commemoration was held in the magnificent Cathedral in the mediaeval heart of Amiens.  Our children, whether in their cadet uniforms or the distinctive red tour tee-shirts, were a credit to their schools, cadet organisations, and countries.  The inside of the eleventh century cathedral was thankfully cool with much to see as we awaited the arrival of VVIP guests, some of whom we had been lucky enough to meet at the Reception on the previous evening.  Other than HRH the Duke of Cambridge’s mispronunciation of ‘Foch’, the ceremony was a flawless act of remembrance as well as a re-statement of the sentiments of the Entente Cordiale.  After the VVIP guests had departed, I took a wander around the thirteenth century Cathedral described by Richard Hannay, the fictional hero of John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, as ‘the noblest church that the hand of man ever built only for God’. I saw some curious sights as I strolled around but I’m unsure whether I was more astounded by the reliquary purported to hold the skull of John the Baptist, or the sight of American soldiers having their photographs taken whilst seated in the seat recently vacated by the Royal Duke.

 

The evening was spent in the convivial company of the other Battlefield Guide, Mr Allan Wood, and Sir Hew Strachan.  To say that I was fascinated by Sir Hew’s pearls of wisdom would be an understatement, I happily sat at the feet of the master and went to bed with my head swimming with First World War history and rather too much Biere de Picardie! The next morning, after Sir Hew had regaled us with his incisive analysis of the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles, we drove south to Compiegne and the Glade of the Armistice where the eponymous ceasefire was signed on 11th November 1918.  It was a curious experience visiting the place where the War ended, it was easy to empathise with both Foch and the Allies who wanted to ensure the War could not restart, and the Germans for whom so much in blood and treasure had been lost for what was an ignominious surrender.  It was interesting to consider the Germans’ feelings in June 1940 when they were able to overturn the Armistice and, on the orders of Hitler, leave the statue of Foch to look down on the devastated Glade.  In a final act of remembrance, a representative from each country laid a wreath at the ‘Ring of Peace’, a large steel ring engraved with the word ‘Peace’ in multiple languages sitting upright on the edge of the Glade.

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The party broke up at Compiegne and headed back to homes as widely dispersed as California and Tasmania.  On the Ferry on the way back I was privileged to do a podcast with Sir Hew Strachan on the Battle of Le Hamel, I hope to hear it published shortly.  There has been much debate on both social and mainstream media as to the efficacy of the last four years’ centenary commemorations.  In my case, I am immeasurably better informed about the Great War than I was on that August evening four years ago when I placed a burning candle in my window at RAF Brize Norton Sergeants’ Mess.  I’d like to think that the thousands of students and teachers who have visited the battlefields with Simon Bendry’s programme have also moved substantially away from the mud, blood, and endless poetry.  I accept that there has been a plethora of ahistorical rubbish created to commemorate the centenary, but even this has increased interest in the War; I must say that, on balance, I believe the nation is better informed today than it was in 2014.  We have moved away from Blackadder Goes Forth, often with thanks to Blackadder Goes Forth.  It is the destination which matters rather than the routes taken to get there.

Have a lovely week,

Barney

 

Amiens 2018 – International Student Tour – Part One.

A few months ago, the Programme Director of the First World War Battlefield Tours Programme, Mr Simon Bendry, approached me to ask if I’d be willing to act as a Battlefield Guide for an international battlefield tour of the Somme area, coinciding with the centenary commemoration of the Battle of Amiens.  As many of you know, I have been involved with Simon’s programme, the British government’s initiative to provide spaces for two children from each English state-financed secondary school on an educational trip to the battlefields of the Western Front, for almost four years; I took up Simon’s offer without hesitation.  The Tour’s participants came from the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and the United States; it was an administrative tour de force for Simon and his assistants Anna Warburton and David Rich, their organisation was a triumph of co-ordination to match that of the Haig’s Battle of Amiens itself.

The Tour took place in August 2018, with the students arriving from all over the World into the town of Albert in Picardy on Monday, 6 August 2018.  Our first day of touring, covering the Somme battlefield of 1916, concentrated on the preserved trenches at Newfoundland Park, the Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Crater, the German cemetery at Fricourt, the Commonwealth cemetery at Caterpillar Valley near Longueval, and the Thiepval Memorial.  The objective of this first day was to explain the trench warfare of the period from Autumn 1914 to the Spring of 1918, concentrating on the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Each day began with a strategic overview of the subject by our eminent tour historian, Sir Hew Strachan, his talk on this first day situated the battle of the Somme in both time and place.  The tour was conducted in temperatures of almost 39 degrees Celsius, challenging conditions for tired and jet-lagged children, but to their credit they maintained their interest as we discussed the horrors of 1st July 1916 and the next 140 days, examined adaptations in warfare by both sides, and considered whether the battle was ultimately a success or a failure.  After supper in Albert, we travelled to the Chateau of Flixecourt, near Amiens, for a VIP reception launching an exhibition created by our children to mark the centenary of the Battle of Amiens.  Guests included the Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport, the Australian and Canadian Ministers for Veteran’s Affairs, several General Officers from Australia and Canada, historians such as Gary Sheffield, authors including Sebastian Faulks, and the ‘great and the good’ including Lord Ashcroft and Dr Andrew Murrison MP.  It was a spectacular start which made an enormously positive impression on all who attended, not least on the Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, The Hon. Darren Chester, who I am proud to say I beat to the free bar, thereby preserving the honour of the British Army! The exhibition is now in the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux and will be available for viewing until September 2018.

Our second day began with Sir Hew giving an overview of the strategic situation in August 1918, discussing the German Spring Offensives and the Hundred Days’ Campaign which ended the War.  We then set out across the Amiens battlefield, passing through the British, Canadian, and Australian sectors, to visit the memorial to the French 31st Army Corps at Moreuil Wood, where we discussed both the halting of the German offensive by Canadian cavalry in April 1918 and the launching of the Amiens battle by the French First Army on 8th August 1918.  We then headed to Le Hamel, the site of the famous battle in which Australian and American infantry and artillery, supported by British armour, aviation, and logistics used innovative methods to comprehensively defeat a sizeable German force on 4th July 1918 to explain how combined arms tactics returned manoeuvre to the Western Front in 1918.  It was also explained, however, that the combined arms perfection of 4th July and 8th August was rarely repeated in the following Hundred Days.  Our final stand was at Villers-Bretonneux where we discussed the international nature of the Allied armies by looking at the origin of those soldiers whose final resting place lies in front of the Australian Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre, named after the famous Australian commander of Prussian-Jewish lineage who commanded the Australian Corps in 1918.

In the second and final part of this Blog, I’ll talk about the Centenary Commemoration in Amiens Cathedral on Wednesday 8th August and our final stand at Compiegne on Thursday 9th August 2018.  To conclude here I’d like to make three observations: First, the children appeared to be far more open to the First World War as an international conflict than the representatives of the nations from whence they came.  Secondly, it is a shame that the British Cadet Forces could not find money to allow British cadets to experience the battlefields alongside cadets from Australia and Canada, and finally, that this tour and indeed the wider programme should continue after the end of the centenary.  The First World War’s Western Front has much to teach us all, the programme has already had an effect on over a million children in England alone at the cost of only five million pounds for the four years of the centenary, imagine what can be achieved in another four or five years!