Today is the sixteenth anniversary of my first real taste of combat and, more importantly, of the death of a friend, Fusilier Russell Beeston; Beestie would have been 42 this year, but he never got out of his twenties. Each year, I tend to publish the same blog post, an extract I wrote for the ‘Borderer’s Chronicle’, the Regimental Magazine of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, in 2004. I make no excuses for this, first it releases me from the painful experience of remembrance by using Microsoft’s handy ‘cut and paste’ facility and secondly it means that I keep a promise made a long time ago to Beestie’s mum.
In 2018, 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, perhaps beyond the understanding of my family and companions. 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 both my fate and that of too many of my comrades too. In publishing the text from the Chronicle, I have redacted all names except two, mine and the man who cannot give his permission. This Blog is in memory of a big Glaswegian Territorial, Fusilier Russell Beeston, who will forever be 26:
‘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 Personal Role Radio. 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 Rocket Propelled Grenade. 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.’
As a final epitaph, I return to the works of Edmund Blunden and the third verse of his The Ancre at Hamel: Afterwards’
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,
Nisi Dominus Frustra