A couple walk past knitted poppies arranged around the war memorial outside the Christ church on November 1, 2020 in Great Ayton, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

“Left flanking or straight up the middle with bags of smoke?!”

Not another Armistice Day to get through. And what about all the other pressing issues for which there is no poppy?

Wee Walt was his moniker among his fellow colour and staff sergeant instructors at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Admittedly, when 13 Platoon lined up at 5 a.m. in the platoon lines, each officer cadet holding a black army-issue 1-liter water bottle full to the brim to down under Wee Walt’s watchful eye—to ward off “dehydration” during the forthcoming day’s rigorous training—my right-hand man status due to being the platoon’s tallest member meant it was hard, especially when stood at attention, ramrod straight, not to look down my nose at him below.

But there was no question about who was in charge and held all the moral—along with all the other types of—authority. You knew it just going by the lantern-set jawline of Colour Sergeant Walter Barrie of the 1st Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers. A classic example of the compact and stoic soldier of the Highland regiments, the type of which has enabled the British Army to achieve so much over centuries of battle—including getting some things right—nevertheless with Wee Walt I often sensed that that firmly set jawline was having to supress a smile, and there was no doubting a regular twinkle in the eye.

You wear a poppy as a symbol in recognition of the absurdity and tragedy of the wars that happened

“Everything all right, Mr Jeffrey?” came his quizzical Glaswegian tones from over my shoulder as I lay prostrate on the sodden ground, heart thumping, my helmet slipping forward to half obscure my view. It was my turn to be assessed in leading a platoon attack against a bunch of hyperactive Gurkhas playing enemy in a trench system to our front, deep in the Sandhurst woods. My fellow platoon members whom I had placed in fire support were gaily firing their SA80 rifles on automatic, as the rest of the directing staff threw flash bangs and smoke grenades all over the place. Beside me lay the assaulting section, also firing in a frenzy while casting occasional glances my way for an indication of what to do next. I had no idea! I didn’t even know the whereabout of my third section that was meant to be the reserve.

“Left or right flanking, Mr Jeffrey, or straight up the middle with bags of smoke and plenty of fire support?!” continued Barrie. “Come on, Mr Jeffrey, you’ve got to do something.”

I arched my head round, pushing my helmet out of the way with a sigh, and looked into Barrie’s cool blue eyes, searching for an answer. I loved the man; I think the whole platoon did. He was the only thing during my first term at Sandhurst that separated me from crashing out in utter ignominy. Something in those eyes seemed to suggest that, despite the current shit-sandwich whose epicentre I currently occupied entirely, everything would invariably be all right.

That first tour of Iraq remains the best time of my life

“Go for the 70 per cent solution, Mr Jeffrey, that will do,” was another of his precepts. Perhaps he was right, and it did seem to be enough at that particular moment during the drama in the Sandhurst woods. I launched the platoon attack and somehow it proceeded with a modicum of order and effectiveness—even though it appeared entirely out of control to my eyes—enough at least to get me the tick in the box and a nod and wry smile from Barrie, after he’d given the post-attack debriefing to the platoon sitting in front of him in a semi-circle. But that was before 9/11 and those insane images of airplanes gracefully careening into those towers.

After leaving Sandhurst at the end of 2001, I saw Barrie once more, when he suddenly appeared in the cookhouse of Abu Naji Camp in Iraq during Operation TELIC 4 in 2004.

“My goodness, Colour…Walter, great to see you,” I said, pivoting in how I addressed him as I spotted his captain’s rank slide—the same as I was wearing—his having sailed up through the ranks to be commissioned as a late entry officer.

“Great to see you too, Jeffers,” he replied, no longer suppressing that smile.

We had a very quick chat. He was only passing through, and I had to scurry off to the evening orders group. The next time I saw him was in a photo on the BBC website accompanying an article about an Afghan solider shooting dead a British solider on Remembrance Day in 2012. Barrie had been playing in a football match with members from the Afghan National Army whom he was mentoring and advising in the Nad-E-Ali area of Helmand Province, where I got a bitter taste of the local climate in 2009. The rogue Afghan soldier approached where they were playing and shot Barrie nine times in the chest with an M16 at close range. Shorn of his body armour, he reportedly died almost instantly.

I sat at my desk absolutely stunned, too shocked to move. Eventually a ramble of swear words and choking tears poured out. Stood beside Barrie in the BBC photo was his teenage son. I could still remember how during a platoon social outing in London, near the end of the evening after dinner, Barrie began to wax lyrical about his then 4-year-old son, a rare break from the normally taciturn persona we encountered on the drill square. A look of joy came into his eyes that sparkled with pride as he described his small boy. Emails soon emerged in my Inbox as other members of the platoon I hadn’t heard from in years began to send around group messages expressing shock and commiseration and expressing that love we had never admitted at the time.

I’d like to say that Barrie was the finest soldier I encountered in the army, but some of the soldiers I worked with later, especially during my Afghanistan tour, were so brave and professional that is impossible to single out any one individual. Well, perhaps that roguish Yorkshireman who liked to call himself Spitfire as he bounced from one hellish daily firefight to another over the course of six months in Afghanistan; if he happens to read this, I might have to concede and give the accolade to him to swell his head as he now finds joy and fulfilment with his tractors and farming.

It’s easier to decide regarding the finest officer I encountered. That was Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe who commanded the Welsh Guards Battle Group I deployed with to Helmand province in that summer of 2009. Nearing my nine-year point in the army, I’d come across my fair share of commanding officers. Thorneloe was the best, possessing a rare combination of piercing intellect and superb managerial skills, along with old-fashioned compassion and empathy.

I watched an anguished expression develop on his face as the civilian death was confirmed over the radios

During one firefight on the ground that we followed back in the operations room, a Javelin, a man-portable fire-and-forget anti-tank missile, was fired at a group of Taliban hunkering in a defensive position. As the damage assessment came through, it appeared a civilian had also been killed. Thorneloe entered the operations room to follow events. From my desk, I watched an anguished expression develop and set on his face as the civilian death was confirmed over the radios. Leaving aside all his merits as an officer who could organize, direct, motivate, problem solve and more, he stood out to me as a genuinely good man. He hadn’t gone to Afghanistan to shoot it up. He cared about delivering tangible benefits to the country and its people. Officers and soldiers alike respected him in recognition of his clear talents. He was regarded as a high-flyer, destined for much higher rank in the future.

Despite this immense competence, there were moments when he seemed to give off an air of vulnerability. He also tended to walk with a slight stoop, as if unwilling to fully exert his 6-foot height and thickset physicality over others. While he could be stern and deadly serious at moments of crisis, he was also capable of a sheepish grin that hinted at a humbler streak that had been overcome to succeed as much as he had. I also warmed to his natural inclination to scruffiness, even dishevelment, that broke the typical spit-and-polish guardsman mould. Being at a stage where my confidence in the army—especially it’s officer corps—had been badly shaken by the melees of Iraq and Afghanistan only worsening, Thorneloe was a reassuringly inspiring figure of authority.

He was also just extremely likeable. One day while peering at the computer screens around my desk, I became conscious of a presence to the side of the desk. I turned around to find Thorneloe incongruously stood to attention. His arms were down by his side ramrod straight, mimicking how a humble guardsman would report to an officer. I almost told him to stand at ease, before recognising I was dealing with my commanding officer indulging in a friendly approach and sense of humour. Thorneloe made his inquiry, thanked me more than he needed for the tiny bit of info I proffered, then returned to commanding his battle group—after humorously bracing up again, as a soldier would before excusing himself from an officer—and the hundreds of personnel whose lives he directly influenced. For the briefest moment, just before Thorneloe stepped away from my desk, I felt a sudden pang of affection for him accompanied by a powerful and inexplicable urge to hug him, right there, in the operations room, amid the radios and watchkeepers and map boards…

Thorneloe and Barrie stand out from a varied cast of other worthy notables

The improvised explosive device exploded under the Viking armoured vehicle’s rear cab in which Thorneloe was doing overwatch from the roof. Thorneloe had decided to leave the relatively safe confines of the forward operating base (FOB) to travel with a supply convoy to visit an infantry company at a patrol base that was in the thick of it. He was aware that the psychological effects of IED strikes meant some soldiers were becoming petrified of traveling in Viking vehicles that were usually the only transport available due to lack of helicopters. He chose to travel in the convoy’s lead Viking so he could participate with the IED-clearing team that would get out on the ground at vulnerable points such as junctions, where IEDs were often laid, to clear the ground. He wanted to show the soldiers he appreciated what they were up against and that he was willing to undergo the same thing. Pure leadership.

After the vehicle shuddered to a halt and the smoke from the explosion cleared, the soldier riding top cover in the front cab jumped from its roof onto the rear one. The soldier found the top half of Thorneloe’s body leaning against the toolbox that ran along the roof of the rear cab. The explosion had ripped open the cab’s floor and sliced Thorneloe in two—the lower half of his body was missing. Thorneloe’s eyes followed the soldier trying to help him, but they soon rolled back, followed by blood trickling out of his mouth. He lost consciousness and a check of his pulse confirmed he was dead. Two soldiers lifted the lifeless half-torso of Thorneloe’s down from the roof of the cab and zipped it into another body bag.

Those of us back in the FOB had no idea of the details at the time—I’ve pieced together the event from things I’ve heard and read since, primarily a passage in a 2011 book that was written about the tour called Dead Men Risen by the journalist Toby Harden. At the time, all we saw in the immediate aftermath was the Battle Group’s logistics officer take on an unenviable and heart-wrenching task. A friendly but tough old-timer who had risen through the ranks to major after joining as a humble guardsman in 1977—and who was injured during the Falklands when HMS Sir Galahad was hit by Argentine bombs—he set off to pack up Thorneloe’s personal possessions from his sleeping area. His eyes were glistening as he left the operations room. He’d known Thorneloe since the latter had been a young fresh-faced second lieutenant platoon commander.

Later that day, I saw the Welsh Guard’s Regimental Sergeant Major, the most senior soldier in the battle group, riding a quad bike carrying a cardboard box on its rear. Stern faced and sitting bolt upright, it looked like he was taking part in one of the ceremonial public duties the regiment carried out back in London, which in a way he was. That image brought a terrible sense of finality to Thorneloe’s demise—everything of his at the camp had been collected, ready to be shipped back.

Both Thorneloe and Barrie stand out from a varied cast of other worthy notables.

“Are you all right over there, boss? You’re looking a bit sheepish. How about a bacon sandwich?” Mave, my troop corporal, called out from the back decks of his tank after the troop had parked up in its leaguer at the end of a day of pre-deployment live fire training across the Canadian plains. In the short space of time in which I had managed, after a day of frenzied tank manoeuvres, to calm my jangled nerves enough to send a sensible location report to the squadron leader, Mave had set up a portable Michelin star kitchen on his tank with the bacon sizzling away.

When a point was later reached during the non-stop high-stress 30-day stint on the prairie at which my troop was close to mutiny, it was Mave who quietly took me aside and gave me both a moral boost and gentle admonishments of advice. I’ll always remember him explaining how to best instruct a tank driver, who sits encased in the front of the hull pulling at levers on either side of the driver’s seat to turn in the corresponding direction:

“Don’t keep telling him ‘left stick, right stick,’ over the intercom, that will drive him crazy,” Mave said. “Pick a feature in the distance in the direction you want to go and just tell the driver to aim for that and let him pick the best route to get there.”

He left the troop before we deployed due to gaining promotion. Later on, after our paths had entirely diverged and our regiment had switched from tanks to Scimitar armoured tracked reconnaissance vehicles, I heard how in Iraq his Scimitar had slid off the road into a ditch or a culvert and flipped on its top. Mave had his head and shoulders above the commander’s cupola and had not been able to slide back down into the turret in time. I never sought out confirmation of the particular details I heard about exactly how he died.

A bomb disposal expert had been lying on a dirt track trying to disarm an IED when it went off in his face

There was Dan Shepherd, a fellow captain whom I had got to know as our paths crossed at random moments over the years in the army, who I bumped into one morning at the FOB as I dragged myself to the ablutions for a wash and a shave before heading to the operations room. He was already dressed and about to head out with a convoy. A bomb disposal expert in the Royal Logistic Crops, he had been sent to the FOB to help convoys deal with the increasing IED threat. We said a quick hello to each other, both of us with our minds on the day’s tasking and too busy or distracted to talk more. The morning turned into a slow one at my desk in the operations room. I turned to a book while the radios remained silent. Around mid-morning, I heard a muffled bang in the distance but didn’t think much of it. As there was no major operation on or patrols out in our area, I guessed it could have been anything from a donkey stepping on a landmine to a controlled explosion.

But then the operations room radios kicked into action as the reports began to come in. This included the zap number of a casualty—a zap number was an identifier made up of the first two letters of a person’s surname followed by their army number. The zap number of the casualty began with SH. A terrible realization began to seep over me. Dan had been lying on a dirt track trying to disarm the IED when it went off in his face. What was left of him was collected in a doubled-up plastic bin liner, which some poor soldier had to carry back and forth from the FOB helicopter landing site several times due to confusion about when the chopper from Bastion would arrive to collect it, as I exasperatedly radioed and emailed to try and clarify its arrival time. Eventually the black bin bag containing Dan’s remains was on the floor of the helicopter flying back to Camp Bastion.

Dobbo was an ebullient South African, one of the small group of officer cadets from Commonwealth countries in my Sandhurst intake. My main memory of Dobbo is of him wearing a horrendous Hawaiian shirt with his arm around one of the female officer cadets during a rare fancy-dress party in the company lines during the third term, when the pace finally began to let up a bit. He joined the Army Air Corps to become a helicopter pilot. During my second tour in Iraq in 2006, passing through the operations room I heard reports about a Lynx helicopter being shot down over Basrah. All the passengers and the pilot—Dobbo—were killed.

There’s a fair few others, as there will be for anyone who served in the British Army since 9/11. The tally is nothing compared to what soldiers who survived the First and Second World Wars carried with them. But still… And of course, there are the Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians, too many to recall…

It isn’t with much surprise that I find the debate over whether to wear a poppy asserting itself ever more indomitably this year, stoked by puzzling arguments related to Black Lives Matters, LGBT rights, and whether it is a political statement or not. Leaving aside how the British Army has become one of the most diverse and non-discriminatory employers around, there is always George Orwell to breath some sense into this non debate: “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting,” he wrote.

In keeping with another of Barrie’s precepts—Keep it simple, stupid—you wear a poppy for those who died in the fighting, some of whom may well have not actually agreed with the reasons behind the fighting—especially in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan—but who went on doing so, usually for commendable values. You also wear a poppy as a symbol in recognition of the absurdity and tragedy of the wars that happened, the type of which might happen again if we don’t remember the examples and lessons of the past.

I don’t think anyone should be compelled to wear a poppy, or the likes of a BLM or LGBT rainbow emblem

The vast majority of those for whom we wear poppies, died in those wars that secured the freedoms we now enjoy, and which enable us to argue and say pretty much whatever we want. Hence, I’ll be the first to grant that that hard-won freedom by definition gives you the right to not wear a poppy and to voice your reasons for not doing so. I don’t think anyone should be compelled to wear a poppy, or the likes of a BLM or LGBT rainbow emblem. In all cases, the decision is influenced by various factors, such as how relevant the issue is to you and the life you lead, though ultimately it should be decided by searching your conscience. If your heart truly tells you it is wrong to wear a poppy for those individuals I described above—and for the legions like them—I can’t really argue with that deeply personal process, as much as I clearly disagree with the conclusion.

It all makes me think of comments made by the writer J. B. Priestley in his 1934 book English Journey, when he describes a peacetime reunion of his World War I platoon and their reaction upon encountering, after many years, the man who commanded the platoon. “Those rough chaps, brought up in an altogether alien tradition, adored him; and his heart went out to them. I caught a glimpse then—and I am not likely to forget it—of what leadership can mean in men’s lives.” Priestley goes on to explain the problem that has emerged is how “the long years of a snarling peace, in which everybody tended to suspect everyone else, had made me forget almost its very existence”. (I doubt the current situation with Covid-19 and much else that racks society would change his view on this demise in leadership examples.)

Priestley is left lamenting the incongruity of how this “endearing quality of affectionate leadership” seems only to have been able to be conjured during the “stupid long-range butchery” of the war—and never afterwards. “It is peace that is wrong,” Priestley says, “the civilian life to which they returned, a condition of things in which they found their manhood stunted, their generous impulses baffled, their double instinct for leadership and loyalty completely checked.” Priestley’s final conclusion is that “men are much better than their ordinary life allows them to be.”

Has much changed since World War I? All too often it still seems to take a war to allow men to find their better natures, while outside of that peaceful society too often won’t deign to grant much of a chance. That first tour of Iraq remains the best time of my life. All the while that memory coexists with the mind-numbing sadness at how it all turned out; the unfathomable human and financial cost of that conflict and of Afghanistan, and the unfathomable contradiction of what was needed in order to have a life-enhancing experience. How much was the army at fault for this dilemma or did the fault lie more without, in society offering limited scope for fulfilment?

I console myself, both regarding the poppy wearing naysayers and much else, with Wee Walt’s advice about being satisfied with 70 per cent and with the thought of what he would likely have made of another round of squabbling over Remembrance Day; I can see that slight narrowing of the eyes he was prone to, lest the glint in them became too obvious, accompanied by a tightening of the lantern jaw to suppress that wry grin.

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