I saw the oddest of things at a dinner on Remembrance Day. The Newark Patriotic Fund held an evening party to which several of our limbless and injured local men were invited along with their families. At the end of it there was the customary auction.
Now, it might sound a bit gruesome, but one of the prizes was two framed colour photographs of the very moment when Lance Corporal Jono Lee of the Yorkshires was being evacuated, just after a Taliban bomb had deprived him of one of his legs. It was stomach wrenching, certainly, but fascinating to see the unconscious victim smothered in bandages being borne away towards a waiting helicopter by medics – all blue, sterile plastic gloves, like staff on the meat counter at Sainsbury’s – and red- cross armbands. To give the prize a bit of a push I asked Jono to carry the pictures round and amongst the audience. It is a while since all that happened and Jono has changed a bit from the photos. The wan, helmeted, desperately hurt young warrior is now a great, rangy civilian, with longish hair and designer stubble. He is perpetually smiling and clearly deeply in love with his girlfriend.
Things started well enough with the price rising steadily until Jono played his trump card. Unrehearsed and unasked, the lad rolled up his trouser leg, unstrapped his prosthetic limb and hopped around the place like some outsize, human kangaroo. At first there was a silence. People looked at me, as the auctioneer, to see whether this was quite proper – until a tsunami of laughter swept the place. What he did was totally impulsive. They were the actions of a healthy young man who had come to terms with his injury and, more importantly, had realised that there was no horror, no mawkish prurience about what had befallen him, just a bounty of support.
This, and the events of the rest of the evening, set my mind racing. I remembered the black and white shots of the Crimean veterans taken expressly at the command of young Victoria. These boys turned old men, their beards hardly grown, were sitting on truckle beds with one bit or another of their body missing, boldly holding the shot and bits of jagged iron that had gouged them. There was the captured Russian gun in Retford, bought by the townspeople at vast expense from the Treasury, every penny happily given to support their torn troops. But then, I mused, hadn’t attitudes changed by the twentieth century? The palpable pride of the Crimean wounded and their obvious frankness about what war had done to them was not to be repeated; from the start of the First World War onwards Britain seemed much less willing to champion its veterans.
There is no doubt that the sheer volume of stricken men who clogged the hospitals of this country from 1914 onwards, the product of conscription meeting Lyddite, was of a very different order from that of either Victoria’s wars or those of today. Furthermore, I suspect that popular attitudes to the casualties of the World Wars were also different. This suspicion rests, of course, on my own experience.
It must have been about 1962. I would have been six years old and on holiday with my family in Cornwall, enjoying one of those summers that only seem to happen when you are a child. We had all stripped down to our swimming gear when an ancient of, I suppose, about forty, came leaping down the sand on one leg. His stump was mottled pink and white.
‘Look at that, Dad. What happened to him?’ chorused my sister and I.
‘Schuh mine, I should think,’ said father, his own scars from a mortar round at Alamein showing white and scaly in the sun.
‘What’s one of those, Dad?’ I asked, any hint of warfare pricking my interest.
‘Never mind,’ said Mother, ‘stop staring, both of you; don’t embarrass the poor man.’
Now, I don’t suppose Mum meant to be unkind or thoughtless but she didn’t seem to be alone. I was old enough to notice the other mothers distracting the attention of their children, and deflecting the same questions, I imagined. Father didn’t press the point. He had been close enough to that
sort of thing not even to be curious, but he didn’t explain what a Schuh mine was either. More than that, when there was no baby-sitter and he had to take me to an old-comrades’ do a few months later I was warned not to ask questions of those who limped, or to tax the colour-serjeant turned milkman too much about his claw of a hand.
That generation didn’t seem to get as much help or attention from the post- war governments as their fathers did. Certainly, the sacrifice was great, but it was not as great as the First World War (look at any village war memorial if you don’t believe me). Perhaps this was because the Second World War involved a far greater proportion of the population in the effects of enemy action than those who were swept up in the war of 1914-18. The ‘Blitz’ affected millions of civilians, as did conscription (not introduced until the Great War was two years old), as too did rationing. It was, of course, ‘total war’. I suspect it introduced not just war weariness but a sort of corporate ennui for the whole depriving, dulling, blunting, boring business of industrial-scale conflict from which those who had been hurt or injured were unlikely to benefit.
If my thesis sounds harsh or unfair on a mid-twentieth-century generation of Britons, consider how grateful governments chose to reward their fighters’ efforts. My Grandfather’s medals are carefully marked with his name and regiment around the rim. One of them is even sterling silver. The families of the millions who were killed received not just a letter from King George but also a circular, bronze plaque inscribed with each casualty’s full name. Compare these with my father’s gongs. They are horrid, cheap affairs, unnamed and unremarkable. There was no ‘death penny’ for any of his comrades who lie scattered across North Africa and Italy. And it is not as if this country was more broke in 1945 than it was in 1918. I suspect that the effect of two bouts of blood-letting in three decades had just left it physically and, to an extent, emotionally spent.
I saw the fag-end of that during my tours in Ulster and Bosnia in the seventies, eighties and nineties. True, we suffered only a fraction of the dead and injured of previous generations. There was little glamour and certainly no fillips to public sympathy, nor of empathy that wars of national survival can provoke. Our dead were buried courteously and properly, their names duly inscribed below the dozens of others on memorials that are omnipresent in counties like Nottinghamshire. Our limbless continue to be looked after well but there was none of the mourning hosts that greet every one of our dead lads’ homecomings today.
For instance, I watched Hucknall – a suburb of Nottingham – literally come to a standstill a couple of years ago when the coffin of one of its sons arrived home from Afghanistan. The town down-tooled and thronged the pavements as the hearse was covered by flowers that were spontaneously thrown by dozens of people. Yet, the funeral of a corporal of ours who had been killed by the IRA in 1989, and who was laid to rest just a few miles away in Ollerton, got scant attention. The shots that echoed as we lowered him into his grave seemed nothing but a needless, noisy distraction to many who were passing by.
The difference in attitude between then and now is all to the good, I suggest. The current wave of affection and understanding for our troops is what allows the Newark Patriotic Fund and others like it to flourish and Jono Lee to leap about the place without a hint of awkwardness for either him or the audience – and so it should. But there is another twist to this. It is relatively easy to help and understand a man without a limb, but what about those whose minds are broken or bruised and whose symptoms won’t ‘present’ for several years? Look at the American experience after Vietnam. A veritable tide of psychiatric injuries crashed over that country long after the last bullet had been fired. So we must be prepared to succour those who have been hurt as the wars they fought are forgotten or displaced by more recent ones and the young braves turn into old ones.
And there lies the bind. There has been unfortunate publicity recently surrounding the military redundancy programme that looks set to include some injured troops who continue to serve in uniform. It sounds pretty unpalatable, doesn’t it, suggesting that the Forces soon forget their ‘duty of care’ and are all too ready to dump their disfigured comrades? But consider this: the army is not a charity; it exists to defeat the Queen’s enemies and it needs to be fit and vigorous. Certainly, there are jobs which the injured can do and do well, but in a small army they are finite and we have an awful lot of casualties to look after.
There is no doubt that, following years of shocking neglect and an
extremely slow start once a steady stream of wounded started to flow back from Iraq, that money and resources have begun to be put into the Defence Medical Services and that the treatment they now provide is second to none. On top of that, rehabilitation at Headley Court near Epsom and the new Battle Back centre is crucial; but what about our men’s reintegration into civilian society and longer term help for their families? Well, here are some ideas that I have adapted from a number of measures used after the First World War when the nation seemed to take its debt to its defenders very seriously.
First, every modern soldier, sailor, Marine or airman understands the business of vigilance and security. So, why should the injured not be guaranteed a suitable job in the police forces or, better still, the Border Security Service if they so wish? Clearly, there will have to be special career routes worked out, pay scales and so on but is this not an ideal and productive way for the government to help? Or why not present everyone who wants one with an individually adapted taxi and ensure that certain areas in every town and city are designated for these vehicles only? I have sufficient faith in the nature of the British cabby to believe that they would be big-hearted enough to make room for such competition. And why do we not legislate further than we already have to help our soldiers? In the same way that every firm is required to employ a number of disabled people and designate parking spaces for them, along with other provisions, should this not be extended specifically for those who have fought for the nation?
We must go further than that. The Americans protect and help their veterans and those who are still serving with a ‘GI Bill’ that manifests itself in advantageous mortgages, special lounges at airports and a host of other, little but significant things that make a man or woman in American uniform feel valued. I know that US traditions are different from those of this country and I have probably idealised the treatment of Victoria’s men and painted too black a picture of the attitudes that my father’s and grandfather’s generations had to face. But I have seen the love and support that towns like Newark show for the Jono Lees of this world. It delights me that today our pride in such men has been rekindled. Now we have to go one step further and use experience and imagination to make sure that their sacrifice is never allowed to tarnish and, to paraphrase Lloyd George, that Britain really is a country fit for heroes.