Remembered Still

This time of year is one a reflection for many former servicemen. Some drop into maudlin moods while others, after an appropriate hour of remembrance, enjoy being twenty one again with other old salts over a beer or two when they mostly agree that 'things aren't what they were,' while mostly disagreeing on who did what, when and where. It was ever thus.

Oddly, the people who tend to spend the least time mulling over events of the past are the young soldiers of today who usually have far too much on their plate to sit around thinking about what went before. They will change. We all do.

Most of us have moments we focus on. Perhaps family members we knew or heard of when growing up or friends who didn't make it. It's easier, if more pained, than dwelling for example, on the enormity of the losses on the Western Front. 

I tend to flip and flop between them all. This year though, I would like to mention the men and women who die in training. Most of us know someone who died in a training accident. It is just a fact that when you join your 'at work,' risks become elevated by the very nature of the munitions and heavy kit from tanks to fast jets that servicemen spend their lives in close proximity to. 

No one treats these tragic events, when they occur, lightly but they are seldom remembered by the collective body. Even the regiments themselves don't really keep a permanent record of lives lost in training. In fact, only at my children's school have a seen memorials to those who died in this way. The point is though, the casualties don't have a choice how it happens. It just happens. Other former servicemen will appreciate just what a lottery it can all be.

Here then, are three young men who I knew who were taken, all good guys, all on their first or second tours,

Lt Phil Pickering RA            Killed in an adventure training accident in Canada

Lt David Wilson RA             Killed in a RTA in Sennelager

Lt David Agnew RHF           Killed in a helicopter accident in the Oman

Remembered still.


Armistice Day; An Epic Tale

Men of the 16th Bn HLI in 1914

It’s Armistice Day and I would like to share a tale with you. A tale so epic it is scarcely believable. It is a howling shame that this story is not more widely known for among the many moments in our proud history that men have done great deeds this surely merits a place in the collective history of our nation. It concerns an incident in the mud and blood of Flanders in the Great War, of very ordinary volunteers of Kitchener's Army; clerks, storemen, conductors, drivers, roadmen, milkmen, schoolboys and such. Men whose courage, tenacity and fighting spirit went beyond anything that was expected of them.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the ‘Pals,’ Battalions. One such was the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry which was formed predominately by members and ex-members of the Boys Brigade in the City of Glasgow. The Battalion was formed very early in the war, on the 2nd September 1914, and in May 1915 moved to Shropshire where it joined the 97th Brigade of the 32nd Division HLI. In November 1915, the Battalion sailed for France.

The Battalion endured a rough time on the first day of the Somme at Thiepval. When the Battalion retired from the line on the 3rd July 1916 the casualty list ran to 20 officers and 534 other ranks. Having lost two thirds of its strength just four months later they were back and at the final battle at the Ancre in November casualties again were grievous.

16th Bn HLI Church Parade

On the 18th of November the Battalion, reinforced with soldiers from the Highland Cyclist Battalion, attacked at Beaumont-Hamel. The whistles blew at 06:10hrs and the men, laden with half a hundredweight of arms and equipment, launched themselves into No Mans Land. The 2nd Manchesters, 2nd KOYLI and 11th Borders to their left were counter attacked after initial success and were beaten back. Six to eight enemy machine guns on the Battalions half right pinned down A and B Companies. C and D Companies on the half left though penetrated the German front line, Munich Trench. While the rest cleared the trench, three platoons of D Company pushed on to the second objective under heavy shell and machine gun fire, Frankfurt Trench. The trench was taken and 50 prisoners sent back under escort. This group arrived back at Munich Trench in time to be attacked from three sides by the enemy in overwhelming numbers. The guards were killed as was the mopping up party clearing the trench. In fact, according to the Battalion war diary every man became a casualty. The attempted capture of the Beaumont Hamel spur had failed and the 16th alone had lost 13 officers and 390 other ranks.

While the Germans now held Munich Trench, three officers and 60 other ranks of D Company, with men from 11th Borders, still held Frankfurt Trench, cut off and deep in enemy territory.

By nightfall, some stragglers joined the men of D Company to leave them with a strength of 45 fighting men and a similar number of wounded. Two dugouts remained in the captured trench. One was allocated to the wounded with a Corporal in charge, the other to the fit men. There were four Lewis guns and the men handed over their own ammunition to supplement the Lewis guns and armed themselves with German weapons. The machine gun NCO, L/Cpl Veitch, was a tower of strength. A survivor of the Somme he was later recommended for a Victoria Cross. Grenades, food and water were all in short supply as were any medical supplies save for a few field dressings.

By the second day the trench had been revetted, Lewis guns placed at  vital points, The men were surrounded and in a state of siege. The senior NCO, Sergeant Lee, a Glasgow Corporation roads foreman before the war, encouraged and cheered his men throughout the day. Later described as ‘the heart and soul of the defence,’ he too, would later be recommended for a VC. As dawn broke on the third day the Germans, supported by trench mortars and bombs launched a determined attack. It was repulsed but left the HLI with more wounded than they had fit men. They shortened the line to make it easier to defend and that night a heavy British barrage fell around them but a relief effort failed. On the fourth day hopes rose when a signaller managed to attract the attention of British plane with a piece of torn shirt. More aircraft arrived and signalled that help was on the way and to hold out. Help though, which was attempted on the fifth day in another attack, was beaten back and the relief assault suffered 300 casualties. Conditions in the trench then deteriorated further as a result of heavy shelling.

New Munich Trench Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel

Lack of sleep and food, gangrenous wounds and constant fire took its toll. On the sixth day the Germans again assaulted the trench under heavy shellfire. After brutal hand to hand fighting with the bayonet and entrenching tools the Germans were beaten back leaving eight prisoners. The exhausted defenders then suffered the loss of the indefatigable L/Cpl Veitch, killed by a sniper. On the seventh morning an Inniskilling Fusilier prisoner of war appeared with a German message, ‘Surrender and get good treatment or stay where you are and be killed.’

The defenders were then subjected to the heaviest bombardment yet. Sgt Lee was killed by shrapnel. The promised German attack came in force and from all directions on the morning of the eighth day. The men fought but were overwhelmed. The killing was only stopped by the screaming of the German POW’s. The last stand of D Company, 16th HLI was at an end with only fifteen men left unwounded. Exhausted, they stumbled into captivity. The remainder were roughly removed on stretchers or buried where they lay. Two men died on the way to captivity and a third was shot for accepting a piece of bread from a Frenchwoman.  

In 1919, General Sir Hubert Gough wrote, in a letter sponsoring awards for valour, ‘I consider that these men deserve great recognition for the magnificent example of soldierly qualities they displayed.’ It seems likely that every survivor was decorated because the 16th received one DSO, two MC’s, 11 DCM’s, and 22 MM’s; the highest number of awards by a margin to any one battalion. This was unusual, not least because gallantry awards were rarely given to prisoners of war. The two NCO’s recommended for a VC each received a Mention in Despatches.

This is an extract of a speech given by the chaplain of the regiment, Rev A.H. Gray, during a memorial service in Glasgow in July 1917.

"From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign field - from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us - our dead men are asking us when we mean to erect that monument From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call - young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life's threshold. Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?".

Not Forgotten.

Through the Night

Dick Davidson with a song he wrote 35 years ago in NI. Loving the Roy Orbison / George Harrison look there Dick.. Cover picture by the way is a patrol from 3 Pl heading out for a 3 day bimble around the countryside, heavily armed of course).

SF Base, S Armagh 1980 and no, I can't believe it's me either. Won't be seeing a 28'' waist again anytime soon...

We're at that time of year when we give pause to think and reflect. For anyone who has served, and their families, its a time of mixed emotion. There is pride, sorrow, regret, relief, sadness and yes, there is humour although it comes in strictly limited portions. Although the coming week is when we publicly remember the fallen it is also a time for intensely private and personal memory and reflection. We think not just of those who we lost in past generations on active service, and during our own time, but of friends and contemporaries who died in training accidents, in military RTA's or who have checked out since leaving, through mental or physical ill health resulting from service or just circumstances since.

Over to my old friend Dick then. We did a tour together a lifetime ago with A Coy, 1RHF. He's not saying anything more than we were young, sent to do a job in somewhat trying circumstances and we looked forward to coming home. It was ever thus.



Time to Help Albert!

Some thirty six years ago I recall wandering into the television room at Glencorse Barracks in August 1979. The usual banter and joshing was absent. NCO's just stared at the television in silence, not believing what they were hearing. Mountbatten was dead. He was murdered with others in the atrocity at Mullaghmore. A serious incident involving the Parachute Regiment had also occured at Warrenpoint resulting in many casualties. Just how many quickly became clear. 

Lt Col David Blair, QO Hldrs

Soon after, Queens Own Highlanders of all ranks at the Depot were called to the cinema. We were told that the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Lt Col David Blair and his signaler, L/Cpl MacLeod, had also been killed in the secondary explosion at Warrenpoint which detonated as the Colonels helicopter was landing. The shock was palpable. Even though I was far away from South Armagh, the grief that pulsed through the Regimental family was very personal. It was my first experience of death in service.  It wasn't to be the last but thankfully I was spared the heavy casualty counts that some have witnessed. I've never forgotten that day, or the others.

RHF Veterans visit the Memorial Garden to remember members of the 1st Bn killed in NI

The memory of the 692 British soldiers killed in Northern Ireland as a result of paramilitary action, and the 6,116 wounded, is of course kept very much alive by their family and friends, their former comrades and their regiments and corps. Unfortunately, as I've written in the past, the sacrifice of a generation of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland has mostly been airbrushed from the contemporary collective memory. That process was started by Tony Blair and successive politicians have done little to make amends. It's just easier to let it be it seems. 

That is, unless you happen to be a gentleman called Albert Owens. Albert isn't a man given to doing things by halves. Nor does he take to the idea of letting the names of the 692 dead, and  those from other conflicts, be lost in the fog of history. Albert and his fellow volunteers have created a haven of peace and pilgrimage in the Palace Barracks Memorial Garden in Northern Ireland. The one and a half acre site commemorates those killed in Northern Ireland and other conflicts over the past 50 years. 

Albert Owens MBE; Memorial Custodian

'To see my dream and designs come true has become  a very special place not only for me but for all the families, friends and comrades of the soldiers who are remembered here, in the Palace Barracks Memorial Garden. In addition to maintaining the garden itself , I also keep in regular touch with  the families and friends of those  Men and Women of our Armed Forces  who are remembered here and arrange visits for them to the Garden  should they so wish.'

On the Memorial Garden website you will find list of those killed in action. Please take a moment to dip in and have a look. If you can, pick a name, any name from any regiment and quietly remember it, now, on November 11th and beyond. 

We should all remember, and mostly the country does with dignity on Armistice Day every year. Do though spare a thought for those killed in the conflicts beyond those which catch the media's attention. My own thanks to Albert for his efforts which are loyal to the memory. Please do visit the site or the Facebook page. His enthusiasm and commitment deserve  acknowledgement.

“As long as mist hangs o’er the mountains And water runs in the glens The Deeds of the Brave will be remembered” Caber Feidh gu Brath

"Every man once before any man twice"

The "Silver Badge," given to all returning veterans became the badge of the British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers

Today, the 11th November, I’m going to step to the side and invite you to remember one pretty extraordinary ordinary soldier, a Lance bombardier Tom Lister from Lancashire.

You, like me, may have grown up believing that Earl Haig  started the British Legion and indeed, he was responsible for creating the environment which led to the amalgamation of disparate charitable efforts for ex-soldiers to form the Legion after the Great War. In fact, after he finished active service Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-soldiers and remained more popular among them until his death than revisionist historians would have us believe, (although his reputation has been recently somewhat restored with the publication of some more balanced biographies).


Back to Tom Lister. At the end of the Great War not a family in Britain was unaffected by the loss of 888,000 souls and the 1.75m who suffered some form of temporary or permanent disability. The Government was unable or unwilling to alleviate their physical and financial distress so Tom Lister rolled up his sleeves and decided to set about improving their lot. He himself was invalided out in 1916 and after the war started to raise funds to buy tables and beds. He convinced landlords to let their dilapidated buildings to ex-servicemen and widows conditional on him attending to repairs and maintenance and he persuaded Burtons to supply suits for the men to use for interviews. He also gained access to old drill halls to use as soup kitchens for his British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers.

Subsequently, Earl Haig persuaded Lister and other organisations to meet and discuss consolidating their efforts into what was to become, in 1921, the British Legion. The Unity Conference was held at the Queens Hall in Langham Place where a draft constitution was adopted. On May 15th, 1921 at 9am at the Cenotaph, the shrine to their dead comrades, the ex-Service men sealed their agreement. The Legion was born.

The Legion was formed with the amalgamation of four associations:      

The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (1916).

The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (1917).

The Comrades of The Great War (1917).

The Officers' Association (1920).

Men of the British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers marching on the occasion of the Armistice in 1918 before such events became formalised.

The amalgamation of these four diverse bodies can be attributed largely to Field Marshall Earl Haig and Tom Lister By the time of the Legion's formation in 1921, the tradition of an annual Two Minute Silence in memory of the dead had been established. The first ever Poppy Appeal was held that year, with the first Poppy Day was on 11 November 1921.

Lister became chairman of the RBL until 1927, was appointed CBE in 1927 and was knighted in 1961. He died in 1966. As I said, an extraordinary ordinary man and I’m proud to say, a fellow Gunner.

Moreover, we are a country that throws up Tom Lister’s in happy abundance, not just working for ex-servicemen, and there are a great many indeed that do,  but throughout the charitable universe. Something we can all join in giving thanks for and to be proud of. It’s one of the things that we actually have left that binds us together and that politicians have no claim on.