Captain Ben Hawes, C (Northamptonshire) Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment ‘The Poachers’ writes about Remembrance from Basra, Iraq
In February this year, I played rugby for my Battalion on a wind-swept Lincolnshire pitch against my old club in a friendly before deploying to Iraq. We were being hard-pressed initially until Private (Pte) Lewaicei (‘Lewi’) scored a solo breath-taking try. He went on to score several others and was pronounced manof- the-match by the opposition. A couple of months later Lewi was dead.
On 13th May a patrol was returning to the Shat al Arab Hotel; Lewi was in the back with Morris and O’Connor. I had the privilege to instruct Adam Morris on a promotion cadre. He would have been promoted save for the fact he broke his leg. As their vehicle crossed the Qarmat Ali Bridge a roadside bomb tore their vehicle apart. Adam Morris and Lewi were killed. Pte O’Connor, despite losing a leg, was saved by his comrades. He has decided to remain in the army and carry on with his career. He has humbled us all.
A roadside bomb
The following Saturday, I was conducting a vehicle check point in Basra when a British patrol stopped to the rear. Out of the lead vehicle jumped a familiar figure – Lt Tom Milldenhall – a friend from Sandhurst. We talked and arranged to meet up the following week. Within 24 hours he was dead. He too was killed by a roadside bomb with his driver, a kilometre from where Lewi and Morris had died. Sadly others have also suffered and died on this tour; Cpl Sutcliffe from our own unit has also lost his leg to a rocket propelled grenade.
I have never fought in a ‘war’ yet I have been under fire on more occasions than I have wished for, some of which have continued for hours. Despite Op TELIC being a peace support operation, I see this operation in Iraq as a ‘war on terror.’ I am in no doubt this is the right thing to do. Some of the individuals whom we have detained on strike operations are pure evil.
If these people were not stopped here in Iraq, attacks like the 7/7 or 9/11 would definitely increase in frequency and size. Unfortunately, for every terrorist we detain, another is there to fill his/her slot. In everything I have ever done on operations nothing has been particularly brave. Yet I do now feel qualified to talk about remembrance, and will now be able to look veterans of World War II in the eye on Remembrance Sunday.
This is what I will remember: fear, laughter, and friendship. ‘I pray never to be so afraid to do my duty’ is a quote from our Padre’s version of the soldiers’ prayer and neatly sums up my memories of fear. No man I know would say that they were not afraid. My greatest fear was letting down one of the men I commanded. A great source of comfort apart from prayers, was some advice given to me by Dad’s old headmaster who won a DSO in World War II; before I left for Iraq he gripped my hand and said, ‘Do what you have to do to keep you and your lads safe – no matter what it takes’.
On the occasions when I have felt the world is falling down around my ears I have often thought back to this advice. Sadly, there are incidents where innocent lives must be risked to capture or kill the terrorists. It is a world that few outsiders understand; where ‘doing what you have to do’ within our rules of engagement is the only way to keep yourself and those around you alive.
Banter and mickey-taking
So in this world of fear, death and tribalism, what would anyone find to laugh about? We, as the military, particularly the army, live separate lives and this is becoming increasingly the case. Stephen Ambrose chose Shakespeare’s ‘Band of Brothers’ to describe life in the infantry at war; it is the only phrase that comes close to fitting the brotherhood of an infantry Battalion.
Amongst this laughter is key, the tool for creating laughter is the ‘banter’ or mickey-taking that is prevalent within the Army. No rank is safe: general to private soldier can expect to be harangued by jibes and quick-witted quips. No matter how bad a situation or the fire we endure, the lads make a joke of it.
I am convinced that no matter how terrible the trenches of the Somme were, the British Tommy did not sit there and feel sorry for himself. I would imagine that no matter how tough it was, there would have been banter firing back and forth, pranks being played, wind-ups conducted and jokes swapped. It is not ‘British’ to let things get you down (although we all like a good whinge); Iraq has been a fairly unpleasant place to work, yet the banter gets you through.
Linked with banter and laughter is friendship; you as a unit become a family. The Army is still very rankbased; even in the twenty-first century it still upholds old fashioned values and standards, yet within this rankbased structure relationships develop at all levels.
A lieutenant platoon commander will definitely have friendly banter with his driver, a private soldier. They will form a unique relationship in which the platoon commander will rely heavily on the skill and advice of his driver.
A sergeant major will guide young officers and despite calling the officer ‘Sir’ there is little doubt who is really in charge. I have made friends under fire whom I will never forget. I have also lost them.
What, however do I think other people should remember? War is not glamorous; bullets do not always miss. We made a choice to bear arms for our country, and live a life few people understand. We are closer than many families, and extremely professional and proud of what we do. When you hear of a death in the news; stop and think of his/her family and friends who will have lost a loved one, and his/her military family where the laughter will have temporarily stopped and the grieving started. Remember us as human beings just doing a job for our elected government, for people tend to forget that behind each rank, uniform and number is a son or daughter with a life of their own.
We should remember
Yes, we must remember our comrades forever, but we must also remember those who served (and frequently died) to protect the freedoms we are hardly aware of but definitely enjoy today. My time in Iraq, although not necessarily equating to the discomfort and fear experienced by my forebears, has given a significant insight to their experiences. The pain of losing a comrade in conflict does not differ from generation to generation. Lewi, Adam and Tom were comrades and friends . I will remember them.