The publisher required an Author introduction for the story:
This story describes characters known to me and events as experienced by me. The part relating to 1963 is taken from my direct personal involvement. The part relating to 2001 is taken from extensive coverage of events which, whilst not involving me directly, were happening on a daily basis within the locality of my home and work and were well reported in the media. I became aware of a direct correlation between those early and later events. Other than my own name, I have not given the full names of any character as those individuals would likely be embarrassed by this accolade but anyone wishing to know more can undertake the same research as me via the Internet. This is a tribute to those who saved my life. Anyone doubting the seriousness of the risks only needs to check it against the record of the deaths from exhaustion and exposure of professional soldiers training in the Brecon Beacons in recent years. I have no complaints about what I experienced as that was the standard of the time and I made my own decisions. However I expect that the health and safety of cadets attending such camps in current times is now even more rigorously monitored to modern standards of compliance.
It was a cold, damp night in March as the Brigadier strode purposely across the car park. His polished boots clipped the glistening tarmac surface with every regulation stride, each sound echoing back from the blank walls of the nearby buildings. Everything about him was measured and purposeful; he was in no particular hurry. He didn’t want to arrive early at a meeting that he hadn’t been invited to. He scanned the soulless Auction Mart, its dimly-lit roads leading off into blackness on either side, with the empty pens of the cattle market seemingly more deserted now than they’d ever been. Even the car park, its spaces full of rain-spattered vehicles caught in the lights from the pub, was empty of people. Whatever life existed in that part of town none of it was on the streets that night.
Through the pub windows he could see that the main bar was empty. This didn’t fit with the number of vehicles in the car park. He followed the sound of raised voices up the metal staircase to a meeting room on the first floor. Years of man-management in tense and difficult situations helped him to sense the mood. Desperation hung in the air like the thick tang of cordite.
He entered quietly and stood behind the crowd. Those pressed inside were too intent on shouting each other down to notice his bulky frame, even in its full uniform, as each jockeyed to be heard above the din. A couple at the back turned to glance at him, registering only mild surprise upon their faces, before returning their attention to the fray. The Brigadier selected a side chair that afforded a rough line of sight through to the opposite end of the room, sat down and studied the occupants. He already knew the purpose of the meeting.
The problem was common knowledge. The media were releasing frequent updates on the worsening situation. An outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease was sweeping the north-country, devastating farming, crippling tourism and causing concern within the community. Current efforts had failed to contain it. Ministry Vets and slaughter-men, culling every affected beast, had succeeded only in stockpiling a backlog of 150,000 carcasses. These now lay rotting in the fields where they’d been killed, open to the elements spreading the disease and with no means of disposing of them. New cases were being reported daily, faster than they could be slaughtered. Frustration was breeding anger as livelihoods were threatened with no apparent end in sight. The Brigadier suspected that there may be a danger of civil unrest. It was a time for assessment, decision and action – the basics of his training.
Coming to the end of an impressive army career, he was on a farewell tour of his troops in the north of the county. With only eight days to go to early retirement, in his mid-50s, he didn’t need one last military challenge. He’d nothing to prove, least of all to himself, but he couldn’t just switch off as retirement approached. Curiosity had led him to that pub. Integrity, character and an overwhelming sense of duty made him think that he could be of some use to these desperate people. Sheer bloody-minded determination, a roughly-hewn quality cultivated over a lifetime of solving problems, would see him carry it through if they were desperate enough to need him. It seemed that they were. None more so than the Prime Minister, on a flying visit, sitting at the centre of the three tables facing that angry crowd.
Birtie was destined for a military career[i]. Someone once said that a public school education is character-forming. I’d agree. I’d agree also if that same person had said the same of a back-street, inner-city comprehensive education. Either way you’d end up with a character. My character was formed somewhere in the middle of those extremes, in a city grammar school that took boarding pupils. That’s where I met Birtie, at the age of eleven, as he was forming his character. Whilst his character turned out differently to mine, without him I might not have turned out at all.
At thirteen we enlisted into the school’s Cadet Corps, starting out as squaddies, drilling every Monday in the schoolyard. We were issued with uniforms and spent our Sundays bulling – Blanco on belt and gaiters, Brasso on buckles and badges, spit and polish on boots, steaming creases into the khaki battle-dress, steaming creases out of the khaki shirt. When not drilling and bulling we sat in wooden huts learning a new language – like ‘Sunray’ for ‘Commander’, ‘Roger’ for ‘OK’ and ‘Charlie Foxtrot Niner’ for whatever that might mean. We learnt about the ‘arc of fire’ so we could kill the maximum number of enemy when setting up a defensive position and practised how to keep a rifle clean and ready for action.
Birtie adapted readily. He came from a military family so I guess that tradition was in his blood. My military tradition came from my Dad and was somewhat less ingrained. He’d served throughout the Second World War without rising above the rank of private. His approach to military service had been to break the rules he didn’t like, do whatever was necessary to survive and volunteer for nothing. So it was a curious decision on my part to enlist as I had very little constructive military tradition to live up to. I soon realised that this was not the life for me.
Above all I hated the Annual Inspection on the sports field. Some guest Major with a handlebar moustache would keep us standing to attention in the stifling summer heat, whilst he chatted to the Headmaster, before walking the ranks to inspect our smartness. Only then could we shoulder arms to afford him the honour of a gruelling march past in the wake of the Corps band. The drill practices in the preceding weeks were mind-numbing in their boredom. On the day, the strain of waiting, the fight against fainting in the heat, the pathetic attempts to co-ordinate arms, legs, and heads in an ‘eyes–right’ whilst marching on springy turf only served to emphasise the whole bloody pointlessness of it all. I could never see how the entire Corps marching in smart uniforms in straight lines, all leading with the same leg and all turning our heads in the same direction at the same time once a year was going to save my life in a battle. Were the Nazis, if they ever returned, going to charge over the hill with bloodlust in their eyes and then suddenly draw back from sticking a bayonet into us because we were nicely lined up and evenly spaced? We’d all be turning our heads in the same direction on that occasion without having to practice it. Were they going to retreat in disarray saying “I couldn’t stick him because it would have ruined the edge on his creases, Heinrich” or “because I was distracted by that dazzling shine from his boots, Otto.” I didn’t think so. So why do it? Perhaps Birtie understood the need for unquestioning obedience in a life or death situation. My question, after my third Annual Inspection, was why would I ever want to do this for real and also put my life at risk in between times? I suppose, from a character-forming perspective, we both got something out of it. Birtie found his true vocation. I eliminated one possible career option.
After three years the pointlessness of drilling and bulling heavily outweighed the fun parts. There was no future in it for me. I had to quit. Birtie went on to greater things.
As he surveyed the room, he could easily pick out the factions. Most obviously the crowded audience, in rough tweeds and with weather-beaten complexions, comprised the local farmers. Frightened, desperate and bordering on violence, they were only just holding their frustration in check; standing, gesticulating and shouting in one braying tumult. Flanking the Prime Minister, in smart lounge suits with pale London complexions, were the politicians and Civil Servants. Concerned, smooth and trying to exude an air of calm but unable to apply their expertise against such raw hostility, they were failing to control the meeting. Gathered loosely at one side table, in practical corduroys, brogues and Barbour Jackets over shirts and ties, were the Vets, NFU officials and Ministry Scientists. Detached, professional and focused on their specialisms, they could offer only textbook responses. Knowing each other, huddling together for support at the other table, dressed similarly to the politicians but less expensively, were Councillors, Tourism Chiefs and local government officers. Silent, worried and totally out of their depth, they lacked the authority and resources to offer answers to the baying mob. The Brigadier could read the room as well as he could read a battlefield. He noted that they all had one quality in common; none of them knew how to resolve the problem.
He sat and waited patiently. He had no idea how long it would take but judged that eventually the storm would pass. The Farmers’ leaders needed to show their strength of feeling, to shout their demands, to register their anger at the failure of the people best placed to help them. It was irrational, uncoordinated and highly charged but it had to run its course. Desperation was the fuel that drove them but common sense was the brake that would check them. These were not mindless hooligans intent on pointless destruction. If no-one inflamed them with insensitive remarks and aggressive responses then eventually they would expend their frustration. Then reality would set in, they would calm down, they would listen. The Prime Minister was the consummate politician, capable of playing a careful hand. If he survived this first salvo, resisted the urge to fire back, kept his colleagues restrained there would come a point when he would be able to regain control. He did not disappoint.
Gradually the mood changed. If the Prime Minister was acting then he was good at it. He showed no sign of nerves. He waited and waited, saying as little as possible. At opportune moments he oozed patience and sincerity, concern and compassion. An oppressive calm, almost imperceptible at first, slowly settled over the room. Shouting and gesticulating reduced to muttering and head shaking. Desperation dissipated into discussion and debate. Standing was replaced by sitting. Insults became enquiries. The meeting began to take on a rough, impromptu structure. Each man wanted his say but there was an unspoken acceptance that it had to happen one at a time. Each telling point levelled at the panel was still supported by a chorus of ‘ayes’, each listed demand by ‘yes’ and ‘that’s right’ but, at last, common interests were being found and articulated.
Each group of specialists briefed the Prime Minister in turn and sensibly he kept them to the facts. However, after an hour and a half, he had only been given an idea of the scale of the problem but no practical suggestions on how to resolve it. The Brigadier continued to watch. The meeting was beginning to repeat itself. There was nothing new to say. The Officials were drained, the Farmers’ leaders spent. The room fell silent. Now was the time to win them over. It needed just one man with one acceptable suggestion to seize the moment, to unite them in one cause and to lead them forward. The Brigadier needed the Prime Minister to sense it. He willed him to look around the room for inspiration. Finally, the Prime Minister’s eyes met the Brigadier’s. The Brigadier rose slowly to his feet. Everyone present focused on the craggy features beneath the beret on his large square head; the bayonet gaze of his blue eyes, the bent bridge of his battered nose, the firm set of his mouth over the central cleft of his solid, square jaw. Here was a man at the height of his powers, experienced, confident and in total control. Looking straight back at the Prime Minister, but addressing himself to the whole assembly, he said,
“Gentlemen, I think I can help you.”
The cadet camp at the Parachute Regiment Barracks in remote Breconshire was a pleasant surprise. From the minute we disembarked from the train and climbed into the back of the green, canvas-topped trucks the programme was non-stop action. The weather was fine and warm for the whole week. We spent most days outside on open firing ranges, or ferried around in trucks for exercises or relays over assault courses. This was more like the army that I might have found attractive. Drilling and bulling were kept to a minimum. What’s more, everybody went home safely after the mock battles.
The climax of an exciting week was an exercise just before our return home. This involved hiking for two days and bivouacking on the night in between. So far my feet had withstood the rubbing boots that I was quickly growing out of after two years. On the first morning we split into squads of eight and set off on foot following separate routes leading up into the Beacons. The countryside comprised small streams and occasional bogs, fields with slate walls, copses and woods of silver birch, rowans, oak and elm all interspersed with the ferns which grew thick and green and tall between the trees. We trekked up into the hills following well-worn paths and, although there was no apparent signs of life, we were constantly warned by our NCO to stay alert. I had no idea what for until, opening up into a clearing, we came under fire – the crack, crack, crack of .303 rifles.
Our reactions were good and we hit the ground instantly, hearts pounding, eyes searching. The enemy was about fifty yards away, two Regular Soldiers, just showing their heads above ground level from a slit trench. We levered our bolts home, thrilling at the chance to point and fire at living targets. An observer walked up behind us yelling,
“Cease fire! Collect up your spent cases. That was bloody awful. If they were using live ammo you’d all be dead.”
Then he screamed at us,
“FIRST RULE – TAKE COVER! NOW MOVE OUT.”
We moved without a murmur.
The Brigadier left the meeting alone and in a hurry. He needed to get back to his office and, despite the hour, start making some phone calls. His mind was working on two levels. The cool, experienced professional was revising and editing a plan in his mind, adding details to the sketchy outline that he had presented to the meeting, forming lists of actions and timetables, contacts and equipment and men. That level helped to suppress the other level, the one that threw up doubts and fears and possibilities of failure. What had he taken on? Why had he taken it on? What would happen if he failed? Could he live with failure? What would his wife say when told that he had postponed his retirement? That he was planning and leading a massive logistical exercise to try and contain the spread of Foot and Mouth disease where others had already failed; a job that was absolutely nothing to do with him. He suppressed those doubts. He had a plan – analyse, decide and act. Then make sure the plan worked. There was no other way to approach it.
The Prime Minister had taken him aside during a short break. He desperately needed a solution. This was a crisis of national importance and he was facing an election. The Brigadier had thrown him a lifeline.
“How long do you think it’s going to take?”
“Prime Minister, I haven’t got a bloody clue.”
His honest reply must have been enough. When the meeting re-convened he was given the responsibility.
“Just get on with it. The nation is behind you. Whatever you need.”
The afternoon extended our cadet training on how to reduce the chances of dying in combat. Unfortunately my feet were starting to die on their own with each mile that we walked.
The next morning, rolling out of the tent, I struggled to get my boots on. The blisters were red raw and about the size of half-crowns on the heels of each foot. Once the boots were on the pain dulled as my feet adapted to fit the shape of them. When the offer came from the CO for those with bad blisters to drop out, I made the rash decision that I was not going to be classed as a wimp. Perhaps, at last, I was showing the character that the school had always hoped I would. Two years of drilling and bulling was turning me into a model soldier, maybe even a hero. Who knew?
The second day was harder. We abandoned the paths and yomped across country to where a truck would be waiting to collect us at a pre-arranged location. The walking seemed endless. Every hill and valley began to look the same; open moors, brown trees, clear streams, grey rocks. There was no longer any beauty in them. The challenge faded. Scenery became obstacles. We hardly saw any signs of life that whole day; few farmhouses, no cars on the occasional roads that we crossed, not a telephone box, not an aeroplane in the sky, nothing. I’d never realised before what an empty place Wales could be. I stood in the streams letting the water run into my boots, watching it swamp over the tops and through the lace holes, anything to get relief to my feet. The water cooled and numbed them for a while but soon wore off. The blisters stuck to my socks. I couldn’t stop to examine them. I daren’t take the boots off or I would never get them back on again.
By mid-afternoon I’d stopped asking how far. By tea-time, with the packed lunch long gone, I began to feel unnaturally hungry, as if my body had used up all its fuel. I was cold even though I was moving and the sun was still out. My personality was changing. Humour went first – from normal to gallows to nothing – then focus and decision making, then will and determination. I lost interest in everything except walking. It came on gradually through tiredness. I was too weary to be angry or to despair. I stopped talking, then thinking, then feeling. I went past the pain in my feet. I was slowly shutting down. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, stumbling, getting up and plodding on with my head down in silence at the back of the squad. At around seven in the evening, with the shadows from the trees lengthening across our path, I sat down on an embankment, flopped backwards onto my rucksack and let the others go. My face, which had stayed screwed up against the sun all day, relaxed. My eyes shut. Nothing mattered any more. I had to sleep.
The fires burned day and night. The smoke hung over the countryside like a grey army blanket, cloaking the weak sun on fine days or blending into the miserable rain on others. At night the sky turned a dirty, streaked pink from the continual glow of piled carcasses being incinerated. Trapped in the void between the land and the smoke, the smell of burning meat hovered over everything as a constant reminder of death.
Country roads were filled with trucks, belching out diesel fumes to add to the smog, delivering the condemned and collecting the despatched, splashing through disinfectant checkpoints as they hauled their grisly cargo from the farms to the burial sites. Everywhere were vets, soldiers, slaughter-men engaged in an efficient, endless killing-exercise. And everywhere there were innocent victims caught up in it. It was a war unlike any other war; eerily-quiet; without the noise of battle. And striding amongst the carcasses was a military figure, sometimes sucking on a cigarette, sometimes making notes on the back of a cigarette packet, sometimes wondering what the hell he’d taken on and all the time applying bloody-minded determination and offering leadership.
I read a short account of that meeting with the Prime Minister in the newspaper. By then the spread of the disease had been significantly contained and the Brigadier’s efforts were proving effective. The Prime Minister’s faith had been justified. It did not surprise me. I knew the qualities of the man in whom he had placed his trust; seen them demonstrated well before he’d developed the management skills to supplement them; seen them at close quarters at a time when they were more important to me than anything else. A quotation in a newspaper caught my eye. His description of the plan that he had formed to solve the crisis seemed very familiar[ii]:
‘Then I realised that it was very simple. You had two lots of kit, one live and one dead, and you had to pick them up and dump them somewhere else. The basic plan I drew on the back of a cigarette packet on the bonnet of my car.’
Once I’d been part of the just-about ‘live’ kit.
Birtie pulled me roughly to my feet, stripped off my rucksack and threw it at one of the others.
“Right Hol, take his other arm. We’re not leaving him here. Got that? Now walk!”
They dragged me up that next hill and, drawing on the dregs of my stamina, I struggled along with their help. It seemed to take hours. The light was fading. I don’t know how he did it or how far we walked but he made sure that they got me to that truck. Bloody-minded determination figured prominently.
Two weeks later I left my sick bed. Pneumonitis was the diagnosis. I used the rest of the summer holidays to recover my strength. My feet healed. I burnt the boots.
Within twelve months, before the next camp, I’d left the Cadets.
“A singularly undistinguished career,” said the CO when I ‘de-enlisted’ myself.
“Better than a terminal one,” I thought. My Dad agreed.
All the presentations had been made, all the hands shaken, all the goodbyes said. The Brigadier left the room and closed the door behind him. He was on his own. His wife and young daughters would be waiting at home. They were the reasons for his early retirement. A chance to spend more time with them. That was the good part. But, the Army had been his life for such a long time. He was a part of it and it of him. It had filled his time, been his priority – no, been his obsession – for most of his life. Knowing that he could never return, that he had to go in new directions, make new friends, find new projects seemed a daunting prospect now that the moment had arrived. He was leaving on a high note. His efforts to help the farmers had been successful. The Prime Minister was pleased. A CBE had added to his honours. But that was now in the past.
As he exited the building a young soldier on guard duty snapped to attention.
“No need for that now, soldier. But, thanks anyway.” Then he gave his last order, “At ease.”
walked across to his car, pausing to take one last look around the parade
ground, noting its familiar features as if to fix them in his mind
forever. Then he opened the door, threw
his bag across to the far seat and climbed inside. The Army wouldn’t miss him.
It would roll on as always. His new life was about to begin and whatever new
challenges faced him he knew that he could deal with them. He had a plan,
written on the back of a cigarette packet, and he was taking his bloody-minded
determination with him.
[ii] Quote from the Observer Newspaper 2001.
©David Lewis Pogson 2019