I start by quoting a poem by “Woodbine Willie”—Padre Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:
“There are many kinds of sorrow
In this world of love and hate
But there is no keener sorrow
Than a soldier’s for his mate.”
That is very apposite for me today because I remember all the men who were killed under my command. In particular today, may I mention those killed at Ballykelly on 6 December 1982? Seventeen people were killed: six of them were civilians and 11 were soldiers. Six of the soldiers were from my own company, A Company of the Cheshires—Steven Bagshaw, Clinton Collins, Philip McDonough, David Stitt, Steven Smith and Shaw Williamson. They all died when I was present.
I was the incident commander. As I went into the wrecked building that was the Droppin Well, almost the first person I saw was a girl lying on the ground. I was horrified. Both her legs had gone, and an arm. I knelt down—horrified, again—and spoke to her: “Are you all right, darling?” She said, “I think so.” I said, “Are you hurting?” She said, “No.” I said to her, “How are you feeling?” She said, “I don’t know. What’s happened?” I said, “There’s been a bomb.” “Oh”, she said, “am I hurt?” I said, “You’re hurt.” She said, “Am I hurt very badly?” I said, “You’re hurt very badly.” She said, “Am I going to die?” Forgive me—I said, “Yes.” I could see no other way; there was blood everywhere. She said, “Am I going to die now?”, and I said, “I think you are.” She said, “Will you hold me?” I held her and she died within two minutes. I wept. She died in a state of grace. She was one of 17 killed that day.
It took me four hours to identify my six soldiers in the morgue of Altnagelvin Hospital. I went to their funerals in Cheshire—six funerals in five days, two on the Friday. At the second funeral, as I came out of St George’s church in Stockport, there was an old lady crying on the far side of the road. I crossed over. I was in uniform. I put my arm round her and I said to her, “Don’t worry—he’s out of his pain.” She said, “You don’t understand, young man.” I said, “I do understand”, because I felt inside my brain that I did understand—I was there when he died. But she read my brain—what I was thinking. She said, “No, you don’t understand. You see, I stood here when I was a little girl and watched 6th Cheshires—I think it was 6th Cheshires; they were Cheshires—march into that church, 900 of them. After the battle of the Somme they filled three pews. I am crying for them.” Then I understood.
One thousand, four hundred and forty-one soldiers, sailors and airmen—service personnel—died in Northern Ireland. That is more than in all the other conflicts together since, by 50%. You have to remember that.
I remember, too, my escort driver, Wayne Edwards, killed on 13 January 1993. I had given the order to escort four women to hospital through Gornji Vakuf, and he was shot through the head as he did so. I am responsible for his death.
When I came here in 2010, I went into the Tea Room and a guy (a chef) comes up to me and he says, “Nice to see you, Colonel—we haven’t met since Turbe.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I was in the Bosnian Croat army. I was a sniper.” I said, “The snipers shot Staff Sergeant Steve Bristow in the head. You were a sniper.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, that’s a turn-up for the books—you’re working in the House of Commons and I arrive here and you’re actually a sniper that’s shot one of my soldiers.” He said, “Yes.”
But here is the point: he was a young man doing his duty, as he saw it. He was not a criminal; he was just doing what he thought was right.
When I think of Remembrance Day, I am not just thinking of the soldiers, sailors and airmen; I am thinking of the civilians. In my own constituency, 320 civilians were killed in the Second World War—more than the servicemen from my own constituency. So I am thinking of them. I am particularly thinking of the civilians too. I am thinking of that girl—one of five killed on 6 December. It saddens me that they are not here, and that is what Remembrance Day is all about.