A tale of two wars, and their youngest victims

In the week that the death toll in Afghanistan surpassed the 255 fatalities in the Falklands, Terri Judd tells the story of two teenagers whose sacrifice belied their youth

In woodland outside Hereford yesterday 18-year-old William Aldridge, the youngest British soldier to die in Afghanistan, was buried. It was a private ceremony surrounded by his friends, many – like him – still in their teens.

Mark Eyles-Thomas is now 45. Twenty eight years ago he was a 17-year-old paratrooper in the Falklands conflict when he lost three of his closest friends, including Private Ian Scrivens – the youngest soldier to die in that war.

This week the death toll in Afghanistan surpassed the 255 deaths suffered in the Falklands conflict. It is a reminder of the two generations who have suffered in conflict.

The Falkland conflict was a very different war to that now being fought in Afghanistan. It may have been brutal and bloody but it had a clear purpose – to oust the Argentinean invaders – and was over in just 10 weeks, unlike the eight and a half years the country has been embroiled in operations in Afghanistan.

But the treatment of the soldiers and their families certainly did not reflect the nation's gratitude. Mr Eyles-Thomas saw his three fellow 17-year-olds from The 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment – Privates Scrivens, Jason Burt and Neil Grose – die in front of him during the brutal battle of Mount Longdon in which 18 soldiers were killed on 11 June 1982. When the fighting finally died down he collapsed in his sleeping bag next to their body bags.

Yet the Army initially refused to bring the bodies home. Families were informed of the death by a member of the regiment, who had none of the training of today's casualty notification officers. Their son's medal simply turned up in the post.

"The families had to fight to get the Army to bring them home," said Mr Eyles-Thomas. "They were told they would stay where they fell. They didn't even offer to fly relatives out there.

"The heart-breaking thing is they never got the personal effects. Neil Grose only jumped in his reg (parachute regiment) socks. He was so superstitious, they meant everything to him but they disappeared. We got back and there were their empty beds, the mattresses folded over and their lockers wide open," said Mr Eyles-Thomas.

Eventually, the Army capitulated and the dead were brought home on a container ship months after the living. There was no dignified repatriation ceremony, no crowds waiting to pay their respects through Wootton Bassett.

"They were just offloaded by cranes on to the dock. I think the BBC got images. It was horrific."

Inadvertently some aspects of the homecoming were better. Troops today return through Cyprus for 24 hours decompression while Mr Eyles-Thomas and his comrades had a week on a ship to Africa to thrash out their angst.

But once the plane flew them back to RAF Brize Norton nothing more was done. Unlike today's servicemen and women they were not briefed on the dangers of combat stress, simply sent home to a supportive but uncomprehending world. There were no parades or medal ceremonies. As is still the case today, the first question in the local pub was "Did you kill anyone?"

The wounded were medically discharged unless they could put up a strong enough case to stay while those who were haunted by their memories kept quiet. "We were the lucky ones because we weren't physically injured. There was no appreciation for the guilt you would feel. No one talked about it. I didn't know why I got pissed up and went mental," explained the former paratrooper.

Mr Eyles-Thomas, who went on to write about his experience in Sod That For a Game of Soldiers, suffered years of flashbacks and nightmares. It is well known that more Falklands veterans have taken their lives since than died on the battlefields.

The day Rifleman Aldridge died was equally brutal. Hit by a roadside bomb while on patrol, he and his friends were trying to evacuate the wounded when they were struck by another series of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). By the end of the day five were dead and several more had lost limbs.

His mother Lucy Aldridge last spoke to her first born – the son she remembers for his enormous grin and generous nature – two days before he died on 10 July last year. He was exhausted but joked that he had grown an enviable beard.

"My last words to him were 'You know I love you, promise no heroics'. His response was 'yeah, yeah'," she said.

Since his death she has channelled her energy into raising money for the physically and mentally wounded. While much progress has been made since the Falklands, she believes far more needs to be done.

"I know some of them are really struggling. One of them has a huge amount of [survivor's] guilt. I think the number of suicides [in the military] is going to be much greater than the Falklands if the right type of assistance is not available because there are so many more men and women involved in this conflict," she said. While there has been improvements in helping immediate family, Mrs Aldridge insisted she had become painfully aware of how many others – siblings, grandparents, friends or girlfriends – were left to struggle with nowhere to turn.

"I feel for the families. I understand the devastation this causes. They are going to live with it for the next 40 or 50 years," added Mr Eyles-Thomas.

Despite the passing of nearly three decades, Mr Eyles-Thomas can still remember with perfect clarity burying his three closest friends on a freezing day in Aldershot along with 15 other paratroopers. Other families opted for private ceremonies.

"My dilemma was which coffin was I going to be involved in carrying. I didn't want to show favouritism. In the end I went for Jason Burt because I had been right next to the other two as they died. But I thought my obligation was to see Jas to his final resting place.

"Grose, Scrivs and Jas are all in one plot, which is great. The only problem is there is no space for another."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test