Dispatches from the frontlines: Generations of soldiers recall almost a century of armed conflict

Surviving war veterans will be remembering fallen comrades at services around the country today. For many, Remembrance Sunday brings back the horror of battles that left so many physically or mentally scarred. Here, veterans from the Great War to present-day conflicts share their experience with Jonathan Owen and Sadie Gray
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Henry Allingham, Royal Naval Air Service, First World War

As a ship-borne aircraft mechanic he maintained a seaplane during the Battle of Jutland, then later flew as an observer over the Western Front. There he pulled Bunny Edwards, his mortally wounded pilot, from their crash-landed plane, before it went up in flames. Mr Allingham's service medals were lost during the Blitz and for decades afterwards he would not talk about his horrific memories of the fighting. "I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin. He bled to death." said the 111-year-old veteran. He now says: "I didn't think it was any kind of adventure." While sympathising with the pressures on today's soldiers, he says: "They are volunteers. They know what it is they are getting into. We didn't know. We were totally unprepared."

Cpl John Clarke, Black Watch, Second World War

"My mate was screaming and saying 'finish me off' and of course I couldn't, but it has haunted me for 60 years. David had been right next to me when a grenade went off. All his guts were hanging out and he was screaming and bleeding everywhere. He died, of course, but I could still hear his screams. Lots of things go in war that people don't know much about... We were badly treated by the politicians, there's no doubt about that. People forget that we were using rifles that were first issued in the First World War, so there's nothing new about politicians calling the tune. We have got the finest army in the world, but people back home haven't a clue what they go through. I've nothing but the utmost admiration for them and think they've been terribly treated – they should be given the finest equipment."

Gnr Les Paddon, Royal Artillery, Malaya

"It was in February 1949, we killed six enemy after getting a tip off. I was involved in the ambush and in removing the bodies. It was hard, I was only 19, but I was one of the lucky ones, I got to come back. It was diabolical; a lot of men were killed out there. The conditions we lived in were terrible, we had no back up, nothing. I did lose two mates who were also on National Service out there. They died of disease. Malaya hadn't got over the Second World War, it was still in turmoil and on top of that this Communist insurgency broke out, which was the army that we had trained during the war to fight behind the Japanese... It was similar to what is going on today, with ambushes and sniper fire. The chaps out in Afghanistan are fighting a losing war – you can see it on their faces."

Gnr John Martland, 61st Light Regiment, Korea

"I was nearly blinded by a mortar shell that exploded nearby. The Americans airlifted me out, but I was in too much agony to remember much about it. I was in hospital for months before being sent back. We were living in tents and it was bloody cold. We didn't have the right cold weather equipment; we got supplied off the Yanks because our own government couldn't supply us. You tend to forget the bad spots, but the combat was intense. I was a spotter and right up on the front line. It was quite nerve-wracking at times. I was shaking like a leaf, it was no fun. The worst thing was seeing the death of friends: when you lose them it's one of them things that you don't forget. I get flashbacks and nightmares now and again, and they take me right back, but you try to block the bad things out."

Sgt Colin Parker, Coldstream Guards, Aden

"I will never ever forget that night. It was 2am on 14 January 1965 when my patrol came under a heavy attack from Arab tribesmen. Derek Millard, who was next to me, was killed... he had his head taken off. He was only 17 and a half. I received head injuries from shrapnel. I ended up being sent back to the UK, where I spent months in a military hospital before being discharged from the Army. When I came out I had to sort myself out. I spent years having nightmares and violent outbursts. In those days there wasn't any support at all and there doesn't seem to be a great deal more now. Every single day I remember Derek... he'd only just come out of basic training, it was his first patrol. I always feel very guilty... I was looking after him, I was frightened to death for him... but I couldn't save him."

Derek 'Smokey' Cole, Petty Officer, HMS 'Intrepid', Falklands

"We were watching from the deck barely 200 yards away when the bomb exploded, killing Jim Prescott [bomb disposal officer] and seriously wounding John Phillips. They had been trying to defuse a 500lb bomb on HMS Antelope. We could see everything, and it always comes to mind when I think about the Falklands. When the air raids came in you just had to lie low and wait to see if a bomb would hit your ship. You would be praying for a direct hit if that happened. To lose any ship is devastating, because the thought goes through your mind that it could have been you. I lost several friends during the conflict. It wasn't until we got home that we really had time to mourn them. The Government has got to stick to the Military Covenant – I don't think they do enough for the servicemen that come back from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Gnr Owen Lawrence, Royal Green Jackets, Borneo

"We were deployed there for two years, most of it living in holes in the ground. The 3rd Green Jackets used to go into the jungle, and they would run back rather a lot, with us firing over their heads. Sometimes our booby-traps were hit and we'd fire into the undergrowth. When you got into prime jungle, someone could be 18 inches away from you and you wouldn't know. You'd be hacking away and only move 20 feet in an hour. A lot of lads were killed there – 519 British soldiers. I never saw any of my mates killed, and I never saw the whites of their eyes, but there were moments of terror. But for these lads who are out in Afghanistan, it's every day, and I've got the greatest admiration for them. I know how I crapped myself when I heard the zing of bullets go past my ear. They have the fear of dying all the time."

Flt-Lt John Nichol, Royal Air Force, First Gulf War

"People say what I did was heroic, but it wasn't really. I still flinch when fireworks go off. Going back was a profound experience. I went back in 2000 – I wanted to write about it, but I was very affected by what I saw. I wanted to show that the Iraqis were mainly good, decent people living in pretty unpleasant circumstances. I couldn't go back now. It's far too dangerous. There's no doubt that our military is being asked to do more and more with less and less. The men and women of our military are their own worst enemies – they've got a can-do attitude and they'll lay down their lives with little question because they're so professional. These people come back with broken minds and broken bodies and end up on the scrap-heap. It's left to charities to pick up the pieces, and that's disgraceful. They deserve better."

Cpl Tom Eckersley, Royal Military Police, Bosnia

"It was my job to find mass graves, number the dead and take photos. My first tour was in a village called Sipovo. I went over in May 1994, when the snow covering the graves had started to thaw. The villagers wanted to find their relatives and it was my job to stop them – but how do you do that? I was attacked by families when trying to stop them from diving into mass graves to take the bodies of their loved ones. I can remember seeing the bodies of murdered pensioners and children. I'll never forget the smell of death. I can still smell it today. Remembrance Sunday means never forget. It is about remembering the generations who fought and died for this country. It's about the soldiers still serving in Afghanistan. This is the only day we stop and remember, but soldiers put their lives on the line all year round."

Rfm John Moore, Royal Green Jackets, Northern Ireland

"Lance Corporal Gavin 'Deano' Dean was hit by two bullets and went down. I returned fire as best I could but was hit in the spine and paralysed from the chest down. My friend was in a bad way – bleeding out right next to me. He kept going into spasm and his boot was kicking my face as I lay there. It seemed a long time waiting there in the silence for our guys to come and get us from the ambush. I didn't know that Deano had died until a few days later. I was lying upside down in a special bed in a military hospital when my Dad told me. I can still remember my tears hitting the floor. It hit me hard. I'll be at home today. My Remembrance Day isn't 11 November, it is 16 July – the day I was injured and my friend died. I may have left Ireland but Ireland has never left me."

L/Cpl Jack Mizon, Grenadier Guards, Afghanistan

"We were returning to base on 1 July this year when I heard a massive explosion and saw the vehicle following us shoot past on its side, on fire. It had been attacked by a suicide bomber. I knew everyone was in trouble and badly hurt, so me and the company sergeant major both jumped out to help and came under fire as we got the lads out of the burning vehicle. We had five casualties, and when we got back to the hospital the doctor told me that one of them – my friend Sergeant Dave Wilkinson – had died. He was a really genuine guy, always happy, and I just broke down. It is on my mind a lot of the time. Sometimes you'll get upset and cannot control your feelings. If I shut my eyes, I can replay every minute of it. It is hard to talk about it with most people because they're not able to take it in."

Cpl Neil Heritage, Royal Signals, Iraq

"We were south of Bagdad on 7 November 2004, loading up the back of a Warrior vehicle, when a suicide bomber drove up to the side and blew himself up. The door shielded us from the blast and saved our lives, but me and the guy I was with lost our legs. I remember very little. I woke up in Selly Oak, Birmingham, and a week had gone by. Everything was pretty hazy. I spent seven weeks in hospital and then six months in rehabilitation at Headley Court. A lot of people might look at me and think 'thank God I'm not like that', but I'm certainly not the worst off... I did not get any compensation – it happened before the new scheme came in. I'll get a war pension of £140 a week and about £700 a month service pension."

Additional reporting by Cole Moreton and Ben Naylor

Comments