George Evans: World War II veteran explains why the cult of military triumphalism repulses him

'I’m not a bloody hero - the only unusual thing about me is that I survived'

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The Independent Online

George Evans settles into his chair by the fireplace, beneath the photographs of the Wrekin, the “little mountain” he climbed regularly until he was 89, and of him dancing with his late wife, Naomi, on their 60th wedding anniversary: “Well, not so much dancing as propping each other up”.

He may be 92 and, in his words, “ancient”, but the mischief has not gone from his eyes. “When you’re my age,” he says, “you can get away with anything.”

But perhaps only up to a point. 

And that point was possibly reached this week, when, after 25 years in the role, the Second World War veteran was “sacked” from reading “For the Fallen” at the Remembrance Sunday parade in his home town of Wellington, in Shropshire.

The old soldier’s “offence”, it seems, was committed at last year’s ceremony, when Mr Evans, who had survived combat in Normandy and witnessed the liberation of Belsen, added “The Lesson”, a short poem of his own, to proceedings.

He recites it again now: 

“I remember my friends and my enemies too/ We all did our duties for our countries/ We all obeyed our orders/ Then we murdered each other/ Isn’t war stupid?”

Evans.jpg
As a soldier in the Second World War, George Evans landed in Normandy and saw the liberation of Belsen

Accounts vary – irreconcilably – about how this poetic embellishment was received. Mr Evans describes applause rippling from the memorial all the way down Church Street.

A frustrated local Royal British Legion member talks of only five people out of a crowd of 200 clapping, of Mr Evans being “selectively deaf”, of outrage among the public, Legion members, serving soldiers, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, at what was taken as an implication that soldiers were murderers.

“You can’t call them murderers. They were human beings caught in a terrible catastrophe, poor buggers who paid the price for politicians’ stupidity.

“Of course wars are stupid. No one who has ever been in one would ever say they are a good idea. They are the triumph of stupidity over diplomacy.”

And apparently Mr Evans wasn’t sacked at the meeting to organise this year’s Remembrance Sunday and 11 November commemorations: “He walked out. After he was offered the [alternative] November 11 ceremony, provided he stuck to the script. Because you’re supposed to remember the dead, not stand there playing politics and pontificating about how to change the world.”

In his armchair, Mr Evans insists he was sacked, while freely admitting he won’t be confined to “the script”. 

This “script”, some might argue, ensures that you don’t break certain taboos. You don’t question the point of war at remembrance ceremonies for fallen soldiers. You don’t wear a white poppy, and if a certain left-wing politician does – or might do – you vilify him.

But if such taboos exist, Mr Evans seems remarkably relaxed about breaking them. 

He grins. 

“My granddaughter tells me there are thousands of people on Twitter saying I should be given my job back.”

He finds it all terribly amusing: “Such a fuss over a little local ceremony!”

And the “fussing” would never have happened, he says, had he not mentioned his “sacking” in passing to a local journalist who had phoned to ask about the young Jeremy Corbyn’s time in the Shropshire Committee Against Racism. Mr Evans had been the chairman, at a time when, he says, it marked him out as “the funny old fella who likes Pakis”.

He has granted us an interview and decided to play along with our interest because: “I want to tell the rest of the world: War. Is. Stupid. Don’t do it.”

And yes, he says, there should be “pontificating” about peace at Remembrance Day parades: “Because I have become sick of all the triumphalism. ‘We won the war’: It goes with ‘Two world wars and one World Cup.’ It’s bloody silly, simply a way of denigrating other people.”

He’s also a bit peeved about something else: all those newspaper reports mentioning him alongside the words “war hero”.

“I’m not a bloody hero,” he says. “The only unusual thing about me is that I survived.”

So “all” that Mr Evans did was to land on a Normandy beach, under sniper fire, two days after his 21st birthday, “and smell the stink of decomposing bodies, and realise this was serious”. 

His only physical war wound is hidden beneath his luxuriant white beard. He points to just above his lip: “Mini shrapnel. Didn’t bleed much, wasn’t seen to. The medics had more important things to worry about.”

Other scars, you sense, took longer to heal. He talks of fear, of his wounded friend Denis, joking about being permanently “legless” on one day, dead of secondary shock the next – “And would you write to his parents, Evans?”

He talks about Belsen: “Human skeletons, walking about in striped pyjamas, no idea what was going on, the walking dead. It was horrible. Horrible. I nearly went and got my gun and went looking for the guards.” 

But he didn’t, because of what happened beside a Normandy farmhouse, on the road to Caen.

“We had fired at the Germans, they had fired at us. Then, a couple of days later, they had retreated. We went down to where they had been. We noticed a very bad smell. We went round the corner of the farmhouse, and there was the pile of German bodies, neatly arranged, four to each layer. The maggots were eating their faces. Which was a fairly uncomfortable situation, but what’s more, they were 15, 16, 17-year-old boys: Hitler Youth.

“We buried them, and gave them the epitaph ‘Poor kids’ – even though they had been trying to kill us.”

After that, Private Evans, of the 1/7th Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, became a pacifist.

“I developed a tendency to fire over people’s heads. I had no objection to frightening them. I just didn’t want to hurt them.”

He made it home, became a teacher, for 40 years, many of them spent teaching the “unteachable”, and discovering that “you know what, they were teachable”.

Now a great-grandfather, he wears a red poppy, out of respect for the Legion and the work it does for veterans and their families, but he also finds space in his lapel for a white poppy. So this veteran is baffled by those who insist it would be offensive if his old anti-racism colleague Jeremy Corbyn were to wear a white poppy at the Cenotaph.

“They really ought to get with it. What are they making a fuss about? Anybody with any damned sense would say ‘Peace’.”

The conversation ranges over his love of Wellington, where he was born above a furniture shop in the high street, and where he has spent all his “wonderful life”, apart from the “unenjoyable” interlude of the Second World War.

He gleefully explains how on reaching the age of 12, one great-granddaughter phoned him up to say: “Grandad, I’m the same [mental] age as you now!”

But at the door, he turns serious. That poem – it was inspired by the words of Harry Patch, “the last Tommy” of the First World War. Patch, too, had declared: “War is organised murder and nothing else.” And on occasion he had shot to stop, but not to kill.

Now, Mr Evans says, it was the turn of his generation of old soldiers to fade away.

“I want to get across the message that war is stupid,” he says, “before it is too late.”

But then the mischief returns to his eyes. 

“Did you know it’s National Poetry Day today? So let this be my contribution ...”

He leans in, and recites again: “I remember my friends and my enemies too ...”

Battle lines: The poems that vindicate him

Wilfred Owen, (killed in  action, November 1918):

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the  froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer,  bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores  on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et  decorum est Pro patria mori.

Keith Douglas, (killed in  action, Normandy, June 1944)

Now in my dial of glass appears 

the soldier who is going to die. 

He smiles, and moves about in ways his mother knows, habits of his. 

The wires touch his face: I cry 

NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

Siegfried Sassoon (below) (awarded Military Cross 1916)

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know the hell where youth and laughter go.

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