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?”
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.
“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.
Britain during WWII - in pictures
Britain during WWII - in pictures
1939: A squadron of Spitfires took part in mimic 'air alarms', during a speed demonstration at Duxford Aerodrome
1939: British railway workers fit floodgates below river level at Underground Stations
1939: A patient on a stretcher is loaded into a Green-Line coach ambulance when being evacuated from Guy's Hospital in London
1939: Metropolitan Police Constables wearing gas masks line up to enter a mobile gas chamber at East Ham Police Station, London
1939: A young female British Navy officer sitting astride a minesweeper's cannon and lighting a cigarette whilst two officers look on
1939: Schoolchildren crowd Ealing Broadway Station in London, some of the first youngsters to be evacuated to the country during World War II
1940: Bells rescued from the belfry of St Giles in Cripplegate, London, which was bombed during a night raid
1940: A projector, operating from its sunken sandbagged emplacement, at a searchlight station in the London area
1940: Auxiliary Territorial Services personnel sealing and preparing a Churchill tank for export to the Soviet Union
1940: An Australian soldier leaps from a tank during training exercises in Britain
1940: A man flies a Union Jack on a bomb site. The area was bombed twice, and the second time it tore the flag in two
1941: A policeman coaxing his pony to leave an area which is being evacuated due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb
1941: Charles de Gaulle (C), Chief of the French Free Forces, inspects the French colonial troops during during his visit of a military base in Great Britain
1941: US politician Wendell Willkie viewing the bomb damage to the Guildhall during the Blitz, London
1941: Men, women and children stand with their belongings on a pavement in Clydeside, in the aftermath of a severe bombing raid
1941: The famous American 'Eagle' Volunteer Air Squadron, formed during WWI, takes its place in the ranks of the RAF
1942: Work in progress of the decks of almost completed ships, being built for the merchant navy
1942: Two London buses passing through thick smoke screens during Civil Defence Service training operations
1942: A British ship (either the Cathay or the Karanja) on fire in Bougie Harbour (Bejaia), during the North African 'torch' landings. The Luftwaffe bombed three of the Allied ships as they attempted to reach shore
1943: American soldiers viewing some of London's raid damage during a tour
1943: A crashed German Messerschmitt is towed past the Houses of Parliament in London
1943: The wreckage of Sandhurst Road School in Catford, south London, the day after it was partially destroyed in a German bombing raid
1944: Extensive manoeuvres for invasion being carried out by American Sherman tank units in Britain
1944: Rescue workers searching through the rubble of a block of flats destroyed by German raids in London
1944: Bomb damaged buildings in London's Pall Mall after an air raid
1945: British officers liberated by the 9th Army from Brunswick Oflag 79, the largest British officers' camp in Germany
1945: Essex-class fleet carrier USS Franklin after suffering a hit by a Japanese dive-bomber off Japan, during war in the Pacific
1945: The scene in Farringdon Road, London, after a V-2 rocket had fallen in daylight on the Central Markets
1945: VE day, held to commemorate the official end of Britain's involvement in World War II, is celebrated by crowds at Trafalgar Square in London
1945: Soldiers from the Women's Royal Army Corps in their service vehicle, driving through Trafalgar Square during the VE Day celebrations in London
“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.Reuse content