Behind the lines, stoicism and humour in a soldier's life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

From Cornwall to the Highlands, from Cardiff to Scunthorpe, young men and women from all over Britain have come to Iraq united only by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Allied war effort in Iraq.

From Cornwall to the Highlands, from Cardiff to Scunthorpe, young men and women from all over Britain have come to Iraq united only by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Allied war effort in Iraq.

While some are in the midst of battle, others are hundreds of miles behind the lines, performing functions perhaps more unsung and less glamorous but in their own way equally important. There are artillerymen, medics and ground crew, serving in regiments with names that proclaim Britain's proud military tradition.

The conflict, they are aware, may drag on for months, but such uncertainty is greeted with stoicism. Instead the worst aspect of their engagement appears to be the absence of the comforts of normal life such as porcelain lavatories, or cheeseburgers followed by ice-cream. The overwhelming attitude is that there is a job to be done – their job – and they are content to perform their duty as long as the public back home are behind them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Riddell-Webster, 42, Black Watch, near Basra:

"We have achieved all we expected and more, but sadly, not without paying a price. One always hopes that will not be the case, but it is war and casualties are inevitable.

"The high point was seizing control of the town of Zubayr, sensing it was ripe to go and pushing in a company to take it. The low point was the night we lost a good man to a rocket-propelled grenade ambush and then had a friendly fire incident, which killed two more. I didn't think it could get any worse.

"You just have to take a deep breath and crack on. There is nothing else you can do. When the tragic reports came in, we were just about to launch an offensive raid. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing.

"None of us has done this before. Events are proving that the old adage of war consisting of 99 per cent waiting around and 1 per cent high octane experience is right on the ball."

Lieutenant Colonel George Butler, commanding officer, 3rd Regiment, Army Air Corps:

"I think it is going really well. We have achieved our mission so far in securing the oilfields and our helicopters have successfully engaged a number of vehicles and destroyed them. We never thought it was going to be overnight. My understanding when talking to the Americans is that it is on target and going well."

Captain Steve Vaid, The Highlanders:

"It is great to see the theory put into practice. It is awesome to see the co-ordination between regiments."

Private Adam Elliot, 21, from Worksop, ground crew, 3rd Regiment, Army Air Corps:

"It has been the same as being on exercise, stuck behind these [camp] walls. I would like to see more of Iraq, get to meet the people."

Air Trooper Richard Brett, 20, from Wattisham, Suffolk:

"A trip to Basra International Hotel would be nice – or just some ice cream and cheeseburgers from Ali al-Salem [Kuwaiti air base]."

Sgt CJ Blackburn, 31, from Cromer, Army Air Corps:

"We all understand why we are here and what we are doing makes sense to everybody. I miss the music and it would be nice to know what is going on in the outside world but the outside world is focused on what is going on here."

Air Trooper Leigh Evans, 22, from Scunthorpe:

"The amount of mail we have been getting has been unbelievable. I think opinion is changing back home now that they know what is going on."

Gunner Dave Bentley, 18, of Wolverhampton, 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery:

"It has been a bit slower than I thought it would be. I thought it would be over quicker than this. It is just dragging on. The best bit was crossing the border, ready to do what we do after sitting over there [Kuwait]."

A 20-year-old gunner from Milton Keynes:

"I quite like it out here but I would like a porcelain toilet. The weather is nice and we are not doing much, it is pretty chilled out and we are paid to do nothing.

"I think Tony Blair was quite right when he said that opinion would pick up."

Lieutenant Chris Broadbent, Black Watch, near Basra:

"We have grown up considerably in the last three weeks. When I think about what we were like in Kuwait, even the most junior soldiers have changed. They are more professional, more aware and more confident in what they are doing.

"We are proud of what we have done and now we are getting into a routine and that is helping morale."

Fusilier Jonathan West, 19, from Newcastle, Zulu Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in Basra:

"There has been a noticeable increase in the heat and humidity this week and the lads are beginning to find conditions more difficult.But it will be worse once we start engaging the enemy in full-on combat again. Sweat will pour down our faces, stinging our eyes. Our hands will get sweaty and it's difficult to grip things. Our clothes will be soaking wet and sticking to our bodies."

Lance-Bombardier Chris Pritchard, 23, 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery, from Cardiff:

"It is what every soldier wants – a war – that's what I joined up for. It has definitely been an experience. I thought it would be a lot worse.

"My primary job is signalling fire action [directing firepower]. Now that I have done that I am happy and I can go home now and have that long-awaited honeymoon in the Caribbean."

A 28-year-old lance corporal:

"I would like to ask George Bush, how long is it going to take before he admits he was wrong? I don't understand why we are out here. I don't see the point of it. I think we are wasting valuable soldiers for something which is not our fight. The local people don't want us here. The rest of the Western world doesn't want us here. I have seen no proof of weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors were here long enough and we have been here long enough. Send me home – I want to see my Mrs."

Corporal John Chamberlain, 25, Royal Army Medical Corps:

"It is all fun and games until someone loses an eye."

Air Trooper Martin Murphy, 23, from Halifax:

"I was a bit excited at first when I first found out I was coming out here. It is all an experience. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a war first-hand and get involved.

"But I can't see why we are here. I don't understand it. I don't think they tell us enough about what is going on. We hear it on the World Service. We don't get any briefings. I would ask Bush, when are we going to get home? The politicians toy with our lives while they sit behind their desks."

Air Trooper Kevin Asquith, 22, from Nomanton, near Wakefield:

"I didn't like hearing about those seven women and children [shot by US forces]. We are supposed to be helping them, not killing them. The Yanks have always been gung-ho. I would ask George Bush, 'Is it worth it? Who is next?' "

Corporal Steward MacBride, Royal Military Police, Umm Qasr:

"I think one of the problems is going to be giving out the humanitarian aid. I actually think it will make things worse. People at the front of the crowd will get stuff but what is going to happen about those at the back?"

Corporal Colin Priddham, Royal Military Police, Umm Qasr:

"I have just arrived but I think it is all going to take a lot longer than people thought it would. The Americans here have been really friendly to us – there has been no problem working with them. They don't have the experience of having served in Northern Ireland, though."

Logistics soldier at the new port base in Umm Qasr:

"The situation with the kit is really shocking. I am having some desert boots sent out from home for me because they have still not got us any sorted. It is the same with the fatigues – many of the lads are still wearing the green, cold-weather gear. We have got sleeping bags that are great if it is minus 20 but which are just too hot in this weather. Most of us have bought our own.

"There is feedback – you get a book which you are meant to fill in – but no one ever takes any notice."