On a dusty road 3,000 miles from home, a young unemployed Briton is cut down

Territorial Army rifleman Russell Beeston was the 50th soldier to die since Tony Blair sent the army into Iraq. His family, like 49 before them - and an untold number in the future - have now lost a loved one. Tim Luckhurst reports on the life and death of a reservist who was also someone's son, brother, and uncle
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fusilier Russell Beeston, the 50th British soldier to die in Iraq, falls into a category this country has not committed to combat since the Suez crisis of 1956. Beeston, 26, an unemployed man from Glasgow, was the closest thing the modern British Army has to a conscript. He joined the Territorial Army of his own volition in 2000, but his call-up to serve in Iraq came under the terms of the Reserve Forces Act 1996. His unit, the 52nd Lowland Territorial Regiment, confirms that the summons was mandatory.

His commitment ended on a dusty road 3,000 miles from Glasgow at 6.45pm last Wednesday. He was part of a six-vehicle British convoy ambushed as it returned from an operation in which two Saddam loyalists were arrested in Ali al-Gharbi near the Iranian border. The soldiers of the King's Own Scottish Borderers found the main road to their base at Amarah blocked by vehicles driven across the carriageway by Iraqis determined to release the captives. The convoy diverted through the village of Ali al-Sharqi, but again the Iraqis anticipated their arrival. Near the village they encountered an angry crowd.

Fusilier Beeston was ordered to dismount from his Land Rover. He was part of a group instructed to walk the convoy through the crowd by acting as armed escorts. It must have been instantly apparent that the tactic would fail. As soon as the riflemen left their vehicles a second group of Iraqis emerged to seal the road behind them. With hostile men to their front and rear, Russell Beeston and his colleagues fired two volleys into the air. The show of force was intended as a warning, but Iraqi fighters responded with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Fusilier Beeston was hit in the chest by rifle bullets. He was treated at the scene but died from his injuries while his unit was still under fire.

Russell Beeston received his call-up papers at the end of June. Days later he reported for duty at the Army's dedicated Reserve Training and Call-Up Centre at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. There he underwent a fortnight of intensive training in weapons use and protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. He passed a combat fitness test which requires soldiers to run a four-mile course in less than an hour carrying a 55lb pack and an SA80 assault rifle. Training completed, he was flown from RAF Brize Norton to Basra.

Among the 160 Territorial soldiers from his regiment who were summoned to serve in the Gulf, there were some who had already demonstrated a taste for frontline service. Several had completed six-month deployments alongside regular soldiers in Bosnia or Kosovo. Russell Beeston did not volunteer to go to the Balkans. His experience as a rifleman was based on the combat infantryman's course which he completed at Catterick, North Yorkshire.

In Iraq, Beeston and his TA comrades were spread out to serve alongside regulars from the King's Own Scottish Borderers. They were filling gaps in full-time regiments stretched to the limit by overdue leave and cumulative fatigue. An Army spokeswoman describes him as "a rifleman in an infantry battalion".

Whether Beeston enjoyed the challenge is not clear. His distraught relatives have released only a brief statement in which they state: "Russell was a soldier doing his duty in Iraq and he will be sadly missed by all his family."

There have been no references of the "doing the job he loved" variety typical among regular service families. Lieutenant Jim Wilson, commanding officer of the 52nd Lowland Regiment, came closest to that when he offered the regiment's condolences and said Beeston had recently revealed "how fulfilling he found the task in Iraq".

What is clear is that Beeston actively disliked a previous separation from family and friends. He left school in the small Argyllshire town of Kinlochleven in 1993 with SCE passes including physics and maths, and enrolled on a course at the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies. Captain Christopher Hunter, principal of GCNS, recalls: "He was sponsored at the college as a trainee engineer officer for the merchant navy. Initially he studied for a GSVQ in engineering, which he completed in 1995. Then he moved on to study for an HND. Initially he was very successful, his marks were very good, but he did not sit the final exams in 1997."

Joyce Downie of Clyde Marine Training Ltd, the company that arranged Beeston's naval training, remembers why. "Russell Beeston started his cadetship with us in 1994. He was sponsored by a Norwegian shipping line called Bergesen. At the end of July 1996, he joined Bergesen's gas tanker MV Havfrost. After a couple of months he was paid off in France. His personnel record says 'after two months decided sea life was not what he expected it to be'."

Russell Beeston was separated from his wife and had no children. Yesterday, at their tenement home in Rosneath Street, Govan, Glasgow, his mother Marion, brother John and his nephew were requesting privacy. In a statement they said: "The family is totally devastated." An Army spokesman confirmed that the family was "furious" about press attention.

At Govan Cross, not far from the family home, a memorial records the names of local men who died fighting with British forces in the wars of the 20th century. The area is visibly poor, devastated by the collapse of the shipbuilding industry that once employed its menfolk. For many of them military service is an alternative to the dole queue. Russell Beeston was not typical. His qualifications set him apart from those for whom military service is the only way out. There is no doubt that he would have been accepted for regular service if he had wanted a full-time military career. His commanding officer describes him as "a well-liked and popular man who was utterly dedicated and had a good TA career ahead of him".

Fusilier Beeston's body has not yet been brought home. His regiment expects repatriation to take about a week. He will not be the first unemployed man from Govan to return home in a coffin, but he is one of only three TA men on compulsory call-up to be killed on active service. His final email to contemporaries from GCNS was sent on 4 July. It read: "Well, as of a couple of weeks ago I was still living in Glasgow. However I have been called up for service and I am currently serving with the Army out in Iraq. If you want to get in touch with me ... you can do this by emailing. Bye for now." The farewell was for ever. He had not intended his military service to last for more than the TA requirement of 27 days per year.

Fifty Britons fallen in Iraq

Fusilier Russell Beeston, 26; Maj Matthew Titchener, 32; WO Colin Wall, 34; Cpl Dewi Pritchard, 35; Capt David Jones, 29; Pte Jason Smith, 32; Capt James Linton, 43; Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41; Cpl Russell Aston, 30; Cpl Paul Long, 24; Cpl Simon Miller, 21; L/Cpl Benjamin Hyde, 23; L/Cpl Thomas Keys, 20; Leonard Harvey (civilian fire-fighter); Cpl David Shepherd, 34; Gunner Duncan Pritchard, 22; Pte Andrew Kelly, 18; L/Cpl James McCue, 27; Fusilier Kelan Turrington, 18; L/Cpl Ian Malone, 28; Piper Christopher Muzvuru, 21; L/Cpl Karl Shearer, 24; Lt Alexander Tweedie, 25; Staff Sgt Chris Muir, 32; L/Cpl Shaun Brierley, 28; Marine Christopher Maddison, 24; Maj Stephen Ballard; L/Cpl Matty Hull, 25; Cpl Stephen Allbutt, 35; Trooper David Clarke, 19; L/Cpl Barry Stephen, 31; Sgt Steven Roberts, 33; Sapper Luke Allsop, 33; Staff Sgt Simon Cullingworth, 36; Flt-Lt Kevin Main, 37; Flt-Lt David Williams, 35; Lt Philip Green, 31; Lt Antony King, 35; Lt Marc Lawrence, 26; Lt Philip West, 32; Lt James Williams, 28; Lt Andrew Wilson, 36; Col-Sgt John Cecil, 36; Lance Bombadier Llywelyn Evans, 24; Sgt Les Hehir, 34; Operator Mechanic Ian Seymour, 28; Maj Jason Ward, 34; Signalman Sholto Hedenskog, 26; Capt Philip Guy, 29; WO Mark Stratford, 39.