Remembrance Sunday Special: Remember Jamie Hancock

He was a lively teenager, always joking, but in his wallet the dedicated soldier carried a picture of the Queen to remind him of his duty.
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The Independent Online

Jamie Hancock was a charmer, a good-looking boy with the physical confidence of someone who loved to box. Last time he was home in Lancashire he made the girls at Barbarella's nightclub giggle with his usual armoury of flirtatious one-liners, then showed them pictures of himself in uniform. "He's not a gob, but he can get on with anyone," said his father Eddie yesterday, before stopping himself. "I have to talk as if he is still alive. I have to think he is just on a tour of duty. I can't cope any other way."

Kingsman Jamie Hancock of the Second Batallion, Duke of Lancaster Regiment, was shot dead in Basra six days ago. He was 19 years old. He had been in Iraq less than two weeks.

Today he is remembered alongside the other 120 British troops who have died since the invasion of 2003, and the fallen of every conflict since the First World War. The Queen will lay the first wreath at the Cenotaph in London as services of remembrance take place around the country, and at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yesterday, army cadets only a little younger than Jamie Hancock were selling poppies on the streets of Hindley Green, near Wigan, where he lived. One of the crosses on the local war memorial was for a private killed long ago, in 1915. "We have lions led by donkeys," said Eddie Hancock yesterday, consciously using the language of the slaughter of the First World War to describe the death of his son. Eyes reddening with emotion he called for the Prime Minister to resign because of "outright lies and treason" that led to the war in Iraq. "On a day when we remember I would say to the British people, for God's sake wake up and see what is happening now."

Mr Hancock was speaking in the conservatory of the quiet house where Jamie and his brother Joey were raised. Out in the garden was a deflated football. By his side was a mini-fridge stacked with cans of lager the boys drank, chatting away with him on these sofas, when they were home. "They have always been my pride and joy," he said, holding a photograph of the two as youngsters.

Joey joined the Army first. He is a corporal at Catterick in North Yorkshire. It was he who called on Monday evening, only hours after Jamie was shot by a brief burst of machine-gun fire. He had been standing sentry in a heavily fortified watchtower made of sandbags, and wearing body armour and his combat helmet. None of it saved him from a bullet in the chest.

Eddie was just home from his job as a joiner when the phone went. "Joey was distraught," he said yesterday, his voice breaking. "He was saying, 'Dad, dad, I've got terrible news,' then I couldn't make out what he was saying. He could hardly speak. As this was happening I looked out through the front window and saw three people coming up the path, in army and police uniforms. I knew then."

Eddie Hancock is a slender, bearded, bespectacled man. He is also a dan at jujitsu, who raised his boys to have a boisterous sense of respect. "Jamie would come in the house behind me while I was doing the washing up or something, and the next thing you know you would be wrestled to the ground. Then there'd be a kiss on the old bald forehead and he'd say, 'Let's make a brew then, slaphead.'"

They tussled like that one day in the summer and Jamie's wallet fell out of his pocket. "I bent down to pick it up for him. There among the credit cards and condoms was a picture of the Queen, just the head and shoulders cut out from somewhere. I said to him, 'Jamie, what's this about?' It was a side of him you didn't see, the serious side. He said, 'That, Dad, is to remind me of what I am and what I do.' For a young man to say that, in this day and age, I thought was extraordinary."

Jamie was born on 30 January 1987 and went to St John's Primary School. "He was a cheeky lad," said his father. "You'd get the phone call from the teacher and you'd say, 'Oh no, what has he done this time?'"

The funeral service will be held at St John's once Jamie's body has arrived back in England on Thursday. "It's the usual thing with the Hercules and the flag," said Mr Hancock. "They will not give us his body until towards the end of the month."

Eddie separated from Jamie's mother a decade ago, and she lives in Glossop with her new husband. "She is devastated by all this. They are both still really close to Lynda."

Unusually, Jamie was raised as a crack shot. His father has had an air rifle for more than three decades, and took the boys down to private land on a local farm to practise. "He had a natural talent. A lolly stick takes some hitting at 30 yards, but he could knock those sticks down."

Jamie was at Hesketh Fletcher secondary school when Britain and America invaded Iraq in March 2003. He left in the summer of 2003, and got a job at the local factory. Rivington Foods makes 200 million biscuits a year, including Pink Panther wafers. "A group of us used to eat together at work and go out to the pubs in Leigh at night," said Stephen Todd, who is now 26 and works as a karaoke DJ. "Jamie was young when he came but he was one of the lads. He used to have us in stitches in the canteen."

"He used to cheer me up at work," said Natalie Grimes, who was 20 when she met him at Rivingtons. "When I was pregnant and down he would pull daft faces or tell lame jokes, but they would always make me laugh."

In the Leigh Arms, a popular pub with the boys, older men with the wide shoulders and broken noses of rugby players stand together drinking; around them, at a respectful distance, are teenagers with gelled hair, sharp young blades like Jamie and his friends. "There is not much for them lot, to be honest," said one of the older men. "It was a mining town but the mine went, so there's just the rugby. A lot of lads sign up. But what happened is right bloody tragic."

Eddie Hancock's passionate knowledge of Middle Eastern politics was clearly not formed in the last week, but he did not oppose his sons joining the Army. "A lot of squaddies have come through this house, and I have seen a grand bunch of lads. You can send a lout to Catterick at 16 and six months later what comes out is unrecognisable. It brings a tear to my eyes." Jamie signed up in May 2005. "That six months was the biggest and most significant transformation of his life."

This summer, Jamie Hancock volunteered for a six-month tour of Iraq. His commanding officer said he was a quick learner who had only just been taught to drive a Warrior armoured vehicle but was already among the best. "When I heard that I laughed," his father said. "He has written three cars off in the last 18 months, just driving around."

In his last letter to his mother, posted 10 days before he died, Jamie described being left behind by a convoy when his Warrior would not start. "He said they could hear pinging on the outside, from the bullets. There was a loud cheer inside the tank when he got it going."

On 21 October he flew to Iraq as part of the batallion advance party. At noon on Monday he was on sentry duty at the Old State Building, the only British base in the heart of Basra, and for that reason probably the most vulnerable. About 100 British troops are stationed in the compound, a forward operating base from which they can dominate the centre of the city. Kingsman Hancock was on sentry duty in a sangar, a tower erected from sandbags, above the main gate. Sangars are designed in such a manner that while the sentry has a clear view and a clear field of fire, would-be attackers in the street below cannot easily target anyone in them. Jamie's attackers, however, managed to gain access to a building opposite the compound and fired directly into the sangar. "There was no firefight, just a single burst of fire in which he was unfortunately hit," said an MoD spokesman in London.

Jamie Hancock was a bold, strong, passionate soldier of the sort who has given the British Army victory throughout history. He was a teenager from an army family and an army town. Jamie Hancock could have died at Dunkirk, the Somme or even Waterloo. But he didn't. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said his father. "I understand that sometimes people who serve have to die. That is not what gets me. It is that the reasons for his being there, for any of them being there and dying, seem so totally pointless."

Additional reporting by Lauren Veevers

Remember: The poet who inspired the wearing of poppies also didn't make it home

The poem that inspired the wearing of poppies was written by a Canadian, Dr John McCrae (below). A senior physician and academic, he was 42 when he volunteered for active service within weeks of the war's start. By 1915 he was at a field station in Belgium trying to cope with casualties of the second Battle of Ypres, and officiating at burials, too.

More than half of McCrae's brigade were killed. One was his student, Lt Alexis Helmer of Ottawa. His remains were gathered up, placed in two empty sandbags (their flaps held together with safety pins), and brought for burial. On the night of 2 May 1915 and in total darkness - no lights were allowed this close to the front - the body of his young friend was laid in the ground.

The following day, in a brief interlude from mending comrades' battered bodies, McCrae sat in the back of an ambulance north of Ypres, notepad and pencil in hand. As he looked out over the lines of makeshift graves, and upon Helmer's in particular, he composed these lines:

He showed them to a passing soldier, and later, almost as if he was ashamed of his own sentiments, jettisoned the poem. His senior officer, Lt Col Edward Morrison, retrieved it and sent it off to The Spectator in London. They rejected it. Morrison tried again with Punch, and the poem was printed on 8 December 1915. Its fame grew, and when reprinted by the American Ladies' Home Journal in 1918, it captivated a YMCA helper from Georgia called Moina Michael. Two days before the Armistice was signed, she was at a conference in New York. She went to Wanamaker's store and bought red paper poppies, which she handed out to delegates in memory of the fallen. In France, Anne Guerin had the same idea.

John McCrae never lived to see the poppies of his poem worn by millions of people each year. He caught double pneumonia and meningitis, died on 28 January 1918, and was buried in the earth of a foreign field - the same earth from which those poppies sprang, and still spring every year.

David Randall

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch: be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.