We who are left grow old, but the horror of war lingers

Related Topics
The Queen will not be laying the first wreath at the Cenotaph this morning. Perhaps most people will not care. After all, she is in South Africa, where Commonwealth heads of government are meeting, and will mark Remembrance Day in Durban, where there is a Cenotaph that replicates Whitehall's. Back home she can leave it to the Prince of Wales to fulfil her duty.

But there will be some, including me, who are affronted by her omission. The monarch ought to be here, leading the nation's tribute to the millions who died in the service of their country. The coinage of "Queen and Country" is debased by this Palace faux pas. And it wounds people such as me who are still - more than 50 years on - haunted by the experiences of war at the sharp end.

The silence that falls over the land at 11am every year on the second Sunday in November roars in my head like the crash of the 88mm shell that knocked out the tank I crewed in the battle for Bremen on 23 April 1945 - St George's Day. Four of us survived when the Sherman - a breed of tank known as "Ronsons" because they caught fire quickly if a shell penetrated the engine compartment - was hit. The commander, Lieutenant Edward Moulding, died instantly, his body falling across me in the claustrophobic turret. He was three years older than me, a veteran of 21.

I've often pondered the incantation about the glorious dead. If you have been there at the fateful moment, there is not much glory around. In the regiment I served with, the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, 139 men died in the slog from Normandy to Bremen. I was involved for the last few weeks - 14440458 Trooper Heath, a callow replacement for a crewman killed before the assault over the Rhine.

When the Royals, the politicians and the military high-rankers lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph (dictionary definition: "an empty tomb or monument erected in honour of a person buried elsewhere"), in my mind I will again be inside that steel box that still regularly returns to infiltrate my dreams. Sometimes I feel I am still there - slamming shells into the breach and trying to make the wireless set work.

"They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old," the mantra runs. When I notice the scars on my left leg - "superficial wounds", the MO remarked as he extracted bits of metal with a pair of forceps - I wonder how my old companions fared. The driver, Jones 49 (there were two Joneses in the crew, and the Army tacked the last two digits of soldiers' serial numbers on to their names to tell them apart), was a good friend. Jones 49 said he would seek a miner's job in his native Rhondda once the khaki was discarded. I don't know if he became one of Margaret Thatcher's "enemies within", but if that was ever suggested, Lieutenant Moulding would rise from his grave in an immaculate corner of a foreign field near Hanover in protest.

Comradeship is unfashionable in an age that venerates market forces. The five of us who took that knock near Bremen lived as a family, irrespective of rank. We shared the cooking, took turns at standing guard, mucked in when refuelling our thirsty 30-ton Sherman, praying that enemy gunfire was off target as petrol slopped over our boots. Some sights and sounds are best kept locked away - the cocktail of fumes, cordite and sweat induced by heat and, let us not be too stiff-upper-lipped, fear.

In those days post-traumatic stress disorder lurked somewhere undiscovered. There was no counselling. Johnny simply came home in his shiny demob suit, the strains of a Glenn Miller number running through his head. But the flash-backs kept returning - and still do.

So does the face of Irma Grese, a Belsen guard who had lampshades fashioned from human skin. She was awaiting execution in Hanover jail, where I was sent to stand sentinel in the summer of 1945. It was a relief to join a squad searching the ruined city for SS fanatics on the run. But her evil features return to me in my nightmares even now.

This morning thousands of veterans, who, unlike their counterparts in the USA, do not have a department of state geared to their specific needs, will march, walk, be wheeled and be led past the Cenotaph. As usual, medals will be worn with pride, memories hugged close to the chest. There will be absentees. Some no longer feel up to making the journey. Others have died.

The Royal Family, the generals and the politicians will have laid their tributes of red poppies and departed to some place where official hospitality is laid on before the veterans set off down Whitehall. The veterans and veterans' widows marching past must find other places of refreshment.

There will be much to talk about, even if there are fewer hands to clasp than a year ago. They have grown old. But their memories are acute, welded to a past that I would not want a teenager of the class of '99 to experience.

I reckon the teenagers of 1945 have survived to be pretty tolerant. Personally I would love the euro to arrive and I hope that I will live to see a co- operative Europe emerge. We helped to set an agenda of hope. That is not a boast or a bit of special pleading. It is simply a call for a monument more potent than all the memorials put together - a tribute that would endure long after time and the weather have erased the names of the fallen from a thousand plaques. Think about that when the bugler sounds the reveille and Whitehall wakes from a silence observed in pain as well as pride.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...


£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said "A good larger...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: unbuilt buildings, the new Establishment and polling on Europe

John Rentoul
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London