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

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The Independent Online
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.