Black Friday

Blinded by temptation
An offer too good to be true
Consumerism blinded ‘sheeple’
Line up in the queue

Doors are about to open
Anticipation mounts
Regressed back to animals
The predators are poised to pounce

Rampage through the store
Let the jostling begin
“I saw it first!” “Hey that’s mine”
Angry voices above the din

Enmity rising, fighting starts
Warfare breaking out
Violence among the high-stacked shelves
Puts the crowd to rout

Moms, dads, children scream
Panicking to flee
The melee of the bargain-crazed
In aisle number three

News that night is somber
‘Man stabbed to death in the mall’
Was that cut-price flat-screen TV
Really worth his all?

Advertisements

Stretcher – Bearing in Difficulties by Gilbert Rogers

large_000000

Stretcher-Bearing in Difficulties (Art.IWM ART 3801) image: An image of two stretcher-bearers running through a trench under heavy fire. They carry a wounded, possibly unconscious soldier covered in a blanket. The ground is covered with mud and debris adding to the difficulty of their escape. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23054

 

I love this painting, to me it epitomises all that it means to be a combat-carer in time of war; the threat of death or injury, the sheer physical hardship and the willingness to place oneself in harms way for the benefit of others.

Not only do I love this painting, I know it well, for it used to take pride of place on the wall of the Officers’ Mess at the Defence Medical Services Training Centre, Keogh Barracks near Aldershot. When I was based there as a student and later as an officer instructor, I would spend much time regarding this work of art, marveling at the detail.  The actual painting is large – large enough to warrant the installation of a wooden balustrade to protect it from the high spirited antics of junior officers on Regimental Dinner nights. The sheer size of the painting is what enables the artist to convey the detail.

The bearers are under heavy shell fire and it is clearly not the height of summer, but this is dangerous, hard physical graft. The lead bearer is wrapped in a sheepskin jerkin and he appears to be wearing extra layers of fabric over his battledress trousers, yet he wears his sleeves rolled-up, ready for graft, the strain of the carry showing in the rigid tension of his muscular triceps and forearms.

As anyone who has taken part in a military log race or stretcher race will be able to tell, the angle of both men’s arms indicates that they are not hanging around. The front man is pulling hard, the exertion is clear on his face while the rear man is driving forward too; leaning in to the weight of the stretcher and casualty.

The stretcher bearers have two good reasons for moving as swiftly as possible. The first is the bursts of shellfire that are impacting on the parapet of the trench as they pass through it.  In this section of line, the parapet seems to run at little more than head height , perhaps indicating that they are in a communication trench rather than a forward trench. The shallowness of the trench here renders the bearers more vulnerable to devastating fragmentation injuries to the head, neck and chest. The second is the condition of the wounded soldier.  In painting the face of the casualty, Rogers has captured perfectly the waxy, ashen faced appearance of a man who is in the advanced stages of hypovolaemic shock and is struggling on the verge of circulatory collapse. If the two bearers do not get their patient to a surgeon soon, the chances are that he will die.

As a combat carer in a more recent and far less intense conflict, I can identify with every aspect of the painting. Not for the first time I am confronted by an image with which, barring differences in uniform, weapons and equipment, I am instantly familiar.  This underlines the enduring and fundamentally human nature of war.

As we approach Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day in the UK and Commonwealth and Veterans’ Day in the USA, please take a moment to think of the courageous and compassionate Medical Services personnel of all Armies who have placed their lives in danger and all too often made the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live.

Major Barry Alexander is the author of ‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ the true story of his experience providing medical support on the ground in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

 

 

 

Kate ter Horst – The Angel of Arnhem

One of the main characters in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far is Kate ter Horst, portrayed by Liv Ullmann.  I didn’t realise until I did some reading recently, that it was Kate ter Horst and not Liv Ullmann who provided the narration for the opening title sequence of the movie.

The movie tells how this amazing lady gave permission for her home to be used by the Regimental Aid Post as a place to provide care for the wounded men of the British Airborne.  Kate ter Horst became known as the ‘Angel of Arnhem’ for the part she played in providing comfort and aid to the wounded and dying airborne soldiers.  Although she was reportedly uncomfortable with the accolade, it is easy to see how she can have been regarded as such by the young men in her care.  One such paratrooper is reported to have said to her “you’re lovely, just like my mum…” shortly before passing away.  Although she played host to the Aid Post, Mrs ter Horst was not alone in her actions.  Many households showed tremendous kindness to the embattled soldiers that sought refuge in the cellars of their homes.  That kindness was reciprocated; in one instance, a young Private soldier saved the life of his hosts by shielding them from the blast of a grenade that had been lobbed into the cellar.  In protecting the civilians, the soldier gave his life.

Many years before A Bridge Too Far, Mrs Ter Horst also featured in the movie Theirs is the Glory, a black and white docudrama filmed amid the ruins of Arnhem little more than a year after the battle.  One scene shows soldiers collecting water from a radiator leak, which lends realism to the film.  Apparently Kate ter Horst resorted to similar measures to provide water for the wounded to drink; draining radiators and the lavatory cistern.

The winter following the Battle of Arnhem was tough.  The German occupiers meted out severe punishment in revenge for the aid that the townspeople had rendered to the British.  Tragically, Kate’s oldest son, Pieter Albert was killed by an anti-tank mine in a meadow near the River Rhine.

Made an honorary Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for caring for the wounded, Kate died after being hit by a car outside her home in 1992.  I have read that Randall Martin, the young Airborne doctor who had set up shop in her home all those years before, rushed to be by her bedside when she died.

© Barry Alexander 2016

 

Every Man an Emperor – Operation Market Garden

What a week for military history anniversaries it has been. Earlier this week, I published a brief blog post about the centenary of the birth of tank warfare, that day also coincided with Battle of Britain Day.  The version of the Battle of Britain that I grew up with was part myth, part truth.  The story was one of heroic young British Royal Air Force officers flying in Spitfires to fight the numerically superior Luftwaffe over southern England and ultimately prevailing, thereby making Hitler’s invasion of Britain impossible.

The truth is that more Fighter Command squadrons flew Hurricanes than Spitfires, a large number of the pilots were non-commissioned officers and the Battle of Britain was not a Brits-only affair.  Pilots from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand also took part – a point that I wish could be hammered home to the thugs who have carried out shameful attacks on Poles living in Britain following the result of the Brexit referendum.  There is now even some doubt as to whether Hitler genuinely intended to invade Britain, although I recall reading in Manstein’s memoir that in 1940 he commanded troops earmarked for seaborne landings in Kent and Sussex with no indication of doubt about the plan.

The fact remains that the Battle of Britain caused significant attrition to the Luftwaffe’s combat power and combined with the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic, ensured that the Allies retained a Centre of Gravity in Europe and that the integrity of sea lanes of communication was maintained.  This set the scene for the Normandy landings in June and the subsequent attempt at an integrated airborne and ground offensive to seize a crossing point over the River Rhine that would have enabled a thrust into Germany and brought about a premature end to the war.  This offensive was named Operation Market Garden and began on 17 September 1944.

The story of Operation Market Garden has been told in literature and film, most notably in Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book A Bridge Too Far and the 1979 movie of the same name, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough.  Anyone who has watched the movie, will know the story; allied airborne forces insert by parachute and glider to secure crossing points at Son, Nijmegen and Arnhem and hold them to enable a link-up operation by XXX Corps.  The ambitious plan, devised by Montgomery and sold to Eisenhower as achievable on paper, proves impossible in reality, with multiple factors aligning to spoil it.  A Bridge Too Far illustrates these points well; planning staff are aware of limitations in aircraft availability but do not admit the fact to their seniors, British 1st Airborne Division radio communications were limited by the woodland and technical failures.  Perhaps the worst failure of all was the intentional disregard of intelligence that indicated the presence of significant German forces in Arnhem.  Clausewitz tells us that war in reality can never match war on paper, cautioning commanders of the impact of friction and the fog of war.  There is little doubt in my mind that British hubris and a reluctance of planners to ‘speak truth to power’ contributed to the failure at Arnhem.  The consequences of doing so would have been potentially significant as illustrated by the treatment of Browning’s Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart[1].  When Urquhart voiced his concerns, Browning arranged for him to be sent on ‘sick leave’.

The ground thrust to achieve the link-up was slowed by many factors, most notably the effect of canalisation in the towns of Eindhoven and Nijmegen, the destruction of the Son bridge and of course, stiffer German resistance than had been anticipated.  XXX Corps did not manage to link up with 1st Airborne Division, whose plans had been scuppered, leaving Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion isolated and surrounded at the Arnhem Bridge.  Men whose orders were to hold the bridges for 72 hours ended up fighting valiantly for nine days, short on ammunition and with 87% of resupply drops falling into German hands, it was a dire situation.

Attempts to reinforce 1st Airborne Division were made by Sosabowski’s Polish Parachute Brigade.  Their initial drop zones had been overrun and they were forced to land south of the river, days later than planned.  The intent was for them to cross the river using a ferry, but it was later discovered that the ferryboat had been sunk by the ferryman to deny its use to the Germans.  The Poles occupied defensive positions in Driel and were effective in blocking advances by German armour towards Arnhem.  Following appeals from British officers, Sosabowski agreed to attempt to cross the Rhine and reinforce the British perimeter.  Several attempts were made using small assault boats, but were hampered by the strong tides and a lack of oars. Around 170 Polish soldiers managed to reinforce the perimeter, about a quarter of the number that was hoped for, with a number being captured in the process.  The final attempt to reinforce came on the night of 24th September when a combined Anglo-Polish crossing was planned.  Sosabowski objected to this plan and bitterly resented the subordination of his troops to British command, but was effectively overruled.  Following the battle, Sosabowski was smeared by British officers and was subsequently removed from command.  It is not clear who instigated the plan to scapegoat Sosabowski, but fingers point variously at Browning and officers of 43rd Division.  While it is clear that the Polish officer was an abrasive character, his subsequent treatment was nothing short of shameful.  Honour has been restored in recent years with the award of the Military William Order to the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade and the posthumous award of the Bronze Lion to Sosabowski by HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

On the ninth day, Operation Berlin was conducted, an evacuation of the remnants of Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division from the north bank of the Rhine, this followed a determined German thrust to complete an encirclement of the British troops that was broken up by an artillery bombardment.  With boats provided the Royal Canadian Engineers and a covering force from the Polish Parachute Brigade, Operation Berlin enabled the evacuation of more than 2400 men from the Arnhem bridgehead.

Operation Market Garden was a gallant but flawed attempt at shortening the war.  On paper, the British failure to link-up with the beleaguered 1st Airborne Division was a failure, but the losses inflicted on the Germans and the heroic fighting spirit that has come to symbolise the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces are nothing short of legendary.  Montgomery summed up this spirit thus:

What manner of men are these that wear the maroon beret?

They are firstly all volunteers and are toughened by physical training.  As a result, they have infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from well-being.  They have jumped from the air and in doing so have conquered fear.

Their duty lies in the van of battle.  They are proud of this honour.  They have the highest standard in all things, whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace-time duties. They are in fact, men apart – every man an emperor.

[1] In the movie of A Bridge Too Far, Maj Urquhart was renamed Fuller. Apparently this was to avoid the audience confusing his character with that of Maj Gen Roy Urquhart.  It is reassuring to know that Hollywood perceives that audiences lack sufficient intellect to cope with two people with the same surname in one movie.

What’s that coming over the hill, is it a Panzer?

Tanks are like elephants. Everyone knows what they look like, but few people have actually seen one; and when they do, it is often in a museum or installed as part of a war memorial.  The mistake that most people make when faced with tanks as museum piece or memorials is believing they are seeing a tank.  Much like looking at the dry bones of a dinosaur, on such occasions we regard the mere shell of a tank.

Despite numerous childhood visits to the Royal Armoured Corps Museum at Bovington Camp in Dorset and the Imperial War Museum in London, I did not see my first real tank until I was eighteen.  The chill dawn of a September morning near the Sibesse Gap in Germany saw me and my mates standing to our arms in anticipation of an attack by British soldiers playing the part of opposing forces (OPFOR).  It had been a chilly, damp night and sleeping on the cold ground without the luxury of sleeping bags had leeched warmth from our bodies.  As we stood shivering in our fire trenches, sited to guard a notional minefield gap, a distant rumble and roar echoed down the valley from our rear rising to a crescendo as it drew near.  In the middle-distance a number of large menacing shapes emerged from the murky half-light. Challenger tanks.  No museum visit or war film could have prepared me such an imposing sight; sixty-two tons of metal, standing nearly ten feet tall, with a length of thirty-seven feet and the roar of a 26 litre Rolls Royce engine.  This was the stuff that boys’ (wet) dreams are made of (when not fantasising about girls of course).  The tanks approached our position along the metalled road in ‘line astern’ and stopped about twenty metres short of our position.  The commander of the lead tank briefly checked his map and after a short pause, with an enormous roar of their engines, the tanks moved on, passing the culvert that we had dug in next to and pulled a sharp right turn, heading across the front-right of our little piece of battlespace up a rolling slope, fanning out into line-abreast as they did so, moving out to perform the cavalry’s traditional role of screening the infantry’s flanks. That was it, my first real up-close encounter with a tank.  Over the course of my career, I worked with armour on a number of occasions, but nothing ever came close to the thrill of that first experience.

Thrill is the right word when you are on a peacetime exercise and the tanks are friendly.  When you are sitting in a defensive position and the tanks that you are facing are those of the enemy, I imagine the effect would be bowel-loosening terrifying.  When you picture that sixty odd tons coming at you at a speed of thirty-five miles per hour, its main armament blasting away at your little castle of ‘wriggly tin’, sandbags and barbed wire, the machine guns intermittently raking back and forth, the military descriptors of the role of armour as ‘shock action’ and ‘aggressive mobile action’ seem euphemistically understated. Soldiers of my generation had seen tanks; on TV, in the movies and in museums.  Had the Cold War turned hot, we would have an inkling what we might be up against.  A few days after my first encounter, we would have a taste of what this might be like when a combined arms battlegroup of tanks and armoured infantry assaulted our main defensive position.  Our anti-tank weapons were well deployed and the umpires reckoned that we could have taken out most of this unit, but the show, based on the exercise scenario had to go on.

One hundred years ago, tanks were first used in action on the Somme battlefield at Flers-Courcelette.  This was a new weapon being unleashed on the world and with no frame of reference, the German soldiers that faced them must have been overwhelmed by the sight of these armoured leviathans.  The actual result was mixed, many of the tanks did not make it to the line of departure for the attack and of the thirty-two that did, only nine breached the German lines, nevertheless, the ability of the tank to manoeuvre across the scarred terrain of the battlefield while resisting small arms fire and shell splinters was proven.  Those who witnessed this first tank attack might not have realised its enormity, but the first step of a shift in the character of conflict had just been taken.  If the Great War was characterised largely by the attrition of trench warfare, subsequent wars were often characterised by combined arms manoeuvre and air-land integration with many leaders from Guderian, Manstein, Montgomery and Patton to Schwarzkopf, de la Billiere and others forging their reputations through their Generalship of armoured formations.  The rest, as they say, is history – tanks for the memory.

© Barry Alexander, 2016

Ground Zero

Darkest hour of the darkest day

The world stood and watched

First firefighters, next widows, then soldiers

Ordinary lives changed immeasurably

 

Eye of a gathering storm of war

Epicentre of a maelstrom of chaos

The towers cast a long cold shadow

Although they stand no more

 

The aftershocks reverberate

Fifteen full years on

One day that dictated who I became

Sent me far from home

 

If I could visit Ground Zero

A pilgrimage for peace

Stand and peer into the abyss

What reflection would I see?

 

© Barry Alexander 2016

 

 

 

 

On Remembering War

In my recent podcast chat with Adin Dobkin and Randy ‘Charlie Sherpa’ Brown, we discussed the importance of the role that narrative plays in bridging the gap between soldiers and the societies that they serve to help civilians better understand the nature of the military operations that are committed on their behalf.  The narrative forms that we discussed included factual, literary, poetic and comedic.

Whilst it might be argued that some narrative forms carry less value and validity than others, each form has a part to play in weaving the complex tapestry that tells the story of our collective and individual experience and becomes our history.

It is widely held that perception is reality and that each of us builds our own reality based on how we experience the world through our senses. If that is the case, then we should ensure that we remember our wars through as many forms as possible, exploring competing and conflicting narratives through the diverse array of media available.

In the information age, the battle of the narrative has become key terrain for military and political leaders.  For soldiers, this underpins the moral component of fighting power; articulating why we fight.  For civilians, the importance of such a narrative is arguably more important as their consent which allows governments to continue State policy ‘through other means’. The essence of Clausewitz’s holy trinity.  Recent examples of the narrative undermining the will of the people include the images of US Marines fighting in the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon and the considerable media exposure given to military repatriations at Royal Wootton Basset in Wiltshire.  There is little doubt in my mind that in each case, such strong imagery fed the belief that the Vietnam war was unwinnable for the US and that success in Afghanistan was not worth the cost in British lives.

As a means of conveying the raw essence of conflict, poetry is a strong medium.  Writing poetry has enabled me to process my experiences and share them with others.  As a reader, I find poetry so powerful and emotive that I sometimes feel it should be accompanied by a warning notice along the lines of ‘may inspire wild thoughts and actions’ and should perhaps, like a Claymore mine, carry a ‘front toward enemy’ instruction.  How many young men went to war in 1914 influenced by Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada only to find their experience more closely resemble that of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est?  I love both poems, Owen’s for its bitter and unglamorous portrayal of the reality of death in an industrial conflict and Newbolt’s for seeking to find something of merit in the unsuccessful campaign to relieve Gordon’s garrison at Khartoum; the realistic and romantic aspects of the drama of conflict.  Even now, when the snapshots of my war are conjured up in my mind, I want to think Vitaï Lampada, not Dulce et Decorum Est.  I hope my writing manages to balance both sides of that coin, for in my experience, there is a truth to each.

In the podcast we discussed the value of humour and the impact that it has on the narrative of war.  In his Sherpatudes Randy tells us that:

“Humor is a combat multiplier. Except when it isn’t.”

Making light of life threatening situations is almost as intuitive to soldiers as it might be counterintuitive to their civilian counterparts.  As a teenager, I remember being horrified at the story of Great War soldiers who would shake the hand of a dead soldier that protruded from a trench wall before going ‘over the top’.  As a veteran, I get it.  In On Afghanistan’s Plains, I describe how a sergeant and I made light of a dead Taliban fighter.  This action, of which I am now somewhat ashamed, was born out of fear, rather than callousness.  This gallows humour, which I accept will perhaps seem beyond the pale to many readers helped us to get through that day with sanity intact.  Some years ago, I read Excursion to Hell by Vince Bramley, a former Parachute Regiment soldier who fought in the Falklands.  My own experience of conflict pales in comparison to the epic fight for Mount Longdon that was endured by those soldiers, yet mixed in with the chaos and tragedy, there is humour.  Bramley tells the story of a soldier playing a trick on a comrade by placing a disembodied human foot into his rolled up sleeping bag.  At another point in Bramley’s story, when under shell-fire, another soldier jokingly cries out “I’ve lost my leg!” to which another man replies, “No you haven’t mate, it’s over here!”  The expression “if you didn’t laugh, you would cry” springs to mind.

But what of the comedic depiction of armies and conflict?  Military customs, traditions and activities can seem arcane to outsiders, which makes them ripe for satire.  Blackadder Goes Forth provides us with an entertaining, if largely inaccurate account of the British Army in the First World War, while it is clear that MASH used the Korean War as a vehicle to satirise the Vietnam War.  In out podcast chat, Randy, Adin and I discussed contemporary attempts to do the same.  I have to admit that I never watched an episode of Bluestone 42, a British situation comedy set in Afghanistan, mainly because when the series aired, I was not yet ready to see my war used as a vehicle for comedy.

As gentlemen of a certain age, we discovered that there are two comedy shows that may have influenced us as young boys, Hogan’s Heroes and Dad’s Army.  Both of these shows rightly fall into the category of classic comedy and have earned their place in popular culture’s Hall of Fame.  Highly entertaining as they are, when weighed against Schindler’s List, these threads do not carry the same weight in our colourful tapestry, but they have a place nonetheless.

© Barry Alexander 2016

On Remembering War is an episode of the Military Writers’ Guild podcast: The Pen and the Sword hosted by Adin Dobkin, featuring Barry Alexander and Randy Brown.

Welcome to FOB Haiku by Randy Brown a.k.a. Charlie Sherpa is published by Middle West Press LLC and available on amazon.

On Afghanistan’s Plains by Barry Alexander is available on amazon as a paperback and Kindle e-book.