Tag Archives: Military Service

11 November: A murky day in Manchester

gassed piccadilly

It was a murky day in Manchester last winter when I met this column of men from the Great War. The sculpture is based on John Singer Sargent’s painting in the Imperial War Museum, ‘Gassed’. He had been to the front line, though he was in his eighties, and seen the men, British and American, suffering blindness after a mustard gas attack.

They are led by a medical orderly; there is a skill to leading such a group: observing the terrain, being alert for mud, ruts, obstacles, exaggerated dropping of the left or right shoulder to lead the men to turn. There are many ways to love your fellow man: the column of men support each other in what the sculptor, Johanna DomkeGuyot calls ‘Victory Over Blindness’.

Her sculpture loves her fellow human beings: honouring the dead but challenging the living through portraying the gritty, grimy reality of unmedalled, unsought heroism. It is a bold but totally right decision to plant the men at ground level, not way over our heads, like the man on the Manchester cenotaph; an image that all but says, dulce et decorum est – how sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.


Let us not forget that the victims of war, soldiers or civilians, are men, women and children like us and ours; that cruel things have been done in our name as well as against us. Let us do all we can to bring about peace and reconciliation between nations and peoples, and within our own communities.

Lord grant us peace.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

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5 April: The Passover Sequence, II. The Soldier.

strasbgcrownthorns (405x409)

Enough, lads!

Leave it,

Go … go … leave it!

Why do they tell us to do these things?

Soldiers of Caesar … are we not human?

They had their fun

Till it sickened

And they laboured.

And I stayed.

Here! Put this back on!

See he shivers in the shock,

Such violence!

Not the usual cursing, angry vagrant,

Shouting, struggling,

Shivering. Yes,

Their bodies react like that,

But his eyes are calm.

He looked at me.

I am ashamed.

Here, let me help you.

Why do they do this?

Why mock the man?

Why strike?

Why spit?

No-one seems to know.

But for their satisfaction

And more to come I hear.

Well, I’ll leave you here … where else?

I’m off duty soon,

My wife will have my meal,

I’m hungry now.

But you!

What for you?

The hordes are ravenous,

Whipped up for blood.

Do you not have friends?


Who speaks for you?

Defends you?

I must go.

Someone will come for you soon.

But wait here ….

here ….

I’m sorry ….




The Crowning with Thorns, Strasbourg Cathedral, West Front.

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15 February: Officers and Civilians


During the same Freshers’ Week Fair, and only a few paces away from the Paintball Monster, a slightly (but not very) different kind of recruitment was going on. Promising safe, lucrative careers to those newcomers from secondary schools, a British Army Officers’ Training Corps Tenet had a team ready to win over students to lives of military domination. Officers are paid to be good at domination. Students who have brains sharpened by A level mental discipline are just sufficiently self-assured about their talent for drilling others and keeping the world in line. Some might feel relieved to have difficult decisions about a fruitful direction to pursue in life to be taken for them by the military.

Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl observes that “boredom exists so that we will do justice to the meaning of our life.” From a utilitarian point of view, grief and repentance “appear to be meaningless” but when told to take a sleeping pill, “the grief-stricken person commonly retorts that his sleeping better will not awaken the lost one whom he mourns.” Through love “the gates to the whole universe of values are thrown open.” Dan Berrigan says that “one of the largest tasks of all… [is] helping other people to live by other  means than their fear, whether it  is fear of one another, fear of the enemy, fear  of the authorities, fear of prison, fear of disgrace, or fear of separation from their families.” Such inflation of reality is what “government [is] able to play on” till people can’t recognise fear of what might happen as different from what is actually happening.


Chris D.

January 2017.

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August 12: Trivial Solutions to Human Passions

geoffreydebouillon.2.2 (2) (307x372)

Our cosy routines are put in danger, but  we convince ourselves that right will be on our side because we are mighty and might generally proves itself right. Whether with flag in hand on horseback, or with horsepower under the bonnet, the agreed standards of civic protection will favour us, God or no God.  Here is Godfrey de Bouillon again.

We have an army to keep unwelcome passions of others supervised and checked, we imagine, as if there were no rival claims to protection at work in other cultures of the world.

geoffreydebouillon.3 (487x542)

But what are the unexamined passions of consumer indulgence which provide our confidence? Are they the moderated passions of the best adults, or a splurge of childish cravings? A quick phone call and all the luxuries of the world are ours.

We are like baby kings, and the fact that we cannot observe the labourers abroad who provide the goodies does not disturb our sleep.

phonecall..j (409x583)

These three images, all from Brussels, seem to me to pinpoint the unhealthy mixture of a tradition of power, resources of control, and the fascination of gaining our own advantages, and satisfying our tastes, which underpins so much modern existence. We don’t believe that we are in any position to prevent the fallout from this heady combination. But we do have the freedom to seek for a spiritual basis to our friendships and ways of living.



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April 25th: The Best Laid Plans: II


We climbed into the plane. Zak started to go through all the checks and I logged on the radar control and entered our coordinates so the flight controller could direct our interception. The engines revved up and we taxied on to the runway, gathering speed as we went.  We waited whilst the engines roared to full throttle, then we and our ‘wingman’ were racing down the runway with seven feet between wing tips. Another minute and we were detached from terra firma and climbing through light cirrus cloud to our interception point. The American flight controller confirmed our interception co-ordinates and we signalled that our guns were’ locked on’.

We received the message that the interception had been successful, ‘dead turkey in the run’ and were awaiting our next interception co-ordinates when there was a short sharp whistle. RAF Central Control cut in to tell us that the training exercise was terminated because a flight of Russian ‘Bear’ bombers had penetrated our airspace west of Uist and we were ordered to proceed at ‘best speed’ to intercept them and chase them out of our skies. Zak responded immediately and we were soon heading up the East coast as fast as we could go.

I asked if we should not tell RAF Central Control that we were not ‘armed up’. Zak’s reply chilled me somewhat.

‘I shouldn’t bother, old sport, because if I get the order to attack I shall ram the b***’s anyway’.

I just sighed deeply.

We started to receive messages that the Norwegians had alerted two squadrons, the Belgians three, the Dutch four and the French ten. ‘It seems to me’, I said quietly,’ as though we are quite superfluous and indeed we shall be in the way Zak, so why don’t we just turn round and go home’. But Zak was adamant, ‘No can do sport! I have been given a direct order by the top brass, to chase these b***s out of our skies’.

Then we saw them, three huge bombers, with two turrets on each side carrying as, we knew, two 650mm heavy machine guns, plus a top turret with two cannon guns which kept swivelling towards us. They were certainly ‘armed up’.

Zak again, this time very quiet and intense: ‘D’you know what I ‘m going to do which will definitely upset them? I’m going to do a belly roll right underneath their old tub.’

I replied, ‘I definitely don’t second this move, it smacks of showing off.’

Zak flew straight underneath the nearest Russian bomber and I was horrified to see that the bomb doors were half open and that the bomb racks were full.

Drama on top of drama! There was a sudden silence. I realised that our engines had stopped.

Zak’s voice hit me, ‘Sorry old sport you will have to do a dive, are you ready to open the cockpit hatch?’

I was but I knew it was all hopeless, no one had ever escaped that way because the back draft resulted in impalement on the rear fin. I tugged on the hatch release: nothing moved. Did anything work on this **** plane ?

Then a miracle occurred, the engines suddenly fired and Zak’s voice was as confident as ever. ‘I knew the angels were on your side, Dave.’

We said the ‘Hail Mary’ together with great fervour.

The Russians apparently didn’t like our manoeuvres, or maybe our devotions, they just vanished, sure that we were raving mad.

A video of a Gloster Meteor NF 11, night flying variant of the only jet fighter used by the Allies during the Second World War.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wemjUKPXSx4
“Tu-95 Bear D”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –                                          https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tu-95_Bear_D.jpg#/media/File:Tu-95_Bear_D.jpg

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24th April 2016: The best laid plans


I looked at my watch, just 6.15 am. I rose drowsily from my bed. My brain was telling me I had some important things to do. The jet engines on the test beds were roaring. I went to the briefing room where we were informed by a very smart young Flight Lieutenant that we would be taking off at 7.30 am to carry out practice interceptions with an American squadron under the direction of an American Flight Controller. I would be flying with a very experienced, rather aristocratic, Polish pilot, Zak Jublonski with whom I had got on pretty well since I joined this unit six weeks before.

This attempt to turn me into an air navigator was an interesting change which I welcomed after spending the previous twelve months as an education officer at a recruit training centre on the Welsh Border. Although earlier in my service career I had resisted attempts to turn me into a flyer, notwithstanding blandishments about promotion and more money. So far everything had gone quite well and I relished being treated with the respect a flyer gets, albeit only an embryo one. We went for a very light breakfast, then for a medical and a check to ensure we had not broken the ban on alcohol from yesterday lunchtime.

This was my sixth training flight and I had passed all my air tests so far and was doing pretty well on my navigation theory which I enjoyed.

Zak and I strolled out to inspect our Meteor night fighter NF11. These were quite old aircraft and were due to be replaced soon. I knew that Zak would inspect everything very thoroughly.

A flight sergeant appeared and handed Zak a file. ‘All present and correct Sir. But she’s not armed up.’

‘No ammunition or no staff?’ Quipped Zak.

‘Well as a matter of fact it’s both Sir.’

‘I think the C/O must keep the ammunition locked up in his desk’, said Zak.

I recalled his words the last time we flew a proper patrol: ‘Remember it costs £623 8.6 when you fire a ten second burst to clear your guns’.

‘What are we fighter pilots or accountants?’


“Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS841 264.HMT BLA 6.9.55 edited-2” by RuthAS – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gloster_Meteor_NF.14_WS841_264.HMT_BLA_6.9.55_edited-2.jpg#/media/File:Gloster_Meteor_NF.14_WS841_264.HMT_BLA_6.9.55_edited-2.jpg

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