The weekend warriors go to war

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The shots are not quite as loud as you might expect them to be, but still they are too close for comfort. The bullets fly past the head of a shocked Territorial Army soldier and embed themselves in the wall, just inches from where he is standing. A sharp voice shouts: “Contact to our left, three or four rounds.” Seconds later, there is a small burst of fire.

They call it a contact and what it means is that somebody, somewhere, shot at British troops. It happens every single day in Iraq. Today they think it might be a warning that they have stayed in this area for too long, but in truth they really don’t know. It is one of the first forays British sol diers have made into the town of Amara, north of Basra, for quite a while and the locals aren’t happy. On the wall of a nearby community centre, a scrawl in red paint reads: “Dawn No No USA Brtish [sic]”.

This group of 12 Territorial Army soldiers from 52 Lowland Regiment Y Company have been escorting a man from the Ministry of Defence to another British-built community centre. The civil servant – known as a political adviser, or “polad” for short – has flown up from Basra to check that British government funds are being properly spent. Colour Sergeant Keith Irving from Hawick in the Scottish Borders is in charge of this expedition, and is standing on a street outside the community centre, watching for possible trouble, his SA80 rifle at the ready. He is surrounded by dozens of cheeky-faced children shouting, “Mister, mister, Saddam donkey,” while showing him the soles of their feet. But as the convoy pulls off later, the children’s faces turn resentful and they start throwing stones.

It’s just another day for the Territorial Army soldiers serving in Iraq – people who, most of the time, live daily lives every bit as ordinary and banal as yours or mine, but who find themselves, in times of war, called upon to do an extraordinary second job in a very dangerous place. The mobilisation of reservists for the war in Iraq was the biggest since the Suez Crisis, and it continues to grow through the postwar phase. There are 1,210 Territorial Army soldiers serving on Op Telic 4, as the current operation in Iraq is known, making up 14% of the 8,069-strong British force. Roughly 10% of the TA contingent are female, many of them nurses.

As the British army has come to rely ever more heavily on part-time soldiers, the contrast between the jobs they do at home and what they do in “theatre”, as the military call the Iraqi conflict zone, has become more striking than ever. There is the Calor Gas tanker driver who is currently gathering intelligence; the joiner who runs a job creation scheme for Iraqi people; the marketing officer for the National Archive at Kew who now spends his days trying to liaise with public service officials; as well as the mechanics, plumbers and City analysts doing guard duty. Then there are those on a busman’s holiday of sorts: the two electricity specialists working on the Basra power grid; the doctors and nurses working in the military field hospital; the chefs now preparing meals for thousands of soldiers stationed in the desert.

The soldiers from 52nd Lowland Regiment have spent most of their time in Iraq on force protection, interspersed with what they consider the more boring job – guard duty. They are coming to the end of their six-month stint in Amara and their morale is still pretty high. At home, they belong to various TA units, training in their different bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayr and other towns across Scotland during the week, coming together as a brigade at periodic short residential camps. While they may have met each other’s wives and families at dances and other TA events, they don’t like to talk about home too much.

Irving, the broad-accented Scotsman, is typical of the TA soldiers here in that he believes that he is just as professional as any regular in the field. He served in the regulars for five years, then signed up with the TA 10 years after leaving the forces. “Having seen it from both sides of the fence, I think commitment-wise the TA guy is the better soldier,” he says. We are standing outside a British-funded blacksmith’s shop. Inside, the owner is telling the MoD man that he is now employing five members of his family because of the funds he received to kit out his workshop. The MoD man is happy, even though this marks just a small success in terms of the British attempt to help rebuild the country.

Outside on the street there is a perception that the tension is mounting. The road is busy with cars and bicycles and people, all of them staring: most don’t look particularly friendly. It’s not the numbers on the street you need to worry about, says Irving, it’s when the crowd suddenly disappears that you know something might go wrong. I ask him if he ever gets scared. He shrugs his shoulders and quips: “Wit’s for ye will no go by ye,” a fatalistic Scottish expression which means whatever happens happens. In his other life, Irving delivers medical oxygen across the Borders of Scotland.

***

Another day, another scene. It is just past 7am and a watery sun is burning a hazy white light across the flat landscape that British soldiers have taken to calling the “Gifa”. Territorial army fusilier Michael Greville explains that it means the “great Iraqi fuck all”.

Greville is 26, and usually works as a credit analyst for Cazenove, a city investment bank. It’s an office-bound job and most days he finds himself by a computer. In Iraq, when he is not soldiering, he goes back to his accommodation to study his notes for the chartered financial analyst exam which he hopes to take next year: “When I am really bored, which is pretty much 12 hours a day when we are not working, I go back to my room and study.” Being here means he is missing out on his city bonuses, but Greville is enjoying the tour anyway.

This morning some of Four Platoon from Messines Company, the London Regiment, are on their way north, escorting three vehicles from the British divisional headquarters at Basra airbase to the Dutch army camp near the town of Samawa, south of the flashpoint city of Najaf. Like 52 Lowland, they provide armed escort and covering fire should the convoy of regular troops meet any insurgency on the road.

They may work alongside the regulars, but ultimately all the TA soldiers in Iraq are under the command of the British Forces General Officer Commanding Major General Rollo, who is a regular soldier. Those serving with Messines Company are led by a TA Major Conrad Giles whilst those attached to a regular regiment such as the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment take orders from a regular commanding officer. The TA frequently provides protection for regular soldiers who are not fighting on the frontline but who have to move around southern Iraq. In such situations the regular soldier must obey the TA unit’s senior ranking soldier.

In this instance it is Colour Sergeant Rob Denman, and he is calling out orders through the radio to the two guys in each of the vehicles whose heads are sticking out through a hole in the roof to provide covering fire. They are known as “top cover” and find themselves in one of the most exposed situations of all the military – a number of the recent deaths and injuries in Iraq amongst British troops were of soldiers doing top cover.

Up top, one soldier faces the front and another the back, one with an SA80, one with a Minimi light machine gun, both looking for a possible threat. They cautiously keep their eyes open for snipers, mortar teams, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and the particularly lethal improvised explosive devices, IEDs, that can be left on the side of the road and detonated some distance away by remote control. If the convoy stops or slows for too long, they must dismount and try to move the trafficon while at the same time watching out for potential assaults. The rebels in the south have yet to use the suicide car bombs seen in Baghdad, but the soldiers are anxious that they soon could.

“Just so you are aware, there’s one pax [person] standing up on that flatbed coming towards us,” says Denman. “As we move up the MSR [main supply route] make sure the vehicles are tight. I don’t want no civvies in between us.” The previous night, another Messines Company force protection team was the target of an RPG, which shot through the gap between two of their vehicles. They need to stay close.

Nicknamed the Colourman because of his rank, Denman is 37 and works as a principal officer at Wandsworth prison. An hour and a half outside of Basra, he spots a cloud of black smoke up ahead. He tells the boys to approach slowly. They soon realise it’s a traffic accident involving a Dutch military vehicle and a local car.

Three Iraqis have died in the accident (the casualties were quickly removed by locals), but the Dutch soldiers have been standing by the side of the road for a while apparently doing nothing to police the situation. “Maybe they are in shock,” says Denman. He jumps down from his wagon and orders his soldiers to enact the drill they have trained for to deal with this situation. Denman starts to set up a vehicle checkpoint and control the traffic; the rest of the guys are sent to guard the peripheral area. An hour and a half later, the Dutch “quick reaction force” arrives and he can stand his men down. “It’s not very quick, the quick reaction force, is it?” someone pipes up. “Yesh, we have just come from Camp Shpliffy,” cracks another. The Dutch, whose camp is called Smitty, are the butt of a lot of British jokes.

Denman calls his boys “the PlayStation generation” because “all they can use is their thumbs”, but really, he admits, “I think they are the mutts’ nuts because they bring all their outside experience to the job – and today they showed that the TA can do the same job as the regular army.”

In the team – as well as the prison officer, the nurse, and the City boy – are: Lance Corporal Ander Broadman, 30, who procures engineering works for Network Rail and missed out on a vital promotion by being in Iraq; private Ed Elliott, nicknamed Billy (as in Billy Elliott), who works for JP Morgan Fleming in the city and “likes this sort of stuff, it’s a break from delays on the Northern Line and fixing the photocopier”; Private Tom Kelly, nicknamed Forceps because of the shape of his skull, who drives a HGV lorry for the Post Office; Dean “Deano” Moore, a shaven-headed joker of a joiner from Belfast; and Private Tim “Watesy” Wates, a recently-redundant recruitment consultant who joined the TA “to shoot stuff. Not people, but to shoot off weapons, the feel, the sound, the power, there’s a huge adrenalin rush: it’s boys’ toys”.

Pace, who could have been a medic in the TA but preferred to join the infantry, says: “It’s like training for a football match and wanting to play. I didn’t want to train and just use blanks in a forest somewhere. We do use live rounds when we are training sometimes in the UK but there’s a different apprehension about it.” Wates pipes in: “That’s what gives it the edge, you know there are people out there wanting to kill you.”

***

Britain has a long history of reserve forces, with Volunteer and Yeomanry units being formed during the Napoleonic wars. The TA was established in 1907. First known as the Territorial Force, it encouraged Britons to join in “homeland defence”: the word territorial signified that those who served with the force were under no obligation to serve overseas. By 1921 it had changed its name to the Territorial Army. In the first world war, a number TA units volunteered to go to war and did not come back for four years, bringing back 71 Victoria Crosses for bravery.

With the abolition of national service and the advent of the cold war, it seemed the TA’s role was assured, but with the fall of the iron curtain, the security of the homeland was deemed to be under rather less of a threat. The Conservatives cut TA numbers by 15,000 between 1991 and 1994, then the present government scythed the numbers further from 54,000 to 41,000 as part of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. The then defence secretary George Robertson said: “The TA should no longer be a force of last resort, held against a major conventional threat to the UK and Nato allies. More units will be placed at significantly higher states of readiness. And we will now be prepared to call them up – in formed units if needs be – in situations that fall short of a direct threat to the UK such as the Gulf war.” This would, he added, give them a “more heavyweight role”. The 40,000-strong TA now forms 25% of the British army, and can be called on to provide the army with entire formed units, or to supply individual specialists as required in IT, logistics, medicine, communications and other areas.

Almost all of them, while essentially volunteers, have been compulsorily mobilised (the MoD calls it “intelligent mobilisation”, insisting that it accommodates people who can prove it would be impossible for them to go for professional or personal reasons). The Reserve Forces Act 1996 obliges all employers to keep a TA soldier’s job open but some have returned from Iraq to find this isn’t the case. At least 17 are believed to be taking their former employers to tribunals after losing their jobs upon their return.

Compared to the training undergone by regular soldiers, the territorials’ induction can seem light. Soldiers attend training on three evenings each month, and commit themselves to one Sunday a month, and six weekends and two full weeks camp a year, which they must take out of their annual work leave. For these hours they are paid the same as a regular soldier of equivalent rank, ranging from £29.10 a day for a private to £102.51 for a major. Each year they are awarded a tax-free bounty of between £350 and £1,380 depending on length of service and on passing an annual battlefield weapons and fitness test. While they are mobilised, their salaries from their employers are suspended. The theory goes that a TA soldier on active service will be no worse off than he or she would be at home but sometimes this doesn’t work out: a City trader can’t expect to get his or her bonuses, but will get their mortgage and other “reasonable” outgoings covered.

Inevitably, the “Terries” take a ribbing from both civilians and the regular army for “playing” at being soldiers, a dads’ army of weekend warriors. The comedian Jack Dee recently described members of the TA as “part-time soldier, full-time banging on about it”, while the best-known fictional TA member, Gareth from the Office, never lets his own service go forgotten: “A lot of people think that the Territorial Army are not real soldiers. We are. We are well trained, highly disciplined fighting machines ready for war. We’re just not available during the week.”

“Until the TA changes their courses to six weeks like the regular army we will never be seen as the same as them,” says one soldier from 52nd Lowland. “But it takes them six weeks to do a course that takes us two weeks because they are not as brainy as us. That’s why when regular guys leave the army the best job they can get is as a security adviser. But TA guys are different.” In addition, the concept of rank can work rather differently with the territorials. Often, highly qualified civilians prefer to remain privates in what they see as a break from responsibility. Better educated, white-collar professionals often find themselves taking orders from someone who comes from a blue-collar background.

Certainly there can be a marked difference in culture between regular and territorial units. Last year, I was embedded with a squadron of regular soldiers during the invasion of Iraq. Spending time with the TA in a similar situation, it seemed to me that the diversity and breadth of experience that these men and women had gained in their normal daily lives gave them more interesting things to talk about than their regular counterparts – and a rather different view of their involvement in the conflict. Most had signed up for the TA out of a sense of patriotism and duty, but they are far from army machines; as one, who had copies of The Spanish Civil War and The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by his bed, told me: “I am a historian and I suppose I am in love with the romanticism of it all.” Another did not believe the war was justified but enjoyed the adventure of it.

Denman has been in the TA for 14 years – “promoted and demoted a couple of times” – and got his call-up papers for Iraq in January 2004. It was a blow to his wife Sandy and his two children, Amy, 11, and James, 7, but he has worked every other weekend as a prison officer so he is used to missing key family moments. He has gone on exercise to Estonia, Germany, Cyprus and Romania, but Iraq is his first proper tour of duty. With a few qualms, he says, he would be happy to come back for another. “It’s given me an outlet physically, getting out and not being surrounded by walls, a feeling of not being hemmed in.

Like other soldiers, Denman has his own opinion about the war, but out here considers it irrelevant. “I look at it the same way I do in the prison service: I am paid by society to carry out a task. I am paid to be a prison officer and to lawfully detain people and out here I am paid to be a soldier and follow the orders of my commanding officer and carry out foreign policy.”

His worst day in Iraq, he says, was when he went to the field hospital at Shaiba Logistics Base and saw a 22-year-old private from his company being fed through a straw. He had received a shrapnel wound in his throat when an IED exploded under his vehicle. “Because I am a platoon sergeant I feel really, really responsible,” says Denman. “In a way you are a father figure; I feel responsible for my blokes. When you have been through all the training and the camaraderie and you see someone you don’t want to see hurt hurt it makes you angry.”

***

This kind of attack has become more frequent in the British-controlled south since August, when Moqtada al-Sadr declared a holy war on British troops. It is now very rare to see British soldiers on the ground in their soft berets, a style of dress that was much trumpeted by the MoD in the days immediately after the war. The British claim they still have 90% of public consent, but it doesn’t seem like that on the ground.

The battle group further north in Amara, for instance, has been under the most sustained attack of any British unit since the Korean war, with 881 mortar rounds being fired at them since April. It is estimated that the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment has fired 30,000 rounds of ammunition, more than was used by all troops in the invasion phase last year. In August, the former family home of the governor of Maysan province used by the British as the headquarters of their civil and military cooperation unit (known as “Cimic House”) came under siege; during one 10-day period, 428 mortars were fired at it. The 100 or so soldiers there – a high percentage of them TA – had to sit and battle it out.

Hanging out in the humid, malodorous tent that is their home in Abu Naji camp, five miles outside Amara city centre, some of Colour Sergeant Irving’s “jocks” (as the infantry privates in the 52 Lowland are known) recall the three-week battle of Cimic House. One soldier filmed the engagement: the camera tracks red tracer fire as it thrashes across the sky towards the building and then back out in returning fire. The subtitles count the 595 mortars, 10% of which landed within the perimeter: 57 RPG attacks, five 107mm rocket attacks and 86 small arms engagements.

“I wouldn’t say it was horrific,” says Fusilier Derek Currie. “It was mad. A mortar knocked our sanger [an elevated guard post on the edge of camp] and deafened me for 8 hours.” Currie is 21 and from Glasgow. In his normal life he works with children in after-school care: “I do training, I do workshops with new employers, I organise sports days.” Private David McCauley, 29, works in a call centre for the Manpower employment agency. “It’s not scary at the time but you sit down after and go, oh God, that was a bit hairy.”

But a boy with chipmunk teeth pipes up that it’s “brilliant”. Private Craig Hardie is 24 and a mechanic from Kelso, and he loves all this. He joined the TA 18 months ago, around the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Having trained in battlefield first aid he is the team medic, and the boys have stuck the label “witch doctor” above his campbed. This kind of engagement, he says, is “what we join the TA for”.

But however much it may seem to some like a great game, these boys, unlike many of the territorials in Iraq, have killed people. They know it should bother them, but at the time, when the killing was done, it just didn’t. “They shoot first: it’s them or us,” says McCauley. “I would rather go home and see my two kids. If you slot someone, they are usually quite a distance away, so surprisingly, when you see them fall over, it doesn’t really affect you that much since they were firing at us first.”

They say they are not worrying now about post-traumatic stress, or the many other psychological scars they may carry back to nine-to-five civilian lives. “Most of us here will be OK because we talk to each other about it,” says McCauley. “I have been [nearby] when a mortar has hit a civilian’s house and the first thing I have heard is a woman screaming, a sound you would never want to hear. I might not forget that.”

Later, a regular soldier tells me a story about being at Cimic House. “I was on top of the Pink Palace with Keith [Irving] and we were crouched behind a really low parapet. I was shitting myself. I was on my belt buckle [lying down]. And Keith’s up there with his rifle mounted over the parapet, bullets whizzing past him on either side and he’s looking at me going: ‘When your time’s up you time’s up.'” He adds admiringly: “And he’s in the TA.” Irving is not much of a stickler for ranks and titles. He and his sergeant Gordon Wylie, a plumber affectionately known as “Wee Speccy”, believe that it is good for morale for the men to talk to each other like friends.

That night, at 1am, a loud bang, followed by a dull thud, shudders the ground on the eastern perimeter. Ten 107mm rockets – “a beast of a munition”, says Irving – have landed and detonated. They are met by outgoing rounds from a Warrior tank. Just another contact, but this time the assault is much more sustained and it comes as a shock to TA Corporal Lisa Lovell, who is in the Royal Military Police. Sitting up in bed, a worried look on her face, she tells me that this is the most scared she has felt on her tour. She is a solicitor from Newcastle and thinks this fear may be because her time here is coming to an end. The soldiers believe that this is statistically the time when something bad might happen to them because they are apt to let their guard down.

***

Last month, the British moved out of Cimic House and handed it back to the Iraqis. Much of the work they were doing is now carried out from a cabin they call Cimic Hut that sits at the gates of Abu Naji; trips out of base are now very limited. On a table inside the hut sits a thick green file with the words “Compensation Claims” written on its spine. Sergeant William Cooper is looking at a photograph of a hole made in a wall by an RPG. A local woman, Jinan Salman Mohammed, hands over a photocopy of her identity card and a form which says, in English: “My house was bombed during the events between Al-Sadr militias and British forces by shelling by British army.” In a box she details the damage and how much she reckons it will cost to build again. “Air conditioning, $400, bricks $250, sink and paint and glasses and basin with valves and mixer, $140, cement and sand, $300. Total: $1,340 US.”

Cooper says it seems a pretty fair assessment – “sometimes, for damage to buildings they are trying for $10,000” – but says it is not clear who is to blame. “A lot of them bring these claims but they are not really sure who fired. We are trying to tell them that if we do fire any rockets or missiles it is all regulated and documented and we will know if it was us.” In the past week they have had 30 claims for rocket damage.

Sitting beside him, Lance Corporal Dougie Telford, a swimming pool lifeguard from Motherwell, is looking at a set of photographs showing damage to a car and getting angry. “I saw this photograph yesterday with another claimant. Fuck off. I want other pictures, I want a court report.” The young man’s claim for damages astounds him. “An air conditioning unit for $6,372. You can build a house for $2,500 and you are trying to claim $6,372.” The boy laughs when he hears the interpreter’s translation. They add the claim to the pile.

Later, Telford holds up an x-ray and says: “This is a compensation claim. The person says they have been hit by shrapnel.” In the middle of the negative is a distinctive foreign body lodged in the gut. “Look, it’s a bloody safety pin.”

Today, a frustrated crowd of 350 men have been hanging around since dawn. This assembly has been going on for a few days now, since the rumour spread that they were hiring people at the camp and recruiting for the new Iraqi police force. It’s not true, but still the desperate turn up; an enterprising man hunkers down on his knees beside the crate of cola he has hauled for miles to sell to them. Lack of jobs is probably the most serious issue in Amara. “The pot is starting to boil again and it is all about unemployment,” predicts one intelligence officer.

Several soldiers tell me they are enjoying their time in Iraq, but many members of the TA detest their assignments. One senior regular officer admits that the TA very often get the less exciting jobs, particularly the monotonous guard duty, day in day out. This is because his men – the “real soldiers” he slips, before quickly correcting himself with “regular soldiers” – are career soldiers who have to think about promotion and the jobs they have to do in order to secure it.

Nor are the conditions in which they are serving in any way hospitable. Abu Naji is the worst of the British camps in terms of living conditions: there isn’t much to do here apart from be a soldier. There are no TV lounges or bars like the other camps, and no air conditioning in the junior ranks’ cookhouse. In the height of summer the fetid 60 degree air is thick with flies.

Corporal Malcolm “Beachy” Grieve is a 43-year-old slaughterman whose daily life involves cutting through animal carcasses in an abattoir in Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. He was mobilised in February and is extremely unhappy in Abu Naji. He joined the TA 14 years ago, he says, “to be part of a team and get the extra coin, it was good money at the time”- and until Iraq he loved it. This is his first deployment and, apart from the TA annual two-week camp, the first time he has been away from his family. His wife Theresa was “very upset and didn’t want me to gang [go]”. A small man with a large paunch and decorously tattooed arms, he has been assigned to stores and so instead of soldiering he is gofering: “I go for coffee, I go for salmon, I go for corned beef.”

Sitting in the Portakabin-type accommodation that he shares with Telford and Cooper, he says he was originally brought out as a driver of what are called “white fleet” vehicles, unarmed 4X4s. But the situation in the Amara area has since escalated, and the white fleet never go out any more. Hence the gofering.

“For the first three months we were battered from pillar to post – guards, convoys, whatever they could fit us into – which was a bit of a disappointment because I would rather have gone back to my own company. Really, I thought they had nothing for us to do. If anybody said to me, ‘What do you think of the tour?’ I would say it’s been the biggest waste of nine months of my life, because I have never done anything constructive to help the Iraqis.”

Beachy’s other big complaint, aside from boredom, is money. He is missing out on his bonuses and funds at home are tight. “Naturally, working in a slaughterhouse, there’s no need for the wife to buy butcher meat and that. With four bairns that’s quite a lot of money. Every job has got its perks but the army doesn’t appreciate that.” He asked to get back home in October so that he could be back at work in time to earn some money for Christmas. TA soldiers are allowed 40 days leave upon their return but many, like Beachy, can’t afford to take it.

Then there’s what he sees as the lack of support for his wife. “I’m lucky because I have a big family around about my wife but there has been no information or support for her. I think the army should help them, the wives have not got a clue. What does the wife do if she’s got depression or that?”

This operation, he says, “is going to kill the TA. They just won’t get people to do it any more. An employer sets up a factory to make money, he cannae afford to train up a man and lose him. I think if you are going for a job interview and it says on your CV that you are in the TA then you will go to the bottom of the pile.”
But in spite of his grievances, he is still proud of his role: “My friends think I am stupid coming across here, because they think it is only for one thing, oil. Me, I think you have got to put something back in to the Terries. You took the slagging that you were Saturday and Sunday troops, but how can your friends turn round and say that now? It won’t be ‘here’s the weekend warrior coming’ now.”

Over in the 75-bed field hospital at Shaiba Log Base, commander Martin Deahl of 256 (City of London) Field Hospital is on his second tour of duty with the TA since the invasion of Iraq. He has been promoted from his job last year as a psychiatrist to commanding the whole of the medical operation. He is 48 and says it’s an adventure at his age. “I’ve done some extraordinary things my colleagues would never dream of. They have poked fun at me about this for many years because psychiatrists as a group are a fairly anti-establishment bunch.”

Conditions are more comfortable than his assignment last year, he says, but the security situation is much more dangerous. “This hospital gets rockets fired at it every two days. Thank God none of the tents have been hit yet but if it was it would go up in flames very, very quickly. This is much more challenging work than last year. There are soldiers who come through here who should have been fatality statistics and have survived – really miraculously.”

This kind of experience really enhances the skills of a jobbing NHS medic, he says, “because they have to improvise. It also makes you put life into perspective, when you back to work and find colleagues arguing about the coffee money or what kind of biscuits they are going to get in the morning it makes you realise how superficial and trivial a lot of things are. It teaches you to appreciate creature comforts. Although it’s intangible I think the employers get someone better from the experience back afterwards.”

In the past two decades, the British army has seen almost all of its medical services cut and it now relies enormously on TA soldiers from the NHS in times of need. But that reserve of people available continues to get smaller and Deahl acknowledges that it will soon reach crisis point. He says: “The Medical service is getting close to running out of personnel already.”

By the door to the A&E entrance of the hospital, a senior nurse muses that 40-plus casualties who have been delivered alive since the middle of August have all lived. The following morning, two British soldiers doing top cover jumped down to help their colleagues after the vehicle in front was hit by an RPG. As they ran, they were both hit by small arms fire. Gunner David Lawrence, 25, and Corporal Marc Taylor, 27, both serving with the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, died from their injuries at Shaiba.

Denman and his crew had been travelling down the same road only the day before. In an email, he told me last week: “The mood has been a little sombre around here of late, but the lads keep cracking on as usual, the usual stiff upper lip stuff that we as Brits are good at.” He signed it “Faugh a Ballaugh”, an old Irish battle cry meaning “Clear the way.”

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