Between 1969 and 1998 an estimated 300,000 British soldiers did tours of duty in Northern Ireland. More than 1,000 of them didn’t come back alive.
‘The Troubles’, as those three decades of shooting, bombing and maiming are commonly known, claimed more than 3,700 lives; more than 40,000 people were injured, including nearly 6,000 British soldiers and more than 8,000 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
After a conflict like that, which was as much about perceptions as it was reality, weighing up the cost in facts and figures does not account for the grief, anxiety and horror suffered. The people of Omagh are still seeking justice 20 years after the Real Republican Army car-bombing that killed 29 and maimed scores that sunny Saturday of August 15, 1998.
Yorkshireman Ken Wharton was a serving infantryman in the 1st Battalion the King’s Regiment in Northern Ireland between 1990-92. The father of seven children with a passion for sky-diving, he is now a published author, and for his first venture – A Long Long War: Voices From The British Army In Northern Ireland 1969-1998 (published by Helion at £25) – has written and compiled a substantial colloquial history of the British Army’s piggy-in-the-middle role in Northern Ireland.
His reason for committing himself to the task – a second volume is in preparation – is explained in the introduction. He writes:- “This book is dedicated not only to the memory of every one of my fellow squaddies killed as a result of the madness which was inflicted, forcibly, upon Northern Ireland for such a large part of my life… It is also dedicated to those who were injured and suffered debilitating and career-ending wounds.” Oral histories, of course, have been gathered by archivists for years. The American author Studs Terkel specialised in recording and chronicling the voices of fellow Americans for most of his adult life. This is history of a different kind to that researched and written from official records.
A Long Long War is not history from the point of view of the strategic objectives of politicians, military commanders and news editors looking for a new angle. This is history from the point of view of Kipling’s poor bloody Tommy Atkins.
One of them, David Hallam, puts the conflicting perceptions of ‘the Troubles’ into perspective: “People sit down to have their tea and the newsreader says that ‘another solider has been shot’ but they don’t show what a mess it has made of the man and the effect it has had on his mates and the happiness of the others side when they sing ‘one nil’.
“The people just get on eating their meal and then they go to bed. We had seen things that you don’t really see on TV or read in the newspapers. We met people whom the everyday man and woman will never get to meet. The anger towards us was the result of years of history rolled up into a ball…it was a game with one-sided rules.” For Northern Ireland read Afghanistan or Iraq. There is a lot in Ken Wharton’s 523-page book: recollections of 111 personnel, illustrated by black and white photographs. The book’s roll of honour goes on for just over 19 pages. Three poems, an epilogue, an afterword and an appeal conclude it.