I would like, if I may, to introduce you to ‘Herbert’. Herbert was born in 1920 and grew up in the Lancashire countryside. He spoke often of collecting the milk from local farms and delivering it to local shops. He was 19 when war with Germany came in 1939 and being a patriot he enlisted to defend his country. Herbert served with the Grenadier Guards and saw action in North Africa and was part of the push that unseated the Germans from Italy. In January of 1944 the Grenadiers (6th Battalion) together with Coldstream and Scots Guards were part of the force that fought at Monte Cassino. Herbert’s memories of that assault were vivid and his experiences were to change his life forever.
I remember sitting with him in the lounge of his small flat as he tended his ailing wife. She suffered from dementia and he insisted that she would be nursed at home to the end of her life; a promise which he fulfilled in his own strength and by his own means. He recounted how he and a pal were taking shelter behind a stone wall. They could hear German voices and they knew that they had been spotted. Herbert turned to his right to scan the hillside. There was a loud crack and a sickening thud. Turning back he saw that his pal had had his head shot off. A German bullet had hit him square in the face.
Minutes later a group of German soldiers appeared and ordered him to throw down his rifle and to come with them. He could still remember their words and mimic the sound and tone of the soldiers’ voices. From there he was taken prisoner and marched with the retreating German force to captivity in Germany where he was held for the remainder of the war.
Herbert was a tall man with more than his fair share of ears, and lithe, you might say skinny. He would often joke that he owed his slender frame to turnip head soup. This was all that the German captors would give him. He never forgave them for the depredations of captivity.
That is the story as I remember it being told to me. However, there is one small detail that I feel displays the quality of the man. On that Italian hillside, as he took in the horror of the headless figure at his side, a good pal with whom he had fought, he offered a prayer to his God. “Get me through this Lord and I will never forget you.” Despite the horrors of war and the depraved conditions of his imprisonment Herbert never lost faith. I remember him once sobbing quietly to himself as the congregation of which we were a part were singing:
Herbert’s daughter was born while he was away serving his country. She was four and a half years old when he saw her for the first time.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I believe it shows the quality of those who went before us. Herbert was one of many and I have no doubt that countless similar stories could be told by others who had experience of conflict. I sincerely hope that they, like Herbert, were able to pass on their tales to others who would guard the candle and ensure that their sacrifices would never be forgotten by succeeding generations.
One final thing: Herbert was a man of conservative outlook and opinion. He detested the political correctness that has infected our discourse. He found the thought of men marrying men and women marrying women to be totally abhorrent. He despised the benefit culture. I asked him about this. He told me that it took hard and valiant men to win a war and he, together with innumerable other such fine young ‘chaps’ had given their all to secure the safety of those back home. Yet, with every so called ‘progressive advance’ the nation he loved was slipping further into the mire of depravity.
Herbert had a word for the Labour Party and its docile and stupid supporters. I cannot print that here. I will simply say that he understood, with all the canny intuition of one who had seen too much, the necessity of moral fibre. He also had the capacity to see how such moral fibre is undermined, dissipated, expunged and eradicated from the landscape of a nation’s life. He did say to me once that he hoped his war would be the last one that Britain would ever have to wage. I asked him why. He said, because this generation would not stand an earthly chance if they ever had to face what he had had to face.
I feel I agree with him on that.
Herbert died in 2004. The God he loved gave him long years. He died still attending his local church every Sunday without fail. He kept his promise. He was a man of great substance and I count myself privileged to have got to know him.