Military Life

Last man standing

Artwork: mine

Remembrance day in a pandemic

Things are different this year in so many ways, 2020 has been quite the year. For everyone. We’ve all had to change the way we live in order to stay safe and to keep our loved ones safe and well.

This is the first time in many years that I have not attended a Remembrance Day service in person, and whilst I am disappointed, I know that in the spirit of sacrifice and mateship engendered by our service people throughout history, we will do what is required of us and demonstrate our remembrance and solidarity from a distance. We are not alone, thousands around the world who have faithfully marked this day in person for many years are required to stay home, rather than to gather and to reflect together with mates. It is difficult and change can upset our balance at times, but it in no way diminishes the respect we have for those who are or have been affected by war. We will remember them.

Alongside all of this difficult change, there is a silver lining for me this year. I am grateful to be commemorating the Armistice in person with my soldier-husband for the first time in six years.

Last man standing

A couple of months ago we were chatting online when Mr Collier shared the following story with me, and has kindly given permission to share it. I have changed the nicknames of the Royal Marines involved to preserve their privacy. I share with you his words:

A package arrived the day before yesterday. It was postmarked from London and was sent from a prestigious solicitor’s office. I knew what it meant, but I did not open it immediately because I did not want to face what was inside, which was, as I knew, a very good bottle of cognac.

We have to go back a few years to get to the root of this; five young Royal Marines officers sit amidst the ruins of a palace in middle Iraq. Unusually, they are all from working class backgrounds, indeed most are from the Midlands, two of them actually went to primary school together. They have found a cache of very fine cognac and are enjoying a few wets, celebrating the victory they have taken part in and mourning the people they have lost.

Slowly, Happy, Twig, Tuppy, Willow and Tiny get very pleasantly hammered while they discuss the issues of the world and more specifically the failings of higher ranks which were at that time still fairly saturated with fox-hunting types.
After many bottles have given their all to this discussion, the talk turns to life and longevity; each man speculating upon where and when each may die. Many insults are cheerily cast, “I had no idea you were alive now, how can we possibly include you?” and so on, are cast about our happy, if wreckage-strewn room.

The talk turns more serious and it is acknowledged that what the group does has a tendency to shorten lives somewhat one way or another, and it is further decided that somebody should remember this group at some point, as non-popular warriors in a non-popular war are seldom celebrated. A decision is made to form a tontine, the member of the group will lodge a bottle of the ill-gotten gain with a third party, to be issued to the ‘winner’ who lives the longest so that they may remember the others. This is duly done properly in London some months later.

Over the years, some pass away from us, whether still in service or not and by various manners, motorcycle accident, combat, medical issues, until all that remain was myself and Tuppy, who was present with me when I was gassed and suffered apparently equally from lung damage, but like me, recovered to continue. At least until I opened the package.

It appears that however he was damaged, left him open to weakness to the COVID-19 outbreak and he died just over a week ago.

The cheeriness, flippancy and optimism of that day now comes back to haunt me, all my original colleagues are now gone and I am left slightly bewildered that I am the only one left from that silly gathering.

Our intent that day was that the ‘winner’ of this prize would drink the bottle alone in remembrance of the others and salute them, but I have decided to slightly alter this as after all, who can possibly complain? This happening so close to the end of my time in that world seems somewhat prophetic to me, and seems to me a clear message that it is time to let go of it, while still remembering those who went with me and often saved me from myself. To this end, I would prefer, if you will, to share the bottle with you when we can, marking the start of us in proper, rather than the end of other things. We shall of course salute my friends, but more we shall mark the being of us.

I suspect they would have liked that.

Time to let go

A couple of weeks ago I enacted my own military operation of sorts. Operation RTB involved a trip to Sydney to extract Mr Collier from hotel quarantine. He has retired and his time as an active officer of Her Majesty’s Royal Marine Corps has come to an end, and he has returned to base for good.

It is a time to let go.

It is a time of change and adjustment. A time of joy and sadness and thankfulness. A time for which we are both grateful. We are taking it step by step and enjoying getting used to being roommates again.

The shipment containing the bottle of fine cognac has not yet arrived to this side of the planet, so we are not making our salute to Mr Collier’s brothers and the start of our next chapter today, but we will nonetheless be remembering them and all others before and since. We will remember them quietly at home

Lest we forget.

Because of the pandemic and lockdowns in various locations, donations to the Red Poppy Appeal will be negatively impacted since they are mostly made in person. Please consider donating on line: in Australia in the UK

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