“I remember a civilian, aged 18. She died as I held her. She was terribly calm & brave.”

1078

Today, Remembrance Sunday, is always a special, but also a sad, time for me. It is the day on which my mind mainly recalls people I once knew whose lives were cut short by war. I am afraid there have been quite a few of them from my previous life as a soldier.

The attached photograph was taken in March 1991 when the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, which I was then commanding, returned again for a brief counter-terrorist operation in Northern Ireland. It shows three officers and myself beside the memorial we had previously erected in memory of 17 people who lost their lives close-by in the Dropp’in Well Bomb, Ballykelly on 6 December 1982.

Six of the 11 soldiers’ names on the memorial were from my then sub-unit, A Company, 1st Cheshires. Another 6 of those names were innocent civilians; one young man and 5 young women, who were also murdered in the same terrorist explosion. One of them, aged 18, died as I held her. I remain haunted by the short talk we had as her life slipped away in just a few short minutes. She was terribly calm and brave despite knowing, because, God help me, I told her when she asked, that she was dying. All she requested was that I held her as she went. I did so but was distraught and useless for several minutes thereafter. Thus today I remember her and the other 4 young civilian girls and one young boy killed that night, just as much as my soldiers.

Actually there are also over 300 civilian names on the Beckenham War Memorial too. That may surprise some, but in the Second World War, Beckenham was slap in the middle of Hitler’s bombing runs to London from the Continent. Our local area was hit time and time again, first by a few free-fall bombs, then later by V1 flying bombs (Doodlebugs) and finally V2 rockets which were the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles. Doodlebugs and V2 rockets were particularly devastating and they terrorised local people for many months in 1944. For instance, in July 1944, the area now known as Beckenham Green contained the Railway Hotel and quite a few houses. One night two Doodlebugs landed and leveled both the Station Hotel and all the surrounding buildings; killing more than a dozen civilians including women and children.

So today I will remember everyone, regardless of race, religion or nationality who has been killed in war. I will do that particularly at 11am this morning beside the Beckenham War Memorial; probably shedding a surreptitious tear for those I knew whilst doing so.

“There are many kinds of sorrow
In this World of love and hate
But there is no keener sorrow
Than a soldier’s for his mate.”

War poem by Captain the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy MC
(Padre ‘Woodbine’ Willie)
1918

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