Words from 2006, offered in memory of Kingsman Jamie Hancock, killed in Basra at the age of 18. Reposted in the light of Chilcot’s damning verdict on why the war was fought.
Kingsman Jamie Hancock was killed within moments of starting his first ever sentry duty at the Old State Building in Basra. He was 19 years old. He had been in Iraq for two weeks. His father, Eddie, 60, said: “It makes no difference to Jamie whether he was killed accidentally by one of his own side or by insurgents. He still died a hero and a man, serving his Queen and his country. I get some comfort from the thought that he would have died instantly, without suffering.”
Mr Hancock previously accused Tony Blair of treason and called the Prime Minister “the mother of all liars” for sending troops to Iraq under false pretences.
In the last letter Jamie wrote home, on the night before he was shot, he says: “I had my first rocket attack about two hours ago. I was on the roof just looking at the view and I heard a whizzing noise and then a big bang. One of the rockets didn’t explode it went straight through the toilets. Unlucky.”
Next to that word he drew a smiley face. Hours later he was dead. The letter was passing through the Army mail system as uniformed officers called at the family home that evening, and over the days that followed, as those who loved him grieved.
On the day the letter finally arrived, Mr Hancock was not there. He had gone down to RAF Brize Norton to meet his son’s body, flown home by a Hercules transporter. Also at the airfield in the misty rain were the families of four other servicemen and women, killed on Remembrance Sunday. Jamie was fourth off the plane, his coffin draped in the Union Flag and carried down the ramp by fellow members of 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.
“I had to go to him,” said Mr Hancock. “It’s not protocol, they don’t like it, but I had to.” The honour guard paused as the grieving father ran across the tarmac. “You want to open up the casket and cradle him, but you can’t. I just kissed it. I said, ‘Welcome home, soldier. Your family and your nation are proud of you.'”
The body was released to the family and kept at a modest local funeral parlour. “I went and sat with him and talked to the lad,” said Mr Hancock. “Just chit-chat, like remembering the last time I drove him back to Catterick. He said, ‘Stop at KFC, Dad. I’m going to buy you a meal.’ I don’t like the stuff, but I thought, ‘Well, all right, this is new.’ We got to the counter and he turned to me and said, ‘Dad, lend us a tenner will you?'” The body was in dress uniform but Mr Hancock did not ask to see it. “I want to remember him alive, for the good times.”
As a baby, Jamie Lee Hancock was christened at St John the Evangelist in Hindley Green. As a soldier and a man he was remembered there on Friday. Jamie re-entered the church at noon, the pale wooden casket still draped in the flag and carried by nine members of his battalion to The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Arms linked across the shoulders and eyes firmly to the front, each man’s face was twisted by the effort of carrying the body. They passed a montage of photographs of Jamie the sleeping infant, the adventure-loving lad, the joker, the charmer and the young soldier.
Outside, crowds in Atherton Road listened to the relayed service. Inside, old soldiers held up the banners of the Royal British Legion and a regimental brass ensemble played hymns including “Fight the Good Fight”. It was impossible to sing without remembering Eddie Hancock’s fiercely held view that his son died in a war he should never have been asked to fight.
Capt Colin Howard read the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God.” Senior officers in immaculate dress uniforms looked out of place in the modest parish church, but Lancashire gives many of its sons to the Army. In the side pews were Jamie’s friends from school with spiky hair, pale faces and averted eyes. One was in an Army uniform of his own.
Jamie’s mother, Lynda, wrote an open letter to him that was read during the service. In it, she said she kept thinking he would turn up any day with a bag of washing. Describing her son as “always a leader and never a sheep”, she wrote: “You were so full of life, we will remember you and your favourite things: Scott, your best friend, nights out with the boys – and the girls, of course – at Barbarella’s, Wigan Pier music, ‘proper’ food at McDonald’s, and Kentucky family buckets just for you…” Mrs Ledwith signed the letter: “Sleep tight, J. Love always, Mum XXX.”
Eddie Hancock and Lynda Ledwith have both remarried, to Rose and Lee. They have one other son, Joe, a 24-year-old corporal at the barracks in North Yorkshire where Jamie was stationed before going to Iraq. As a serving soldier, Joe was unable to comment on his brother’s death but asked an Army chaplain to read his words from the pulpit. “To be a soldier is in our blood. It’s not something that can be given, only earned,” he said. “We give our lives to be the best, and leave our family, friends and home to fight for what we believe to be right. We train and fight in conditions that shock people, and we do it because we love what we do. Jamie died a man, a hero, and most of all for Queen and country. How many young men have that sort of commitment today?”
Jamie lived his life by the core values of the Army: selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others. “He used to tell me he looked up to me, and wanted to succeed like I had, but what he didn’t know is that he had already succeeded, as a perfect soldier, and a natural-born leader. It is I that look to him for courage, strength and advice.”
Half of his ashes will be scattered on Castle Hill, Kendal in the Lake District, where he and his mother once watched the sun go down. The other half will be put in a casket made by Eddie Hancock – “I’ve got a lovely bit of oak” – and buried in the garden at the foot of a weeping blue cedar. Tomorrow, Mr Hancock will go back to work as a joiner, with a few jobs on the house his sons had just bought together. “I still think of him as on a tour of duty,” he said. “I am so proud of my son.”
THE LAST LETTER
I am now in Basra Palace. I am going to the Old State Building tomorrow. It’s really mad here. I got here last night.
The weather is getting cooler. It rains about now to December. I had my first rocket attack about two hours ago. I was on the roof just looking at the view and I heard a whizzing noise and then a big bang. Fuck me. I shit myself. One of the rockets didn’t explode it went straight through the toilets. Unlucky. [smiley face]
Basra looks really nice. This place is amazing Dad, it’s all made of marble. I have taken a few pictures of it. I will show you when I get home. Thanks for all the [foot] creams and powders they came in handy.
Okay, love you loads, tell Joe [his brother] I love him too.
From The Independent on Sunday, November 2016, as is the following:
Where do we look for heroes, today of all days? Not at the war memorial. They have almost all gone away. There used to be soldiers, sailors, airmen, Waafs and Wrens everywhere, even if they were mostly invisible. The elderly gent shuffling home from the supermarket with a budget meal for one, a survivor of the Somme. The bank manager polishing his car on Sunday, dogged by memories of D-Day. The headmaster who thrashed the same boys repeatedly and who was taken away in the end. Manhandled out of the school. He had gone funny in the head, they said, thanks to a war wound he never mentioned. Silence was a characteristic of most of those old soldiers. The battles were as close then in history as Live Aid is now, but the combatants kept mum.
Those of us who grew up in the Seventies were the last to tell tales of the Second World War. Victor Book for Boys or Commando taught us what heroism was. Those of us whose parents and grandparents had fought were ignorant and romantic about the reality of soldiering, but we had a sense that those who fought had done it for a good reason. The further you are from a conflict, historically, the easier it is to see in simple terms. Regardless of the shades of contemporary opinion, the Second World War is now seen as Good versus Evil.
The invasion of Afghanistan seemed nostalgically simple and right, until it went wrong. Still, many of the troops there still have the sense that it is the Right Thing To Do. That is harder in Iraq. How easy would it have been to bend over the body of Kingsman Jamie Hancock, a teenager shot while on sentry duty in Basra on Monday, and wonder what the hell it was all for?
Today he is remembered along with the teenagers who died in the mud of Flanders nearly a century ago. At the Menin Gate memorial to the battles of Ypres a few years ago a survivor of that slaughter hauled himself to his feet, gripped my arm and saluted. He was 106. When asked why he had come, at risk to his life, he wheezed and coughed and thought a while and said: “Because they can’t.” He meant the teenage boys whose bodies were blown to bits or lost. He wore his medals to say he had been there, and so had they. They were not around to stand like this in the cold and remember, but he would keep doing it until the day he died. For Billy, Ernie, Chalky. All the boys. His mates. The dead.
For most of us, soldiers are strangers. The closest we get is in the town square of a garrison town on a Saturday night. For most of the time they do whatever it is they do out on the moors, behind fortified walls or in the desert. Then, when it is time to hand out medals, as is being considered at the moment, tales emerge of men – always men – storming the enemy single-handedly. This version of heroism is sometimes rehearsed in the tabloids: last week a British soldier was photographed with bullet belts criss-crossing his chest next to the account of how he had personally fired 40,000 rounds.
But the Strong Man is deadly because he fights for both sides. He allows the man who feels so aggrieved and powerless that he straps explosive to his body and blows up the enemy along with himself to claim to be a hero. The cult of the Strong Man leads us to the suicide bomber.
He has a modern brother, the Rescuer. Private Johnson Beharry won the first Victoria Cross in 40 years for saving his platoon from an ambush. What he did was heroic and deserved recognition. But the Rescuer is a PR-friendly hero. It was undeniably helpful to the Government to award our highest military honour to a young black Briton when the nation was struggling with multiculturalism and beginning to doubt the war in Iraq. But the VC has often been awarded for strategic reasons in its 150-year history.
Over that time our notions of heroism have changed dramatically. During the past decade, in museums, oral history projects or just quiet living rooms, that generation of men and women who kept silent after the last world war have been sharing their stories. As a society we have also learned to value the experience of civilians. The war memorials may be less crowded, but the internet throbs with stories.
Superb online projects such as the BBC’s People’s War website, have helped ordinary people take heroism back from the powerful and the victorious. My grandmother raised children among rat-infested ruins during the Blitz, surviving on adrenalin and very little food, and with nerves shredded by the screaming bombs. She lived alongside women who watched for fires from buildings that were themselves on fire. She saw a mother lay down on top of a child to save it, taking the force of an explosion. She saw nurses brave flying timbers and incendiary bombs. None of them got a medal for it, nor did they boast about it.They did what they had to. That is what our servicemen and women do now. That they are volunteers does not lessen their sacrifice. Nor does our doubt about the wars they are fighting.
Those who revisit wartime memories today know a truth, deep down in their aching bones. It is that if a country asks a man or a women to give their life it should – it must – be in a good cause. Not for oil, or Bush family revenge or some ultimately pointless geopolitical power game. At the going down of the sun, here and in Basra and Camp Bastion, we should remember that.