War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Remembrance 2011

Two years ago Nov. 11th, I was in Afghanistan with 14 next-of-kin, the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, the Governor of Kandahar, and several hundred heavily armed mercenaries and Canadian and Afghan soldiers attending a Remembrance Day Ceremony at KAF.

It was hot and I was unnerved. All that weaponry around me, I couldn’t help but think that only a few weeks previously, Afghan soldiers had turned around and shot their British allies point blank- Taliban apparently, posing as ANA- in Helmand. My imagination was on over-drive as I looked at those in attendance and thought, “high value.”

And though I always had a “minder” nearby, an assigned soldier who would look after me (shield me with his body, shove me to the ground, shoot and hand-to-hand if needs be, or get me to a bunker if we were rocketed), I was suffering from jet lag, some private issues, and was anxious to fly outside the wire to where Delta Company, the rifle company I knew best and felt at home with best, were.

And to be honest, my “minder” for the first few days I was in A’stan, was an acting ass-adj who clearly did not know or care about who I was (a case of the old WTF is a poet doing here and why should I bother” scenario, which at Shilo, Suffield, WWx etc. had been worked out) and the fact that he’d been a half hour late picking me up from my flight to KAF, leaving me, a civilian without weapon or training, not knowing where the hell I was, in a war zone, did not exactly inspire confidence.

Fortunately, a Padre I knew from Suffield saw me, got on the phone, and stayed with me until a driver (a 2006 vet who DID impress me) and the young Lt. (who clearly didn’t) came to get me. Because of the acting ass-adj’s ineptitude, I missed a helicopter out to Nathan Smith where I was supposed to meet up with a CIMIC Warrant I’d spent time with at WWx. I never got to see her which is too bad as I’d hoped to compare her experience in training and see how different it was over there, but it’s okay, because the permanent ass-adj returned shortly thereafter and made the best of it for me. A few weeks later he was sent outside the wire to take over a platoon after the brilliant young officer who led the platoon was killed.

In theatre, or whenever one is around war, it’s a case of stop, go, stop, change plans… Who knows if I had caught that helicopter how things might have been different…the young journalist Michelle Lang, and four soldiers were killed only a month later, near to where I was heading. I had spent time at WWx with two of the soldiers who were killed that day.

I often think about the young Lt. who was my minder, the young officer who took over from the inept “acting” babysitter, first assigned to me. The young and very capable officer’s dream was to lead a platoon into war, he had trained for it, was ready for it, and yet he was bound to a desk in KAf escorting VIPs around. He knew his only chance to lead a platoon over there would be through the death or injury of another officer, and then he was in line to step in. An unenviable position. This young officer must have had such dreadfully conflicted feelings as he took over from his dead comrade several weeks into the deployment. It was both the worst sort of nightmare to lose his colleague, and so horribly, and a dream come true to finally have a chance to lead a platoon in theatre. A terrible, terrible paradox. Such is the stuff of war. But I heard from others that he did a very good job. One can’t imagine it. Stepping into a literally shattered platoon and taking command. But that’s what they do. They soldier on.

A year ago I was with X in Edmonton. We strolled arm-in-arm down Whyte Ave. He so polished and smiling in his DUs, his red sash with the tied knots (one for each of his dead men), his beret perfect, his boots polished perfectly, and I in my hunter’s check and amber and knee high boots, a blue pea jacket, my poppy and little Patricia pin. We’d walk by a pub and he’d see some of his boys hanging outside the bar without their tunics and ties, having a smoke, joking and hanging, with one eye on the lookout for a jacking up, as young soldiers always are, and they’d straighten up, hide their smoke behind their back as we passed, say, “Evening Sir” and he’d say, “Evening boys. Have a good one.” Then after we passed them he’d laugh because it was his job to jack them up for not wearing their full Dress Uniform in public, but he didn’t “Because it’s Remembrance Day” but still he enjoyed the little “show”.

At the restaurant we were put at the front of the line by some older couples and we were served first. Everyone smiled at us, some shook his hand. I thanked the older couples, said, “this time last year we were both in Afghanistan, thank you. he’s a very tired man, we’re very, very tired.” His fatigue from a rough tour, and another sort of shitshow (not in theatre), I from the long wait for them to come home, and my own personal shitshow. Later that night we watched the CBC program on TV that had little stories about his 5 lost men. We had each other.

Two days ago, I rose at 5 am and took a train to London. I met my host, a CO from the Royal Fusiliers, at Westminster Cathedral where the annual Garden of Remembrance Ceremony is held. We whisked through security and onto the lawn outside the cathedral to an enclosure filled with uniforms, bowler hats, thousands of little crosses lined up in front of each Regiment’s ensignia, and thousands of medals – Victoria Crosses, Crosses from Korea, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan – on uniforms and suits.

We walked along a poppy-red carpet to a place where the Fusiliers had placed hundreds of little crosses with poppies on them, and stood behind the crosses until Prince Phillip arrived. At 1050 there were prayers, then at 1100 hrs, a moment of silence. The CO said to me, “look up onto the roof.” On the rooftop of Westminster Cathedral were two trumpeters dressed in full royal livery. I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing something that had been carrying on for hundreds of years – long ceremonial trumpets on the rooftop sounding remembrance for the dead. After the moment of silence and the trumpets, Prince Philip, in his naval uniform, made his way around to all the Regiments and stopped at each one and spoke to each Commanding Officer.

After the Prince passed, we made our way out of the compound and grabbed a cab down to the Tower of London where the Fusiliers have their Regimental Headquarters. As we were driving we were caught in a traffic jam. In the other lane, her car creeping slowly along the traffic jam and coming in the opposite direction, was the Queen and her lady in waiting. Her car adorned with her Royal Standard. She wore beautiful rich purple hat and dress and her skin was gorgeous. She looked very, very annoyed. Even Queens can’t avoid traffic jams. As we passed her, and she was maybe ten feet away, and with the Thames on our right, I thought, “this must be what it was like to be a Londoner in Elizabeth the First’s reign, but one would be in a wagon and the Queen would be in a coach, but she’d probably have looked just as annoyed at being stuck in traffic.” We guessed she was on her way to the cathedral to pick up Philip for lunch.

We shared a cab with S, a retired senior officer full of entertainments. Knowing I’m Canadian, he told me about the time he dined with Trudeau in the 1970s and how tried to poach Trudeau’s girlfriend… “no luck, the chap was absolutely magnetic… but by God that woman was a gorgeous bird.”

At the Tower we got out and were waved through the gate by the first woman Beefeater, we walked along past the Traitor’s Gate, and into the forecourt, into the little castle which houses the infantry regiment’s HQ. Inside HQ we were shown into a huge dining room, its walls covered with paintings of Generals and Commanding Officers from the 18th century and on I’m guessing from their wigs and uniforms. Old flags, (colours), hung on the walls as did other remnants of old campaigns. An old flag printed with the battles of Afghanistan 1889-1890 caused me to shiver.

The dining room was empty but for a single heavy mahogany table placed dead centre. The table was set with regimental silver and cream coloured linen. But before we dined, 9 Generals and I, we had to have drinks. I paced myself carefully conscious that in my own way I represented myself, and my country.

Luncheon was announced and I was led to the table, all the gentlemen stood while my chair was held out and placed and then they all sat down once I was seated. More wine, this time served in very old, solid silver cups bearing Regimental insignia, then a beautiful salad of mixed greens with warm buffalo mozarella wrapped in smoked salmon, and lovely sourdough bread. This was followed by a gorgeous rack of lamb, creamed celeriac, scalloped potatoes, and the ubiquitous UK green peas.

The conversation at the table was fascinating. Nine Generals with several hundred years of command between them makes for interesting conversation.

I was particularly taken with the eldest General who had served in Korea as platoon commander in a rifle company. He and I spoke of the Van Doos with whom he served. He knew the Patricias well even though his regiment is closely associated with the RCR. The old General laughed as I described 12 hour shifts inside a Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) with a section of chain-smoking Van Doos listening to heavy metal and bivving out in the field with them.

Finally, after our meal was cleared, coffee was served and a plate of little dark wafers were passed around, first to me. “What are they?” I asked the general to my right. “Little chocolatey-minty things,” he replied.

“Oh, like posh After Eights,” I said. “Yes, how poetic,” said another General, “that’s a perfect description, posh After Eights!” which is what I think they’ll now describe those wafers from now on when asked.

I asked if the coffee was any good because ALL army coffee (except in the Engineers’ LAVs) is terrible. A general assured me it would be fine and it was.

3 hours later we gathered our coats and left. I thanked them all. The old General said, “no, Thank you, it’s nice to have this ugly bunch broken up by a pretty face.” He really was an officer and a gentleman.

Later, the CO and I had a 1/2 pint in a pub and went to the National Gallery for a few minutes to see my favourite painting/object in the entire world, The Wilton Dyptch. I then told him that I was heading off.

As I rode the train home, I talked to a young Italian who teaches Psych. at Plymouth University. I told him about my day and showed him my pictures.

“Now you can say you’ve eaten a meal at the Front, and as far from the Front as possible, with a tableful of Generals.” (though most of these Generals have been at the Front.)

And he was correct.

I have.

cold rations to
silver goblets.

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Remembrance 2011. It was posted here on November 12, 2011.


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