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Reliving the war takes a toll on veterans

June 9th, 2014

Sixty-one years later and aged 92, he retraced that journey and recorded his thoughts and memories in a series of articles for the Telegraph.

Bill always had a simple matter-of-fact use of language but, increasingly, the tone of the articles was unrelentingly bleak. The photographs that accompanied the daily reports seemed to suggest his increasing frailty. It was clear that the journey was shining an all-too-bright light into his memory, highlighting things that had been laid to rest there for decades.

Bill was never one to throw in the towel. So, when many would have come home early, he pressed on. His war had appeared to end in triumph with the award of the Military Cross and a citation that highlighted personal bravery and loyalty to his men. But for him it was a disaster. In April 1945, one month before VE Day, Bill’s company were led by faulty intelligence into an ambush at a bridge over the Twente Canal. His actions led to his MC, but in the engagement 22 of his men were killed and another 20 wounded. The dead included Bill’s two favourite subalterns, both in their early twenties. The death of these young men, who so nearly survived the war to build new lives with the ebullience of youth, traumatised their commanding officer, who regarded their loss as his responsibility.

Bill privately considered his years as a soldier to have been the most admirable of his career; surprising, perhaps, for the only man to have ever been a cabinet minister and editor of a national daily newspaper. But his recollections of the war years were hardly ever revealed – and only to close family. They were sealed up by scars inflicted at the end.

Before Bill left for his VE Day memorial expedition, he was still formidably engaged with life. Only a year earlier he had marked his 90th birthday by flying to Darfur in Africa to report on that country’s humanitarian crisis. But from his return home in 2005 until his death two years later, the enthusiasm and tenacity that had driven him on ebbed inexorably away.

So as their ranks thin like falling leaves, we should think carefully about how we expect our veterans to engage with ceremonies and anniversaries. For us it is a proper and laudable marking of history. For some of them, as with Bill, it can be a journey into a past that they have been relieved to leave behind. They were there, we were not.

George Plumptre is chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme

World War Two

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