In May 2010 I was put in touch with a pair of interesting forty-somethings who were planning what sounded like a fascinating project. Ed Parker and Simon Daglish had both had experience of Army life. Ed had served in the 1980s, and been posted to Germany, Northern Ireland and Brunei, amongst other places. Simon, from a longstanding Army family, had left after Sandhurst and pursued a career in the media.
Both had had shocks that had made them rethink their lives. Simon’s youngest son Felix had been born prematurely and suffered a brain haemorrhage that left him with cerebral palsy. Ed’s nephew Harry had lost both legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
This last horrific incident had made them alter a planned expedition to the North Pole into something altogether more symbolic: a walk to the Pole taking with them a small group of wounded soldiers.
When I met them, in a room in the Cavalry Club in Mayfair, a core team of four had already been selected from a much larger list of volunteers. Guy Disney, Martin Hewitt, Matt Kingston and Rob Copsey were all very excited, about to embark on their first stint of cold weather training in the Spitzbergen archipelago. Having been sufficiently enthused by their group spirit to sign up to write the book of the adventure, I then spent the next eleven months interviewing them and dropping in on key training sessions. Two of the original four left the team (Rob after Spitzbergen, Matt a little later) and two others, Jaco van Gass and Steve Young, were signed up. At the start of March 2011, I joined them all at a fund-raising banquet in Battersea Power Station, where I was lucky enough to win third prize in the raffle, a £1000 diamond necklace from Monica Vinader. That could only bode well, I decided.
The next six weeks saw the group preparing in London, then flying north via Oslo and Tromsø to Spitzbergen, where their acclimatization period was extending owing to bad weather. Finally, several days late, having been joined in the interim by HRH Prince Harry, they left by helicopter for Barneo Ice Camp, from where they were transferred to their starting point at 87° 44´, 2.2 degrees away from the geographical North Pole.
Needless to say I wasn’t with them. Any more than I’d been with them during the battles in Afghanistan when they lost their limbs. I had interviewed them in detail about those horrific incidents, and also about training sessions in Norfolk, Cornwall, Geilo (Norway), Neustift (Austria) and Beitostølen (Norway). Now for the account of their final assault over the pressure ridges and open water leads to the patch of ice deemed the North Pole for that particular day I was relying on a variety of sources. A daily transcript from the sat phone they had with them. News, as reported in the papers. Entries from diaries they took with them, both written and taped. And finally the interviews I would do with them and others in their support team once they returned home. This was enough. Of course a trip to Spitzbergen would have been interesting, but the budget didn’t stretch to it, and in any case that would only have given me a part of the picture. I didn’t actually get to pull a sledge (or pulk) myself until almost two years later, when I was flown out to Iceland to meet the candidates for the Walking With The Wounded South Pole challenge, on the glacier at Langjökull. It was much as I’d imagined it.
And sometimes, by asking your subjects what things were like rather than experiencing it yourself, you get a much fresher insight, told in their words. Here, for example, is how Simon explained the cold at Barneo. ‘It’s the same feeling,’ he said, ‘as when you leave the UK and arrive somewhere hot on holiday. When you step off the plane you suddenly feel that heat hit you. It was like that here, only in reverse, with the cold. You get off and you think, Whoah, flaming hell! This is going to be my home for the next twenty-five days. Once I’d heard that, I didn’t need to be there.
As it happened, they made it in 12 days flat. They were extremely lucky with the weather. There were none of the Arctic storms that had given them grief during their Beitostølen training. A crack in the ice in Barneo delayed Harry’s return to the UK (for the Royal wedding), an event which made international headlines; but on the trip itself the only serious mishap was when Ed Parker slipped off a pressure ridge and hurt his back.
Which is not to say it was easy. These were tough guys and what they put themselves through to get to the North Pole was a serious ordeal. But they were trained soldiers. This is what they liked doing. Challenges such as this that clearly made them tick.
It was odd for me working with soldiers, because I am not the greatest fan of military action. I have opposed the wars we have been involved with over the last thirty or so years. I thought we were wrong to get into such a bloody tangle over the Falklands; and even more so to go into the sovereign state of Iraq; and then to allow the slow build up to a full-on war in Afghanistan, an adventure that history should have told us was misguided, and never sanctioned by a vote in Parliament that I ever heard about.
I didn’t share these thoughts with the brave guys I was working with. I listened to their stories and took them at face value. Once I’d got to know them, I liked them a lot. They were always punctual. They were invariably polite. They didn’t spend their time consulting their mobiles or tablets when we stopped for lunch. They did their level best to help me out with improvements to the texts I’d worked up for them. Of all the various types I’ve worked with, from pop stars to human rights activists, they were the easiest and nicest people to work with.
And I was also surprised by some of their attitudes. The tabloids and the media generally are very keen to portray soldiers as ‘heroes’. But here is Guy Disney, who lost a leg in a tank battle during Operation Panther’s Claw. ‘There are certain words,’ he told me, as we sat together one afternoon in a mutually convenient motorway service station on the M40, ‘that make us look like complete shits. Things like “hero”. You read some Sun article that says, “Heroes do this and heroes do that” and it’s just grim. At the end of the day we are in the Army, it’s our job. I chose that job. We chose to go to Afghanistan. And there are hundreds of other people who have been injured and could have done this trip. Apart from anything else, that kind of language makes you look like a real prat in front of your regiment. I don’t want to go back with the guys having read all this stuff about me being heroic. I got a bloke killed by choosing a course of action and I got my leg blown off. There is nothing heroic about that. War is not heroic. I think the media are quite naughty about selling it as a glorious thing. It’s not glorious, it’s bloody hard work.’
Having included that in the book, along with many other thoughtful reflections from men who had actually seen action rather than fantasised about it, I was somewhat startled to discover that my publisher had chosen the title Harry’s Arctic Heroes for the paperback version of the book. As I was only told about this after the cover artwork had been designed and the thing had been pre-sold as that, there was little I could do, other than petulantly take my name off the cover, which would have been pointless, since it was already on the hardback. But I had a hard time explaining to Guy why the book he had been so very helpful with was now called that…
That apart, I remain proud of the book. Hopefully, it gets across what it is like to be a real soldier, and more than that, what it is like to be wounded. I still find the descriptions of how each of them got their life-changing injuries compelling – Steve’s in particular, when he describes what it is like to drown.
My views about military action haven’t changed, though. Call me naïve, but I still think that in the twenty-first century, we should be able to come up with ways of using the talents and sang-froid of these fine men which doesn’t involve killing others exactly like them, only from a different culture.