December 7, 2012
Do you know someone who is blind?
Have they done military service?
It does not matter how long ago that service was, or how short it was. The cause of their blindness does not matter. The fact that they once served means they are now eligible for help from Blind Veterans UK.
Blind Veterans UK is the new name for the charity formerly known as St Dunstans and they have recently launched the ‘No One Alone’ campaign which aims to spread the message that the charity has now widened it’s criteria for those who can seek help and assistance to anyone who has served and has since become blind.
It’s a simple message, but it can’t reach the people who need to hear it unless we all do our bit to spread the word.
Blind Veterans UK offer practical help, giving each blind veteran the skills and confidence to pick up their life and become independent again. They are there when families can’t cope and they stay with them when times are good. Blind Veterans UK is a community for life.
If you know or care for someone who served their country and has lost their sight, please get in touch with the charity.
You might not know that a blind person has served their country. There are many older people who have done National Service but who do not talk about it regularly. Why not ask them and find out?
Are you a health professional? Please visit this link to read how you too can help.
Freephone 0800 389 7979
Blind Veterans UK
12-14 Harcourt Street
November 1, 2012
I am delighted to bring my ‘Women in the Military’ series to a close with a bang-up-to-date look at the lives of women serving in Afghanistan in 2012. The following images are by Alison Baskerville, who has kindly given her permission for me to display them here.
Alison Baskerville is a photojournalist and documentary photographer. She studied at Westminster University and has a MA in photojournalism. Her career started in the RAF where she served for 12 years seeing active service in Bosnia and Iraq. It was whilst in Iraq that she became inspired to capture her surroundings on an old Nikon film camera and gave her the motivation and desire to change career paths and become a photojournalist.
In May 2012 The Royal British Legion sponsored her on an embedded position with our Armed Forces in Afghanistan to develop a body of work exploring the changing roles of women within the Forces. Alison was granted unparalleled access to the British Army’s Female Engagement Officers (FEOs) and the women at the Afghan National Army’s training centre in Kabul.
Captain Anna Crossley is a Female Engagement Officer in the Upper Gereshk Valley of Helmand. She is heading out to join soldiers from 3 Rifles as they prepare for a patrol to help Anna gain access into a local compound.
FEOs are drawn from female volunteers from across the army who receive specialist cultural and language training to enable them to carry out their role. Anna’s language training has helped her to gain access to compounds and the residents are intrigued by her. On many occasions she often pretends to have what she refers to as a ‘Helmand husband’ to help her gain rapport with the women who do not understand the concept of remaining unmarried.
There is little in the way of privacy within the check points and patrol bases of Helmand. The women use their mosquito tents to provide some personal space, often decorating them with gifts from loved ones.
Preserving femininity in the desert. Captain Alice Homer is an officer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. She has just spent six months running a small section of soldiers in Camp Bastion.
Known informally as a ‘death letter’, most women will write a message to their family which will be kept somewhere safe and only delivered if the worst should happen.
Keeping hair in a french plait helps secure it under her beret throughout long, sweaty days.
Patrol bases within Helmand have limited showering facilities which will often consist of a hosepipe in a tent and only one shower for both men and women. A small hand made sign provides the only guard to privacy
Favourite toiletries are an often requested item in care parcels sent from friends and family
A bucket is the only way to keep clothes clean at FOB Oulette in the Upper Gereshk Valley in Helmand
Non-issue underwear is a way for the women to keep a sense of their own identity and a chance to add some colour to their surroundings
A contrast of cultures. Young Afghan women arrive at the Afghan National Police Head Quarters in Lashkar Gah where they hope to receive training and learn basic literacy skills. One day they hope to graduate and gain some element of independence.
“It all starts with education. If we can teach these young girls that they have a right to be free then perhaps we can change things for the next generation of women for Afghanistan.” Says Gullali, Head of the Department of Womens’ Affairs in Gereshk, Helmand Province
Jessica French will return home to her boyfriend and family. She is also looking forward to getting back into her favourite sport, sky diving.
“When I meet soldiers like Jess, I hope that women from Afghanistan will see her and also want to put on a uniform, get a job and learn to be independent” says Gulalli.
At the end of her tent Jess and the other girls have created their own ‘lounge’. It’s a space where the girls can escape to the very different world of Downton Abbey.
Jess French takes time in between patrols to clean her personal weapon, a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol.
Jess often works with women in other roles. Harriet (left) is a qualified army vet. They prepare to head out on a joint patrol to engage with local Afghan families to train them in basic veterinary care.
At the Kabul Military Training Centre Afghan female recruits take part in a 20 week course with the hope of becoming an officer in the Afghan National Army. Captain Susanna Wallis is a Royal Signals Officer who has volunteered to mentor these women.
The women take a break after practicing their marching skills. Although the training takes place in a separate facility to the men Susanna has pushed for the women to graduate alongside the male soldiers.
Anna arrives home at RAF Brize Norton at the end of her seven month tour and is met by her father Alan and mother Carol.
The photographs are being displayed in support of The Royal British Legion throughout the Poppy Appeal.
Where: Gallery @Oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London, SE1 9PH
When: Exhibition open to public 11am to 6pm 25 October to 11 November 2012
Alison Baskerville is on Twitter: @AliBaskerville
July 26, 2012
Country bumpkin, former all-girls school pupil and utterly un-streetwise. What better candidate for the British Army?
12 years ago and very much to the horror of my parents I toddled into the Army careers office, got the forms, filled them out, did my Barb test (which is an odd touch screen test that is literally 2+2) and passed. Various interviews later I reached the selection stage at Pirbright which was a bit of a blur but I must have passed because a couple of months later I was dumped at ATR Winchester to commence my Basic Training.
I am pretty sure my parents assumed I’d fail and that they would be picking me back up later that week, but I was very determined. I have always been headstrong and anything I decide I am going to do I give 100%, which is what I gave my efforts to join the Army.
Basic training was an eye opener and incredibly challenging and testing for a girl who had never even run a mile before. It was the steepest learning curve of my life but the best thing I ever did. Every day was different; one day I would be being dragged by my Corporal by my t-shirt around the mile-and-a-half to get in within the time, the next I was in France on a battlefield tour, the next I would be shoving grass in my helmet and sharing a shell scrape with a boy who kept jabbing me with his rifle and saying ‘feel my gun’.
It was 14 weeks of blood, sweat and tears but I made it and my passing out parade was a very proud day with my family and friends looking on, on top of which I was awarded ‘Most Improved Recruit’ which I have always been reliably informed means I was shit when I started but much less shit when I left.
I learnt my trade for a further 3 months then off I went into the field Army and my first posting, Germany, where my life as a soldier was about to get fun.
Arriving with nothing but a bag in tow I was shown to my room. I was sharing with two other girls who were clearly unhappy at my arrival and my bed was squished so far into the corner that I couldn’t even open my allocated locker, so bag under the bed it was. I didn’t leave the room for the first 2 weeks; one roomie had just had a boob job on the army (too big for soldiering apparently) and the other roomie would have a shot of aftershock everyday at 4.30pm when we were knocked off.
I was then posted into a very male orientated regiment and the ratio of girls to boys was probably 1:50. Not long after I arrived a knock at the door revealed two lads standing there clearly just assessing the fresh meat. They weren’t overly impressed with what they saw so off they went – although months later one did take a shine to me and I still have the love letters to prove it somewhere.
There was always an element of proving yourself as a girl in the Army, earning your slot and showing people you did deserve to be there and you could do your job, my motto quickly became ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ and I became an honorary ‘lad.’ I had the time of my life and a group took me under their wing. I was the butt of a lot of jokes but I could hold my own. We drank a lot, partied ‘til 7am – the block parties were out of control and we often broke into the outdoor swimming pool on the way home from the local club for a 5am dip which we all thought hilarious, until one day a lad shouted ‘log alert’ and we witnessed his number two bobbing past. I never took a late night dip again!
As you would imagine, the wives and girlfriends of the men I served with were very unwelcoming and stand-offish. Rather than seeing me as someone to befriend on ‘the inside’ they were suspicious and jealous of the access I had to their partners when they were not around, and of the bonds we formed that only shared service can create.
For the next part of my service I was moved to a different role within the regiment and had to start again from the beginning with a new set of lads, this accommodation I much preferred as it was mixed (I had previously been in an all-girls flat.) Every morning I would shuffle into the showers, my barnet all over the place in just my dressing gown to discover the lads all shaving with their six packs out greeting me with a cheerful ‘morning!’ I lost count of the times they would pinch my towel and dressing gown from the shower leaving me having to escape to my room using only my hands for modesty.
I still see so many of them now and ‘we’ve seen it all before’ often crops up.
I had a ball for the next few years going on some great exercises, battlefield tours and operational tours. One battlefield tour in particular stands out. It was to Arnhem and I was the only girl, so was dragged through the red light district for the entire duration of the trip! Baumholder too was a memorable exercise, not only because it was like ‘little America’ in Germany but also because during the exercise 9/11 happened. I will never forget being sat crammed on the back of a Bedford truck when we heard the news.
My first tour was Kosovo and I don’t ever remember thinking too hard about it, I just went and did what I had to do. I was a slight Private Benjamin in that many a patrol I would turn to get my rifle and realise I hadn’t signed it out – but I did lots of house searches, seized lots of weapons and grew as a person. I did also have fun, perhaps a little too much fun sometimes. Alcohol was in short supply and our interpreter was open to offers, so we would on many an occasion pay him to bring us in alcohol and formed a make shift party, these went on for months including my 19th birthday which I celebrated out there. This resulted in my breaking a rib falling off a chair drunk. The lads also presented me with a gift from all of them in front of everyone, which was a crusty sock that had seen some ‘action.’ Of course though, it was an operational theatre so something was always going to give.
December saw our regimental day and I won an award. I was the first person ever to win the award who wasn’t the cap badge of the regiment and it was for being the ‘Biggest impact to the regiment.’ I was thrilled, and off we went whooping whilst filling the trophy cup with vodka…. which all went horribly wrong when we all got caught. We were all charged and put on Commanding Officer’s orders on Boxing Day, drill in the -16 cold and snow is not fun and neither was the hefty fine. I have a lifetime of memories stored from that tour, I flew in so many helicopters, fired so many cool weapons, saw so many things that have stayed with me forever and drove in Pristina which if you manage you can survive anywhere, they are complete lunatics.
We returned from a six month tour to our medals parade in the chucking down rain (rain dripping off the end of your nose for over an hour is REALLY annoying) I was called into the CO’s office immediately post parade only to be told “We are very disappointed to find out that you were selling stamps to soldiers at a profit in Kosovo.” Oops. I had been found out. I was then confronted with bellows of laughter and was informed that as I’d shown initiative, I was to be promoted.
A post tour holiday to Magaluf was a fun time and is probably worth another post all of its own. 18 of us went, 18 of us returned – just about – with stories we still laugh about today. A certain picture from this holiday (of my boobs through a patio door) was placed on lots of block room walls which made for a rather embarrassed me and an even more embarrassed Sergeant Major on room inspection upon our return.
I could tell stories of my time forever, so this is only a small insight into my experience of the Army. Women in the military are tough, hardened individuals who are survivors but they are also women who have a vault of memories and stories and a long list of surrogate brothers who they could call upon for anything.
I worked so hard, laughed so hard, played so hard, made friends for life and they truly were the best years.
The worst part of serving for me was simply that I lost contact with the friends I had before I joined for the years I served. Army life is all consuming and requires total commitment, something that naturally results in your inability to maintain friendships from afar. When I was posted to Germany I stayed there for seven years. I worked, ate, slept, lived, socialised and holidayed with my Army friends. I would only go back to the UK once a year or so. If was to be drawn on the worst part of my actual service it would probably be the eight milers on a Saturday morning.
Once you have been in the Army no job quite matches up. The people you meet, the friends you make and the experiences you have never really compare. As a soldier every day is different and you don’t know what tomorrow will hold until Part One Orders go up at 1630hrs the day before.
I met my fellow soldier husband and left the British Army when our daughter was 15 months old, she is now 9 years old and proud as punch both mummy and daddy served and continue to serve their country.
July 9, 2012
Continuing my ‘Women in the Military’ series is a woman who was never officially part of a regiment, instead she bore the rather disparaging name ‘dependent’ that is inflicted upon all spouses and their offspring no matter how independent they may be. Sally Thorneloe was married to a commanding officer. Being the partner of someone in a position of responsibility means that you need to work as a team to make life a success. Their failures are your failures and their triumphs are enjoyed together, you rely on that teamwork to succeed. Sally Thorneloe became something harder still than a commanding officer’s wife. She became his widow.
On Sunday 2nd August 2009 I remember exactly where I was. I was sat at my breakfast table with a copy of The Sunday Telegraph in my hand. I remember picking up the newspaper and seeing Sally Thorneloe’s picture. It was a moment that will stay with me for a long time.
I only know three Welsh Guards, and of those three I only know one well. I don’t know Sally Thorneloe, but there was something about the way she was looking into the camera that instantly, deeply affected me. I did not need to read the headline, or the caption. I did not even really need to read the rest of the article, and by the end of it I was sobbing. What had happened to her was glaringly obvious from the look in her eyes. The character, the defiance. The indescribable pain, yet the overriding determination not to be seen as weak. I won’t pretend I know what it’s like to lose the love of your life, but I felt a sudden affinity with those eyes. They told the story of every military partner’s worst nightmare, but they also told of strength.
I won’t rip off the Sunday Telegraph article so delicately composed by Olga Craig just weeks after Lt Col Thorneloe’s death, so instead of retelling her story I have included it below, linked and verbatim. I would simply like to pay tribute to a lady who lost ‘her best friend, her soul mate and her hero’ almost exactly three years ago, on the 1st July 2009. The Welsh Guards are currently deployed again in Afghanistan.
Widow of Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe: ‘Rupert found his moment of Heaven in Helmand’
By Olga Craig, Assistant Editor, The Sunday Telegraph
7:00AM BST 02 Aug 2009
It was one of those perfect English summer Sundays: the sort that are heaven-sent for a languid, laughter-filled family day out. Sally Thorneloe and her daughters, Hannah and Sophie, had spent the day with family friends in Ketterick. Hannah, four, and the boisterous two-year-old Sophie, had squealed with delight as they bounced on a trampoline in the back garden. ”They kept calling out: ‘Daddy’s coming home soon. Daddy’s coming home’,” Mrs Thorneloe says, a slow, bittersweet smile spreading across her face at the memory. On the way back to their Aldershot home, stuck in a long traffic jam, Mrs Thorneloe pulled into a lay-by and tried to entertain her exhausted daughters with word games. ”Then my mobile rang. And it was Rupert. It was such a lovely, lovely surprise,” she says.
No one knows when an innocuous phone call, an everyday, chance conversation, may be the last words one will exchange with a loved one. But, as the wife of a British officer on active service in the desert heat and horror of Helmand province, Sally Thorneloe knew that each phone call from her husband, no matter how brief or how snatched, were words to be cherished.
”And as the date of his return home comes closer and closer those calls become more buoyant, more carefree,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”When your husband first leaves you feel the separation so keenly. It’s difficult not to become frustrated and a little terse at times on the phone. But as the homecoming comes closer, you become closer. You make plans. There was our fifth wedding anniversary on his first week home. And the girls were so excited.” As Mrs Thorneloe chatted to her husband, gaily reminding him that it was less than three weeks until he would be home, Sophie began calling out: ”Daddy, Daddy.”
”It was her new word. She had learned it since she had last spoken to her father. Rupert heard her in the background and he just couldn’t believe it. I put her on and she was shouting: ”Daddy, Daddy.” Rupert was so thrilled. It was the first time he had heard her say it. He told me he couldn’t wait to see and hear Sophie call him Daddy when he got home. Then he talked to Hannah and she told him all about her day. It was such a lovely, relaxed, family phone call and I’m so glad I wasn’t cross with Rupert about anything.”
Sophie’s father never did get to see her say Daddy. That final, fateful phone call, on Sunday, June 28, was his last to his family. Three days later, on July 1, Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the charismatic Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, died when his Viking armoured vehicle was blasted from beneath by a Taliban improvised explosive device (IED).
His death has meant that Sally Thorneloe, loving wife and devoted mother will, for ever more, be defined by the unenviable sobriquet that history has thrust upon her: widow of the highest ranking British officer to be killed on active service for more than a quarter of a century. Not since Lt Colonel H Jones died in 1982, during an assault at Goose Green in the Falklands War, has the Army lost such a senior officer on the battlefield.
When Lt Colonel Thorneloe, 39, died, alongside his driver, Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, en route to the front to rendezvous with his men, the Army lost an inspirational and outstandingly talented officer. At his funeral service in the Guards Chapel at the Wellington Barracks in London on July 16, which was attended by Prince Charles, Colonel in Chief and a close friend, the then head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt and scores of senior officers,
Lt Colonel Thorneloe was described as ”quite simply the best of his generation” and as a leader who was ”calm in a crisis and, in success, modest”.
Sally Thorneloe, however, lost much, much more. She lost the man she says was: ”my best friend, my soul mate and my hero. The man who always made me feel like I was the best person ever when I was with him. He was such a big man in every sense. I felt so protected and secure and loved around Rupert. And I miss him so very, very much. Shortly before he died, he told me in a phone call that he had been ‘out on his travels’, as he called being on patrol, the night before. ‘Oh Sal,’ he said, ‘last night I slept in a mulberry grove. And it was so beautiful. It was a little like waking in the Garden of gethsemane. I fell asleep listening to Pachelbel’s Canon on my iPod.’ I found the thought of that so comforting: there he was, in Helmand, yet he had found his moment of Heaven.”
Lost in silence for a moment, tears threatening and her lips trembling, Mrs Thorneloe turns to the mantelpiece, picking up a framed photograph taken on her wedding day – July 24, 2004. The black and white picture of her and Rupert – she clutching her bouquet and hitching up her wedding gown, he, a big bear of a man in top hat and tails, beaming proudly – was taken in Oxford moments after the ceremony in St Giles church. ”I love this photograph but I only spotted something in it last week,” she says, her voice breaking now. ”We are walking past a placard advertising a recital of the Canon. We had just had it played at our wedding, it was Rupert’s favourite piece of music. And, then, of course,” she says, the tears now falling, ”it was played in the Guards Chapel, at Rupert’s funeral.”
In the weeks since her husband died Mrs Thorneloe, 43, has learned more than one would ever want to know of the anguished world of the bereaved. ”I have been given a life that I don’t want,” she says. ”Facing the future is a bleak and unforgiving thought. I keep thinking how long will I feel like this? But my girls are my salvation and they are my future. Sophie is so terribly young and, realistically, the possibility of her having any meaningful memories of Rupert are so heartbreakingly low. She still runs around the house calling for her Daddy and when she sees him on television she jumps up and down with excitement, but she is much too young to understand death. She knows something is wrong. She knows that Daddy hasn’t come home. She knows that everyone is sad, that everything is different. And I know that nothing will ever be the same.”
Telling her older daughter Hannah of her father’s death was, Mrs Thorneloe admits, one of the most painful moments of her life. ”I was told of Rupert’s death late in the evening of the day before Hannah’s school broke up. The next day, when she came home, the padre was with me. I sat her down on the sofa, where she always lay with Rupert, and said: ”I have something very sad to tell you. You know that Daddy’s been at work in Afghanistan. Very sadly Daddy has died and he can’t come back.’
”Hannah looked so bereft, so bewildered. She got upset and then asked if she could do some colouring. Children live in the moment and are naïve about pain, and I’m so grateful for that. Since then we have talked such a lot about Rupert. At first I was terrified that somehow she would forget her memories of him. But I know she won’t. She was such a Daddy’s girl. She adored Rupert, she was utterly obsessed with him. She looks so like him and has so many of his mannerisms.”
Sally Thorneloe knew little, she confesses, of the rigours and demands of being an Army wife when she married. She and her husband met ”through friends of friends” and their mutual love of sailing in the autumn of 2001. ”I kept hearing of this wonderful man called Rupert,” she says. ”The first time I met him I was struck by his beaming smile. It lit up his face and seemed to light up everyone else’s. We spent a lot of time sailing: around the Isle of Wight, drinking tea in the cockpit of Valentina, his boat. And then coming home for a big glass of red burgundy. I just adored him.”
After a two-year courtship, with a tour of Germany in the offing, Rupert proposed, producing a surprise platinum and diamond engagement ring. ”He just announced: ‘I’ve got something for you,’ she laughs. He was good at surprises.” Four weeks before Mrs Thorneloe’s 39th birthday, the couple married. Hannah, a honeymoon baby, was born on May 5, 2005 – Father’s Day in Germany. ”We had just sold the boat because we needed a car. And a pram, too, as it turned out.” On May 10, 2007, Mrs Thorneloe gave birth to Sophie. ”I was a little worried that Rupert might be disappointed not to have a son but he laughed at me and said: ‘No, I always wanted girls.’”
As an Army wife, one must be resilient. To acknowledge that there will be long and lonely separations and that there will be, too, the distinct possibility of violent death on a distant battlefield. ”I remember Rupert almost warning me off a little before we married,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But if you fall in love with a surgeon you don’t decide not to marry him because he works long hours and might be home late in the evening. Being a soldier was part and parcel of who Rupert was. You couldn’t separate the man from the officer. He was deeply passionate about the Army, he couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a soldier.”
But death was something neither truly contemplated. ”We never really spoke of the possibility of Rupert dying. Because neither of us ever, for a moment, thought that he would. If you dwell on that sort of thing you would never get out of bed in the morning. The only time we touched on it was when Rupert told me whose funerals he would come back for. I remember saying: ‘Gosh, in the unimaginable event, what am I going to do Rupert? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? He didn’t say much. Just something about how Wiltshire, where we often talked of moving to, would be a nice place to live. We just never, ever thought Rupert would die.
”The Army was his passion. Yet in a strange but sad way it has only been since Rupert’s death that I have truly grown to admire and understand why he loved the military so much. And the wealth of support and compassion I have received from the Army has been truly overwhelming.”
Lt Colonel Thorneloe, however, came from a family steeped in military tradition. His father is a retired major who was immensely proud of his son. The colonel had been educated at Radley and the University of Reading before being commissioned into the Welsh Guards in 1992. He served in Germany, Northern Ireland and Iraq (for which he was awarded the MBE in 2006). Before being sent to Helmand, he served as an aide to Des Browne, then Defence Secretary, in Whitehall.
”That was Rupert’s ultimate job,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”For him it was the pinnacle: it combined his twin loves, the Army and politics. When he was in Whitehall Rupert would call Hannah every night, on the dot of seven. She used to ask? ‘Will Daddy be home before I go to bed.’ Some nights she would hear his key in the latch. He would drop his bike and run upstairs to see her. For Hannah, being older, his leaving to go on tour was so very difficult. She and her Daddy were inseparable.”
While in Helmand, of course, the phone conversations were all too often snatched and the homecomings few and far between. Colonel Thorneloe’s last leave was at Christmas. ”It was a real family affair, with stockings for the girls and lots of present opening,” Mrs Thorneloe recalls. All too soon, however, her husband had to return to the front line. ”I always tried not to get too emotional when Rupert left, but we sat drinking tea for an hour together before he went and I told him how much I loved him and how much the girls loved him. He knew that, but I got to tell him that which is important.”
Then, of course, came Wednesday, July 1: the day Colonel Thorneloe died. ”They ring the door bell, that is how you know,” she says simply. It was 9.20 in the evening when two officers from the Welsh Guards came to break the news. ”I saw the green shadows through the glass and I remember thinking it’s late for welfare to call. The second I opened the door and saw their faces, I knew. I just knew.”
The Army, a well-oiled machine when one of its own is lost, immediately enveloped the family, preparing them for the repatriation of the bodies.
”The part of that day that I will never forget is the sound of the aeroplane as it approached,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”It was very important to me to have Rupert home. We stood side by side with Joshua’s family, the Hammonds, and we both watched our men come home.”
Mrs Thorneloe spent some private time alone with her husband and, on July 16, the day of his funeral, she stood ramrod straight as his coffin was carried into the Guards Chapel by eight Welsh Guards. Sombre in black, she stood by her mother-in-law, Veronica, both women clasping hands as they bade their final farewells. ”It was really important to me that I was strong for Rupert. That might sound ridiculous but I felt so much that that was what Rupert deserved: that we who loved him most stood proud.”
After the service Prince Charles, who attended with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, spoke privately to the Thorneloe family. ”He was incredibly compassionate. Very caring and sensitive. Rupert would have been humbled,” Mrs Thorneloe says.
In the bleak days that have followed there have been many emotional moments. Unlike many of his comrades, Colonel Thorneloe did not leave a letter for his wife. ”At first I was desperate, I so wanted to have one to read, to have it in my hand. But I know how much Rupert loved me and the girls, and that is what matters.” On July 24, which would have been the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Mrs Thorneloe spent several hours at her husband’s graveside at the family plot in west Oxfordshire. ”Rupert always loved the rain and, strangely, it has rained every day since he died,” she says. ”As I stood there, in a downpour, I suddenly felt that, somehow, in that rain I was closer to Rupert. I used to hate the rain, now I have come to love it. It reminds me of Rupert, carrying one of the girls, when they were babies, in a papoose. With a great big umbrella to shelter them from the rain.”
There can be no doubt that Rupert Thorneloe was an inspirational leader: as Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of Task Force Helmand, said: ”He died as he had lived, leading from the front.” The fact that he did so. That on the day he died he was travelling to meet his men, cost him his life.
”Of course I think of that,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But Rupert was passionate about what the Army was doing in Afghanistan. He believed utterly in the job that he was doing in Helmand. He was truly living his dream.”
Mrs Thorneloe is well aware, of course of the mounting controversy over what is perceived as the Government’s lack of support for the Armed forces. Indeed her father-in-law has stated publicly that it has failed to ”put defence first”. July was the bloodiest month so far in the fight against the Taliban. During the five weeks of Operation Panther’s Claw, which plunged British forces into ferocious combat, 22 soldiers died and 57 were injured. As the coffins of yet more young soldiers, covered by the Union flag and carried by comrades, make the solemn journey through the streets of Wootton Bassett, so the clamour for more helicopters, for more heavily armoured vehicles and more troops has grown from a public that, increasingly, believes its soldiers are being sent to war ill-armed and ill-equipped.
Many argue that, had more helicopters been available, Lt Colonel Thorneloe would not have been travelling in a Viking – a vehicle that is inadequately armoured to withstand IEDs and which is due to be replaced next year by the more robust Warthog. It is not a subject Mrs Thorneloe wishes to discuss. All she will say is one, carefully constructed sentence. ”I have thought about it,” she concedes. ”But I will let other people talk.” Her husband, she emphasised, was committed to the Army’s role in Afghanistan. ”He believed in it utterly.”
In the past week the Welsh Guards have built a trampoline in the Thorneloes’ back garden. ”The girls and I bounce on it and reach up to the sky, to be nearer to Daddy, I tell them. I am just so devastated that Rupert is not here. But I can’t be cross with him for doing what he passionately believed in. When he got into that vehicle that day he wasn’t thinking: ‘today’s the day.’ He was just thinking I want to go to see my soldiers. The quickest way that I can. That was Rupert.”
The Welsh Guards are in the process of setting up the Welsh Guards Afghanistan appeal. Donations can be sent to Regimental HQ, Welsh Guards, Birdcage Walk, London SW1E 6HQ. Cheques may be made payable to ”The Welsh Guards Afghanistan Appeal.”
June 25, 2012
Q: When is a female Army officer not a female Army officer?
A: When she’s a male surgeon called James Barry.
I must admit, Dr James Barry is one of my favourite biographies. Although vague in parts and comprised of assumptions made by respected historians, the bare bones of this story invoke my inner rebel, the feminist that lurks within. Women couldn’t qualify as doctors in the late 18th and early 19th century. Women couldn’t join the military as officers. What do you do when the rules suppress your ambition? You find a way to circumvent them. Not only that, you circumvent them with style and panache. You do it bigger and better than anyone has before.
The first ever woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Britain did it disguised as a man. Dr James Barry was born in Cork as Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789.
The fact that Margaret and James were the same person only came to light in 2008, when letters were found between Margaret and her parents and between James and the family solicitor. On the back of one of the letters from James, his solicitor had carefully written ‘Miss Bulkley’. Alison Reboul, a document analysis expert with the now defunct Forensic Science Service concluded during 2007 and 2008 investigations that the letters were written by the same person and the full evidence tying the two together was introduced by Dr Michael du Preez in the New Scientist Magazine in 2008.
Michael du Preez’ evidence was thus: In November of 1809 the Bulkley family’s financial records showed that Margaret and her mother sailed from Wapping in London to Leith in Scotland. Somewhere on that voyage they made the decision to change Margaret into James, and upon enrolling at the University of Edinburgh ‘James’ wrote to the family solicitor asking for all his letters to be addressed to his ‘aunt’ Mrs Bulkley, Margaret’s mother. The letter also referred to that same journey on the boat. Now recognised as a man, James Barry graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1812.
After six months at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, she joined the army as a surgeon in 1813. She quickly became famous within the service for her talent and flair for medicine. So good in fact, she went on to conduct the first successful caesarean section – where both mother and baby survived – in medical history in Cape Town in 1826.
She rose to become Colonial Medical Inspector in the Cape, and was a strict boss, earning herself a Court-Martial for her over enthusiastic efforts to improve conditions for female patients in St Helena. She was credited personally with improved hygiene and health of inmates in the prisons and leper colonies.
Her service was not unblemished and she came very close to being unceremoniously removed from the Army on more than one occasion. She padded out her coat with shoulder pads to increase her frame and wore 3inch heeled boots. Hot headed and feisty, James was known to challenge foes aggressively and on one occasion actually shot a man in a duel. Despite being small of stature she had an air of authority and exuded confidence, with her skills as a surgeon ensuring she was never discharged from service despite finding herself under arrest fairly regularly.
She also earned notoriety for her intimate relationship with the Lord Charles Somerset, which resulted in a libel action after the pair were accused of homosexuality. Of course with hindsight we know that if a relationship was had at all, it would have been a heterosexual one! Upon her death it was discovered that at some point she had been pregnant, and it is thought that she suffered a miscarriage whilst living in Mauritius. If a guess were to be made at the father of her baby all arrows point to Somerset.
Eventually she was promoted to Inspector-General Surgeon to the British Army and is famed for being the only medical officer of record with the audacity to discipline Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, whose methods Barry felt were unsanitary. As Inspector General, Barry was in charge of all the military hospitals in the UK.
Her efforts to disguise her gender proved so effective that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. Sophia Bishop, the maid who laid out her body revealed that although she had spent 46 years masquerading as a man in the British Army, ‘James Barry’ was in fact a woman. A woman who had posed as a man to become the first female medical graduate in Britain, fooled the Army into employing her and then fooled everyone for nearly half a century.
James Barry is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, her gravestone bearing “his” name and rank as a mark of respect to the life she led.