Iraq and the apocalypse

Why did a gifted prime minister embark on a course which people far stupider had consistently warned

New Labour being the project it was, we all have memories of special dismay. My own most lowering moment arrived one night in the winter of 2005 when I went to Chatham House in London to listen to a talk by Gordon Brown, given under the patronage of the Guardian in memory of the political journalist Hugo Young. I'd only once seen the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the flesh and I accepted the invitation because I wanted to take a citizen's look at our next prime minister. He raced into the room somewhat late, barely acknowledging the largely friendly audience, and began his speech, which was addressed throughout to the plain surface of the lectern. Repeatedly, in a nervous gesture, he fingered the corners of his apparently unfamiliar typescript, aligning the pages into hospital corners, while motor-mouthing through its words as though he were a solicitor forced to register a particularly arcane codicil. At the end, he refused questions and swept out of the room at the same pace at which he had entered. The subject of his speech had been how to restore public trust in politicians. Never once did he use the word "Iraq".

Next day I was surprised to see the speech reported in the newspapers as though it were a perfectly normal event. Sometimes, you think, the Westminster village is so fascinated with itself that it doesn't even notice when it's being insulted. To an outsider, an infrequent member of the audience at political events, it had been a performance of startling rudeness. But it made its more lasting impression for two quite different reasons.

First, it seemed to represent a sort of desolate milestone beyond which no real honesty was any longer possible in the Labour Party about anything. The speech was intellectually derelict. If you had wanted seriously to address the question of why a gulf had grown up between the electorate and the political establishment in Britain, then the chances are that you would have been obliged at least to mention, if not to address, the widespread impression that your government had altogether abandoned the notion of an independent foreign policy. You would have had to try seriously to speak to the deep divisions created in the country by a bruising Middle Eastern invasion. But beyond that, I left the meeting saddened because Brown's manner - at once neurotic and imperious, like a scratchy clip of Charles Laughton as Claudius - contrasted so sharply with my memory of a night ten years earlier when I had gone to another political lecture for exactly the same reason - to get my first proper look at the previous coming man.

Most gifted politician

The conventional wisdom is to say that Tony Blair "does" sincerity. Like an advocate, it is claimed, he always believes what he says when he's saying it. But this version of Blair as a gifted snake-oil salesman, who happens temporarily to believe in snake oil, sells him way short. On that night in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, the young Blair gave an admittedly routine address, but in the question-and-answer session afterwards simply dazzled everyone present both by his command of subject matter and by the politeness and directness with which he considered everything that was put to him. Again, the common view is to insist that this degree of eloquence and plausibility is somehow suspect, that fluency must be the mark of someone who is up to no good.

But anyone whose profession is words is committed to believing that thinking and speaking are intimately connected. Writers believe that deftness of expression expresses deftness of mind. In Blair's case, at least in 1995, you were left in no doubt that you were listening to the most gifted politician of the period, someone who, unlike Margaret Thatcher, did not need to resort to childish boasting and bullying in order to make his points.

All administrations become fractious with age. In their hearts, like most of us, they know the case against themselves better than anyone. Again, like most of us, they live with it daily. Margaret Beckett's impatient advice to Ed Stourton to "pack it in", when asked about Britain's complicity in countless unnecessary deaths in the Lebanon and Israel last summer, clearly served, in her mind at least, as a yet more succinct version of her previous injunction on the same subject to Sky News - "Oh for goodness' sake, Adam, leave it alone." But it also offered the most memorable epitaph to carve on the gravestone of this government: "Oh, pack it in." So much has been written, so much speculated in the past 20 years about the contempt the public feels towards politicians, but we hear far less of the reverse - the creeping hatred politicians so plainly nurse for us, the stupid and unseeing voters who seem unable to appreciate the complexity and importance of the paramount issues in a dangerous world.

Lethal miscalculation

For, yes, if we are to say along what fault-line it was that new Labour was destroyed - be it in Iraq, be it in the NHS, be it in the PFIs, be it in the sardine packing of the prisons - then surely all its most egregious mistakes flowed from Tony Blair's conviction that he did not need to take any notice of his own natural supporters - that he was somehow living his life in some far higher atmosphere, at some more mature level of reality where tough judgements had to be made on the basis of largely confidential evidence to which only he, the neo-cons, a couple of dodgy foreign newspaper proprietors and some spies had access. Blair, clearly, had never much liked the Labour Party. He had never thought very highly of those who gave him power. But as time went by, he began to see the popular hostility to his "higher view" as a mark of his virility, a sign that he must be facing up to the "difficult" decisions that we, the lazy and the feckless, spend our lives shirking.

It turned out, of course, to be a delusive analysis, most disastrously in the matter of the Middle East, but it was a strangely alluring one - and a brilliant answer to those of his stupider critics who had set up a straw man by claiming, quite wrongly, that Blair was nothing more profound than a smooth operator obsessed with popularity. How clever of him, then, to prove the opposite - that he gave not a fig for public opinion! Yet in detaching himself from the wisdom of the crowd - the common wisdom, the correct wisdom which could not understand why a mission against al-Qaeda had to be taken into a country where was no trace of al-Qaeda - Blair turned himself into an ungovernable Coriolanus. Here, suddenly, was a man who could not forgive the rest of us for failing so completely to see what he alone sees so clearly. A religious element juiced up the volatile mix of resentment and high stakes. "If I am persecuted I must be right."

This then is the paradox: a man who pronounced at the outset that his only ideology would be "what works" set off on a course which people far stupider and far less gifted than he consistently warned him could not possibly work. They were right. He was wrong. Every day we see the lethal evidence of miscalculation, and while mourning for the innumerable victims, for the Iraqis who today say they cannot walk their children to school without passing dead bodies uncollected in the street, we also mourn a man whose tragedy is far deeper than lazy satirists or commentators allow.

At a moment when the west needed great secular leadership, it was given instead demented religious leadership. A man who arrived in politics as the voice of modernity and reason became, at his own wish, that most ancient and mystic of figures: the prophet unloved in his own country.

There is, in George Bush, his American ally, a shamelessly apocalyptic willingness to admit that judgement on earth means little to him. Bush is happy to tell us he is waiting for judgement in heaven from someone he refers to as his other father. Like many such people in his position, he shows enviably few signs of nerves. The decision of the third umpire does not bother him. In Blair, however, there is still, to his credit, a Catholic nervousness, a haunted quality, a knowledge that the road taken was at least a choice. "I have listened and I have learned," he announced, after a sobering election in 2005, before proceeding wholly to ignore any such lessons in the weeks of the Lebanon war. For us, the spectators, it's been an extraordinary passage of history. Someone of exceptional strengths became caught up in a situation that brought out every one of his exceptional weaknesses. Because it could happen to any of us, the facile dismissiveness of his untested critics seems shallow. But at this time of all others, the west needs democrats as leaders, not martyrs. Pack it in, indeed.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain