Distant voices, still lives

Soldiers: fighting men's lives, 1901-2001

Philip Ziegler <em>Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £20</em>


In the early 20th century, recruits to the British army were tempted as much by the thought of three square meals a day as by the prospect of seeing the world. The subjects of Philip Ziegler's moving new book - nine pensioners from Chelsea's Royal Hospital - each enlisted with the hope of a better life. That they found what they were looking for is clear from the pride they take in Britain's most unusual retirement home.

The hospital was founded by Charles II in 1682 - reputedly at the prompting of his mistress, Nell Gwyn - as a refuge where war veterans could live out their final years. Now the pensioners can be seen every day in the King's Road branch of Safeway, ambling down the aisles to find tins of condensed milk and packets of Lincoln Biscuits. In their full regalia of scarlet coats and tricorn hats, they make a curious sight for other shoppers.

The question is whether the pensioners are a monument to or a relic from their days of glory. For some, their pageantry evokes the most memorable elements of Britain's imperial past, while for others these old men are exhibitionists in fancy dress who represent a best-forgotten age. Yet what is really being celebrated by the pensioners is what they achieved through their skill and bravery, and what, I suspect, they are really remembering is the sacrifice of their comrades.

The pensioners are traditionalists. Like most of their generation, they speak of having opposed the "Germans" rather than the "Nazis". But they are satisfied with the consequences of the freedom for which they fought. In their cases, this often means children who reject the values of their parents and espouse left-wing views. This they take with good temper; there is no Alf Garnett among the cast here.

The order of Ziegler's sketches is significant. The first pensioner, Albert Alexandre, is a model of old virtue, the kind of man said to put the younger generation to shame. There is no self-pity in his account, even though his mother died of a brain tumour when he was six years old, and his father in an accident a few months later. In the army, Alexandre did as he was told without complaint. He was only 16 when he fought in 1918 at Passchendaele, where a third of his regiment was wiped out. Yet when he and his surviving friends reached Southampton after the Armistice, the landlord of the first pub they came across refused them entry until they had shown him their money.

The experiences of someone like Alexandre put a standing order out on forgiveness, but he seems to have led a blameless life all the same. His fellows depart from the stereotype. One recalls walking out of a "lewd" George Formby performance, but feels no guilt over his own multiple adulteries with Greek girls. Such confused judgements are more telling than the same man's confession that he "wanted to exterminate the Japanese race".

The Suez fiasco shadows several of the accounts. When these men joined up, Britain was at the peak of its powers, but they had to watch the decline of their station along with that of their country. However, the defence of the empire was assumed to be part of the job of soldiering, not the chief motivation for taking it up. The pensioners were not pulled into the army, but pushed into it by the cold, the damp and the overcrowded homes in which they grew up, the sparse food and the monotonous work that provided it. Today, the Royal Hospital Chelsea saves them from returning to their origins, and one should never forget that these pensioners were not the sword arm of the King, but ordinary people getting on with the task in hand.

Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic Books, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins