Father and Son

Tony Gould

  • When the fighting is over: A Personal Story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and its Aftermath by John Lawrence and Robert Lawrence
    Bloomsbury, 196 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0174 2
  • Tumbledown by Charles Wood
    Penguin, 80 pp, £3.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 14 011198 0

You would have to be a Martian not to know that Tumbledown was the name of one of the few serious battles in the Falklands campaign and that Robert Lawrence was the platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Scots Guards, who had 40 per cent of his brain removed by a sniper’s bullet after he had earned himself a Military Cross by his bravery. Even before the film was shown on BBC television on 31 May Robert Lawrence had appeared on Wogan and been interviewed on radio, When the fighting is over had been serialised in the Observer, and the Daily Mail had chosen to question some of the assertions made by the Lawrences, père et fils, in their book.

There are two stories here, the public and the private one. The public story should have gone like this: young, fair-haired Guards officer, keen as mustard, goes to the wars, performs deeds of derring-do, is badly wounded, shipped – and flown – home to a hero’s welcome. But the hero’s welcome was missing. The walking wounded were greeted at RAF Brize Norton by their families, the press and TV cameras: but the more seriously injured, the badly burned and maimed, were kept out of sight – even their families were not permitted to see them until they were safely out of camera range in the RAF hospital at Wroughton. Robert Lawrence, despite his appalling injury, had scraped together a uniform of sorts (his own had been cut off him and removed at the field hospital in the Falklands) so that he might look the part on his arrival home, only to discover that no one was allowed to see him.

Nor was this the last time that he was kept out of public view: at the thanksgiving service for victory in the Falklands at St Paul’s, Lawrence claims that he was shunted into a side-aisle, having been refused permission to wear uniform, and then left there in his wheelchair ‘for well over an hour, until the procession had cleared the cathedral’. As a result of these and other incidents in which he was treated insensitively, he feels bitter towards the Army and ‘the system’ in general:

  What I didn’t realise, until, like so many others, I came back crippled after doing my bit for my country, was the extent to which we had been conned. Conned into believing in a set of priorities and principles that the rest of the world and British society in general no longer gave two hoots about. We had been ‘their boys’ fighting in the Falklands, and when the fighting was over, nobody wanted to know.

  The indifference, embarrassment, exploitation and countless bureaucratic cock-ups that followed my return home were not what I’d expected.

Partly it is the old story of civilian ambivalence towards the armed forces, Kipling’s ‘makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep’: but it is also true that the modern Army, as an organisation, does not reflect the traditional romantic idealism of its individual regiments and is more or less indistinguishable from the Civil Service. As Milan Kundera puts it in a reference to The Good Soldier Schweik: ‘Hasek’s army is nothing but an immense bureaucratic institution, an army-administration in which the old military virtues (courage, cunning, skill) no longer matter.’

Robert Lawrence’s testimony continues:

They opened my eyes. They changed me. They changed my father, a great patriot, with 28 years in the RAF behind him. He believed so strongly in the Forces, and believed ‘the system’ would look after us all. I think the reality shook him. It was almost as if a staunch Christian, who had always lived and acted in a respectful Christian way, were suddenly being made to question God.

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