LAST NIGHT ANOTHER SOLDIER
EXTRACT FROM THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY ALY RENWICK
Corporal Rennie dealt with another misfit. ‘And why did you leave your village sonny? Was there another idiot there already?’
Billy luckily mastered the drill techniques fairly quickly and so escaped most of the invective dished out to the slower members of the squad.
After a few weeks of basic training, some recruits indicated that they were considering packing up and going back to civilian life. The two corporals were the first to hear of this and immediately tore a strip off those concerned.
‘What are you? Fucking namby pambies, wanting to run home to your mammies?’ they shouted, adding in a quieter voice that it would reflect badly on the training staff if recruits were lost.
One of the new soldiers persisted in his efforts to get out. Called Willie Monroe, he came from a small village in the hills near the source of the Clyde. He was awkward at drill, coming in for much abuse, and found difficulty coming to terms with the rigid routine and discipline. Sergeant Davidson’s response, when he heard of Monroe’s intentions, was to call a special parade inside one of the huts. Ordering the squad to stand to attention, the sergeant then told Monroe to join him at the front.
‘We have a chap here who wants to leave this man’s army,’ snarled the sergeant, pointing to Monroe while glaring at the rest of the recruits. ‘Are there any more mummy’s boys who’d like to join him? … No? Good.’
‘Sergeant Davidson turned from the squad to face Monroe. ‘I’ve been watching you since you came here and I’ve not been impressed. You’re like a big girl, you even waggle your arse like one. I think we’ll have to call you Marilyn. You’re not a fucking queer are you?’
The sergeant turned to grin at the squad, and most recruits giggled back. Turning back to Monroe his voice softened. ‘Look son I know it’s hard, but keep at it, we can even make a man of you. You don’t want to go home a failure do you? They’ll all say you couldn’t take it.’
The sergeant turned back to the squad. ‘I told you at the start that we are a team. You all know that next weekend is your first leave – well, leave in the army is a privilege and has to be earned.’ Sergeant Davidson indicated Monroe, ‘If Marilyn here fucks off, then that reflects badly on the staff, but especially me.’ The sergeant jerked his thumb into his chest. ‘I won’t take that lying down, so I propose a deal. Yous persuade him to stay in and give this man’s life a chance, and you’ll get your leave as promised. Fail, and it’s cancelled - and I’ll have yous out Saturday and Sunday square-bashing.’
The sergeant glowered at the assembled recruits and then at Monroe, before shouting ‘Dismiss!’
‘Now come here Marilyn dear.’ Monroe heard the voices and looked around scared.
‘Don’t run off, we just want a little chat, and afterwards as a special treat we’ll let you give us a wank with your sexy little bum, you fucking nancy boy.’ A group of recruits descended on Monroe and carried him off bodily. Later, the word went around that he had retracted his application for discharge and that the weekend leave was still on. Billy noticed that from then on Monroe always appeared dispirited. Though he completed his training, he became the butt of abuse from the recruits as well as the training staff and Monroe continued to be called Marilyn from the day of the parade in the hut …
[Extract from: … last night another soldier…, by Aly Renwick, published by Information on Ireland, in 1989].
Alastair (Aly) Renwick was born in Scotland in 1944 and joined the British Army at sixteen years of age in 1960. He served in West Germany (NATO Cold War manoeuvres); Thailand (SEATO Operation Crown) during the Vietnam War; then for short periods in Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland (just before the conflict). He purchased his discharge in late 1968, and moved to London to help organise the anti-Vietnam War protests, whose demonstrations he had attended while still a soldier.
When British troops were ordered onto the streets of the North of Ireland in 1969, Renwick helped establish the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign and later the Anti-Internment League. In late 1973 he was a founding member of the Troops Out Movement (TOM), becoming one of their national organisers over the next four years. In 1978 he helped found and run Information on Ireland. He has taken part in peace and reconciliation work in Britain and the two parts of Ireland, worked with Northern Ireland veterans who are suffering from PTSD and he co-founded the Veterans In Prison (VIP) organisation.
He was a member of Ex-Services CND until it ended and was also a member of Veterans For Peace UK for 10 years, before it was shut down in 2022.
Aly Renwick was in charge of TOM publications from 1974 – 76, editing and publishing the Alternative White Paper on Ireland, TOM TOM bulletins and the TOM paper Troops Out.
He compiled and edited Information on Ireland’s first pamphlet, British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, published in 1978.
In 1989, his first novel, … last night another soldier…, was published by Information on Ireland. It was acclaimed as one of the five best novels of ‘the Troubles’ in the Irish Post and became ‘required reading’ for ‘postcolonial-studies’ courses in various universities in the US.
In 1991 his short story, XMG, was included in Teenage Soldiers – Adult Wars, an anthology of soldiers’ writings from around the world that was published in the US by The Rosen Publishing Group, New York. The book was then translated and published in Denmark in 1992 as Kanonfode?
In 1999 his book about combat-related PTSD, Hidden Wounds – the problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street, was published by Barbed Wire.
Throughout 2004, Oliver’s Army, Renwick’s history of the use of British soldiers in Ireland, was issued, a chapter each month, on the TOM website – to commemorate 30 years of the Troops Out Movement.
Over the 10 years he was a member of Veterans For Peace he posted many articles about issues to do with the military, which can still be viewed at: veteransforpeace.org.uk
In 2017 his article Something in the Air: the rise of the Troops Out Movement was included in The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain book published by the Manchester University Press.
His second novel Gangrene was published by the Merlin Press in 2018, as a political thriller about the civil-war within capitalism to overthrow the Keynesian ruling system by free market neoliberalism. This coming of Thatcher is viewed from a mining community and an NHS hospital, but mainly from inside the military during the ‘dirty war’ in the North of Ireland, combined with the Falklands War.
Aly Renwick said about his time as a soldier:
“I joined the British Army as a boy soldier in 1960, aged sixteen. After three years at an Army Apprentice School, I then was transferred to the Royal Engineers and my first posting was in West Germany. This was at the height of the Cold War and I had to take part in the big NATO exercises, which were targeted against the Russians stationed in East Germany. In 1966 I was posted back to Blighty as a sapper serving with 34 Field Squadron, based at Tidworth Barracks in England.
I was only there a few months when we were told that we had to fly out to the Far East to help deal with problems in Brunei and Borneo. So, in early October, we arrived in Singapore to acclimatize for a week, but after a few days there we were all called to a meeting and told we would now be going to north-east Thailand instead. We were to take part in Operation Crown and complete the building of a military airfield.
A few days later we flew out to the partially built airstrip, next to the Thai village of Loeng Nok Tha, which was about 25 miles from the border with Laos. The stamp in my passport said that I was: ‘permitted to stay in Thailand until the completion of my assignment for SEATO.’ It was the height of the Vietnam War and about fifty miles south of Loeng Nok Tha lay the town of Ubon with its Royal Thai Air Force Base, from which the US 8th Tactical Fighter Wing were flying combat missions. It was the time of US operation Rolling Thunder that was attempting to bomb the Vietnamese opposition into surrender, or accommodation.
Often, we would see the F-4 Phantom fighter bombers roar over us on their way to North Vietnam or the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Sometimes, on the way back, we could see holes and other bits of damage on some jets, when they had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.
Officially, Britain was playing no part in the Vietnam War, and one day a rumour swept the camp that Julian Pettifer, a BBC news correspondent then known for his reports from Vietnam, was in the vicinity and we were all ordered not to speak to him. Harold Wilson, the British Labour PM, had come under strong pressure from the US to send British troops directly into this war. While he stood firm against this, it was thought that Britain could be helping the US in other, undeclared, ways.
Our close approximation to the conflict disturbed some of us and we began to question: ‘To what use would the military airfield we were building be put?’ No one, however, gave us any logical answers, but we suspected that it must be something to do with the Vietnam War.
After nearly seven months, the runways had been built to a standard that jet aircraft could use and we were pulled out at the end of April 1967, leaving a completed, but seemingly deserted airfield. After we returned to Tidworth, I started to travel to London to take part in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Eventually, this brought me to the attention of the Special Investigations Branch (SIB) of the Military Police and my CO told me that the SIB’s secret reports said there was a possibility that I would try to make contact with enemy forces in conflict situations - and this suggested, therefore, that I could no longer be trusted.
Also with 34 Field Squadron I’d served for short periods in Cyprus and Kenya and these postings had added to my disaffection with the military. So, in late 1968, shortly after finding out about the SIB reports about me, I bought myself out of the army, just after I had spent two months serving in a then passive Northern Ireland.
During my time in the army I had changed from fairly conservative beliefs to ones a great deal more radical. So, now a civvy, I travelled to London to live and work, because I wanted to help organise the then increasing national protests against the Vietnam War.
I recognised that, although my experience were somewhat unusual, I was in fact no different from the thousands of other people I now met on anti-war demonstrations. Whose ideas and perceptions had been changed by living through the 60s – a time of hope, when we thought we might make the world a better place.”
ALY RENWICK WROTE THIS ARTICLE FOR VETERANS IN PRISON, WHICH HE CO-FOUNDED WITH JIMMY JOHNSTONE.
Veterans and the Vagrancy Act of 1824 by Aly Renwick
In 1870, over 150 years ago, a popular Broadside, ‘Poetry of the Pavement’, carried a poem called ‘The Hulks’, with this introduction: “The Hulks are old vessels kept for the convenience of imprisoning disobedient sailors, who presume to have a conscience opposed to the destruction of foreigners who have no wish on their part to interfere with the private affairs of other countries. But a warrior should never think, and if he keeps a conscience, he must soon learn to surrender it to the call of duty (which means the doing of acts contrary to his inclinations, and which may therefore be defined as unnatural morality), or he will soon feel the reason why.”
This was followed by the poem ‘The Hulks’:
The youth now leaves his home, his work, his friends;
All social happiness on earth he ends,
And learns assassination as a trade,
Which does his Christian feelings deep degrade.
Conscience at last will claim the power to speak,
And now for conscience brave, for duty weak,
In calm refusal to engender strife,
He earns with conscience clear the hulks for life.
Awake – free trade! and teach us better things;
Show earth is for the people, not for kings;
Show man should send his produce to exchange,
Not armies over other lands to range,
And claim possession through success in war.
Free trade! we ask that you at once restore
The Nation’s sense of justice, and disperse
Kings, Priests, and Warriors, every nation’s curse.
The Broadside was part of a public discussion about the Army and Navy in Britain, during which concerns were sometimes expressed about the probity of the seemingly never ending wars and warfare, as well as concerns about how soldiers and sailors were being treated. At that time many young male civilians were often coerced, or duped, into joining the armed forces. Also, the Army and Navy frequently turned to the press-gang – and later conscription – to force individuals to ‘take the King’s shilling’.
This resulted in increasing numbers of civilians being turned into soldiers and sailors against their will. Once in barracks or on ship, these new servicemen were immediately exposed to a totally undemocratic military-system. And subjected to harsh laws and extreme punishments, like flogging, for the slightest hint of disobedience.
The way sailors were being treated led to two major Royal Navy mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, but these were both put down violently with many of the mutineers being hanged, flogged or imprisoned. While the mutinies alarmed the authorities and a few concessions were made, the ill-treatment of rank-and-file sailors and soldiers mostly continued. Back in Civvy Street, veterans received little reward for their service, or help for disabilities, and no assistance for settling back into civilian life.
In those days there was almost continuous warfare, due to the standing of the country as a global superpower. This was combined with an ever expanding Britain Empire and government critics often claimed that those in power were cynically regarding the countries’ soldiers and sailors as ‘cannon-fodder’. To be used to ‘do or die’ in the many conflicts then ongoing across the world.
After the wars, which were often brutal and inhumane, the streets back home were usually filled with discharged veterans. Many of these were wounded, either physically or psychologically, who received little, or no, help. With the authorities even targeting them, because they often regarded discharged servicemen as an internal threat to social order.
The soldiers and sailors had been trained to use ultimate force against their opponents and some veterans, back in Civvy Street, were prone to resort to this implanted violence – especially if provoked, or challenged. Henry Mayhew, who at that time wrote many articles about the poor, described some veterans from the Crimea War (1853-6) who were now trying to survive in Civvy Street:
“The first, or soldier proper, has all the evidence of drill and barrack life about him; the eye that always ‘fronts’ the person he addresses; the spare habit, high cheekbones, regulation whisker, stiff chin … He carries his papers with him, and when he has been wounded or seen service, is modest and retiring as to his share of glory … The second sort of soldier-beggar is one of the most dangerous and violent mendicants. Untameable even by regimental discipline, insubordinate by nature, he has been thrust out from the army to prey on society and is dangerous to meet with after dark on a lonely road.”
In Britain, 30 years before Mayhew’s article, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 had claimed to: ‘act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, and rogues and vagabonds’. Actually, it was enacted mainly to deal with the events that were occurring in England following the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, because of the large numbers of soldiers and sailors that had been discharged with no job, or accommodation, and with no help to sort themselves out for life outside of the Army, or Navy. Even after they were discharged, veterans often found they were persecuted by the powers that be, who had sent them off to war in the first place.
When the 1824 Vagrancy Act was introduced, veterans, as well as being feared, were also considered a problem by the authorities. While the Act had decreed to act against ‘rogues and vagabonds’ it specifically targeted injured veterans by stating that: ‘Every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms … shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond’. Thus soldiers and sailors who had fought for their country – and suffered wounds in battle – were criminalised on their return home.
The 1824 Vagrancy Act, which also made it an offence to ‘sleep on the streets’ or ‘to beg’, is still in force. A study in 1994 by the homeless charity, Crisis, into the people living on the streets in London, found that: ‘Around one-quarter of all single homeless people have served in the forces’. Twenty-nine per cent of the ex-service people interviewed said they were suffering from nerves, depression and stress and forty-one per cent of them had spent time in prison.
These were mainly veterans of Northern Ireland and the Falklands, with a few from World War 2, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and the Gulf War. They were soon to be joined by others from Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sharon Hartles, who is a member of the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative, wants to see the Vagrancy Act 1824 repealed.
She stated about the Act:
“Since its enactment, the Vagrancy Act 1824 has been controversial. This piece of legislation was constructed to specifically target the most vulnerable members of society. Wounded soldiers, who returned from the Napoleonic Wars, and found themselves homeless, jobless and penniless, were relabelled as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ and charged for exposing their wounds and deformities as a means to ‘obtain or gather alms’. Under the guise of social order, soldiers were criminalised for merely trying to survive; in a country that abandoned them after sending them to war to protect it.”
A failed attempt was made in 1981 to decriminalise begging and homelessness, by seeking to repeal Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Almost a decade later, in 1990, the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) undertook to do a survey of Vagrancy Act prosecutions and found that in 14 magistrates courts in 1988, in Central London alone, 1,250 prosecutions under the Act had been dealt with. Some of these would probable have included a number of the homeless veterans included in the Crisis report of 1994.
Two-hundred years ago soldiers and sailors were recruited, trained and then utilised as ‘cannon-fodder’ in almost constant, far-away conflicts – and after discharge cast away, denigrated and often prosecuted by those that had deployed them. For veterans some things never change, because we now know that homeless and wounded veterans of today are still being targeted and arrested under the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Two-hundred years after the Act was first implemented to criminalise veterans from the Napoleonic Wars.
Today, more and more veterans are realising that we can’t rely on the Westminster politicians, or the MoD, for any help with the problems that come to some who have served. With official help ranging from slight to non-existent, especially for the homeless, or for those who have ended up serving time in the HM Prison System, veterans are having to rely mainly on charities, or lobby groups, often set up by fellow ex-forces members. Click on the YouTube Video link below, to view Dire Straits performing their song for veterans: ‘Brothers in Arms’: