Return to Goose Green
Thirteen years to the day after the first land battle of the war, I returned to Goose Green. In years, unlucky for some since I had prayed so much. Promised so much. Maybe my return would have been easier if something in the settlement had changed in that time. A new building perhaps, or a lawn, or a pavement, even a puddle. But nothing had changed. It was all just as I’d pictured it a thousand times since. The community centre from where we had set free the captive Falkland Islanders. The garage I’d slept in the first night after the battle. The shop where I had sat in darkness and wrote a love letter home. Even the large white POW’s we’d painted on the prisoner’s sheep sheds could still be seen. Faded with the years. But still there.
Nothing had changed.
The hedgerow where in the days after the battle we’d lined up the Argentine dead. It was no taller, no shorter, just as I’d remembered it. The dead were now gone of course, but standing there again, I remembered the time I had stood there before, forcing into my mind the fact that I was standing before a pile of dead people, asking myself to feel something, to understand something. I brought them all back. And they were as cold and as motionless in my mind`s eye as they were that day. Thirteen years on, l asked again the same questions. But again, no answers, still no understanding.
I began to cry. I didn’t want to. I had even firmly told myself that I wouldn`t. And as the tears fell from my eyes, I fell to my knees. And I realised that my sadness was not for the dead that I had once known or for the fear that I had held during the battle. My tears were for the 13 years since and the confusion I have made of my life. I didn’t know if anything that I saw or did on the battlefield of Goose Green had made a difference to who I am now. Even though many times since I have forced into my mind the dead men I saw, and tried to blame them.
I walked away from the settlement and began my journey back through the battle field. And here’s a strange thing: Goose Green, the battlefield, was bigger, much spacier than I remembered it. What I remembered as a 100 yards turn out to be a full mile. Along the way I passed the 18th hole of the new golf course. I passed the airstrip where the damaged twin-propeller Argentine Pucaras had sat helpless and harmless on the morning after the battle. My route of memories was stopped by a fence of barbed wire and a sign that read `Minefield – Keep Out’. This was one of the fields we had crossed the day we entered Goose Green. I had no idea at the time that I was walking through a minefield. Ignorance truly can be bliss.
Silhouetted on a skyline, facing out to sea, stood the large black cross of the memorial to the soldiers of my battalion who had lost their lives that day. I walked around the minefield and headed towards it. I opened the gate in the bright, white, wooden fence that guards against sheep and stood alone before the pile of rocks that holds the cross and the brass plaque that bears the names of the fallen. Fallen. My battlefield memories made it a strange word to use. `Cut down’ or ‘ripped apart’ or ‘flesh punctured’ would be better, more truthful descriptions to pass on to our young.
I carried no flowers to lay, so, with a need to do something, I reached into a small silver box by the memorial which contained two tins of Brasso and a few stained dusters. I began to polish the plaque. I made it worse! I rubbed harder to remove the polish, but the plaque would not become cleaner. The problem was that the dusters had no clean patches. I pulled down the cuff of my shirt, and polished the plaque to a shine. I thought of the girl who had bought me the blue shirt from a shop in Oxford Street, many, many miles away. And I hoped if she ever saw the shirt again she wouldn’t have a go at me about the stain. And then I thought `liar’. I wanted her to have a go, so that, for once, just for once, I could stand and argue and hold what I believed to be the moral high ground.
Then I thought, ‘Why me?` Why was I back here alone? Was I blessed? Or was I cursed? I couldn’t decide. I came to attention before the names of our dead. I remembered the ones I had shared rooms with, the ones I had patrolled with in Northern Ireland, the one I had twice had drunken fights with, and the two I had never heard of until the day they died. Or was it the day after? I tried hard to find some meaningful words. Meaningful thoughts. But the only thing I could find were my tears, though I didn’t know what meaning they had because I didn’t want to cry them. They were just there. Like me now. Like me then. Like our dead on the day they died.
From the memorial, I looked out over Goose Green to my front and then Darwin to my rear. The same thought crossed my mind that had crossed it a few days before, when I stood on Wireless Ridge and then on Mount Tumbledown. How on earth did we win? Goose Green, by Falklands standards, is a very flat, open place. What cover did it offer to advancing troops? The answer was no cover. How did we win against an enemy that outnumbered us and had had weeks to dig in and prepare their positions? A large part of the answer lay a few hundred metres away from our memorial, on the side of a gully that cuts through Darwin Hill, where Colonel Jones, or ‘Jonesie’ (never ‘H’, as the tabloids called him, which was a new one on us after the war), gave his life. I knew the gully well. Three of my most vivid memories of the battle took place there, and yet I had no idea that this was the spot where our colonel took his dying steps.
On the other side of the gully from where Colonel Jones died, a stick now marks the spot of the trench from which the Argentine gunners killed him. He attacked a trench on the left of the gully and was shot from their trench on the right. Thirteen years on, having the time and the safety to walk up and down the gully, l had to ask myself, ‘Would I have done what he did? Could I have done it? My answer was no, I`m just not that brave.
Since that day, many words have been written about Colonel Jones’ final gallant deed. Some of them have even been critical, arguing that he shouldn’t have been that far forward, that by putting himself, a leader, in danger, he endangered us all. They miss the point. In Stanley, there is a Falkland Islands Museum. In one corner lies a small room dedicated to the-war of 1982. One of its glass cabinets contains two Argentine 24-hour ration packs: one for an officer and the other for a conscript. The officer‘s pack is at least three times the size of that meant to feed the conscript. In another cabinet hangs a note written by an Argentine conscript that was passed to a Falkland Islander. It’s a begging note for food. It also pleads that if the islander sees the conscript standing with men who have stripes or pips on their shoulders then please do not talk to him. If, in 1982, there had just been Colonel Jones and I and we had only one 24-hour ration pack between us, he would have ensured that I, the private soldier, would have had it. And I, the British private soldier, would have turned around and asked him to share it with me. (Except of course for the Mars Bars – they’re mine, mate.)
And at Goose Green, while the majority of the cowardly Argentine officers sat in their bunkers far from the front line, leaving their brave but poorly trained conscripts to fight their battle for them, our Colonel, along with all of our officers, was at the front with us. Maybe there is a text book, on a shelf in a centrally heated room at Sandhurst, that explains why Colonel Jones did the wrong thing. It still doesn’t seem that way to me.