How the Falklands defined my family
After the Falklands Warin 1982, the bodies of British soldiers were repatriated for the first time in our country’s military history. It had a great impact, on the country –and on me personally.
My uncle, Dave Parr, was a 19-year-old private in the Parachute Regiment when he was killed on Wireless Ridge. One of my main childhood memories is of his funeral, some five months after the end of the war. I recall getting into the funeral car for the short trip to the church.
We drove behind the gun carriage, his coffin draped in a Union flag. The streets were lined with people. After the service, soldiers fired a gun salute into the sky.
Nobody recognised it then, but it marked the end of an era –the corner of a foreign field that is forever England –and a new start in the way Britain saw its soldiers.
When the fleet began to sailfor the Falkland Islands on 5 April 1982, few expected war. The young men of 2 Para, on their journey south, were excited at the prospect of combat, but had little idea what it could entail. The idea that ships would be sunk, that servicemen would die, that bodies would return to Britain for burial afterwards, was far from anybody’s minds.
The war ended in decisive victory for the British forceson 14 June 1982. The mood at home was celebratory, but emotions ran deep, and stories of the suffering of “Falklands families” threatened topoke doubt at prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s triumph. It was a long time before I could watch footage of the ships returning into Portsmouth harbour. Those scenes of joy and waving flags were so far removed from the sadness I grew up with.
My father was one of those family members who wrote to the government to request that bodies be returned to the UK after the war. His parents, he wrote, were devastated by their loss, and it would be a consolation if they could tend his grave. Dave had died a soldier, but his body should belong to the family, not remain on a distant island, 8,000 miles from home.
On 8 July, Mrs Thatcher announced that bodies would be repatriated for families requesting it. The weight of military tradition was against her, but it was not a difficult decision for her to take. She knew she could not afford to appear hard-hearted, and she instinctively believed that military families should be treated well. Times were changing. The “stiff upper lip” of the First and Second World Wars, with their mass bereavements on foreign soil, was on its way out. Yet there had been stories in the press of families receiving their loved ones’ service medals in Jiffy bags, with self-assembly instructions; the Ministry of Defence had despatched them as per existing regulations, but in this new era such impersonal service made unwelcome headlines, and Thatcher ordered a review.
The numbers of deceased, and the manner of their dying, also meant the cost of repatriation was not prohibitive. Of the 255 British deaths, 174 had been at sea, so their bodies could not come home. Civil servants asked whether this could cause divisions among families of the dead –but the truth was that families already knew how their sons and husbands had died.
Nobody was in that horrible no-man’s land of “missing, presumed dead”, as so many had been during the two world wars. Families whose relatives had died at sea, and those who chose reburial at the military cemetery at San Carlos on theFalkland Islands,were given the option of visiting the Falkland Islands, paid for by the government.
For the 64 families who opted to bring the bodies home, the effect was extraordinary. For some, the closed coffins arriving months after the war only emphasised how much they had lost. I recall my parents and grandparents standing at the undertakers’ around my uncle’s coffin, with its strict instructions not to open. How could they know, they said, what was inside? Another brother remembered his father crying: “It’s just a box.” For others, the presence of a coffin brought a sense of closure, an acceptance of what had happened, a way toembark on the expected rituals of bereavement and, with it, the process of grief.
Those rituals brought the military into the civilian aftermath of war, and the civilian into the military world. Some families chose to rebury their loved ones in local war cemeteries: 18 paratroopers were reinterred at Aldershot in late November. Most relatives opted for ceremonies with full military honours in churches local to the family home. For such funerals, soldiers were to be in attendance, providing a suitable standard of spectacle.
Before 1982, nobody spoke about “military families”. Today, the feelings of familymembers are central to how we remember. Just look at the events being held around the country to commemorate the First World War centenary: sometimes beautiful and revealing, but often emotional, a reflection not only on war, but also on grief.
The Falklands was the first time that the dead were remembered explicitly as individuals. The fallen were seen not only as soldiers in service to their nation, but as men with families who loved them. Since 2003, the names of the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan have been sombrely read out in the House of Commons. It is a recognition that would have been unthinkable –impossible –in generations past, generations that had been influenced by the experience of war, and military service, in a much more profound way than in the present.
The transformations in the commemoration of war have been most apparent during the aftermath of those in Iraq and Afghanistan. When crowds began to gather on the streets of Wootton Bassett –renamed Royal Wootton Bassett in honour of this –to mourn the procession of repatriated bodies, it was a spontaneous display of feeling. It also showed a more sentimental attitude towards the armed services than there has before.
On the Falkland Islands, British soldiers are remembered as individual men. On the summit of Mount Longdon, where 3 Para fought, small wooden crosses bear their names; and family members and fellow soldiers leave reminders for their comrades. My father and I built a cairn on the crest of Wireless Ridge above Port Stanley, a permanent memorial, hoping to mark the spot where my uncle died. It is a privilege to remember with such attention, and the fact of that privilege should not be forgotten.
Margaret Thatcher was the first to call young British servicemen “our boys”. She did not foresee it, but it was the inception of a shift in the relationship between Britain and its military. At the time, she wanted to honour a victory. Increasingly, the professional soldier has become an emblem of uncertainty about Britain’s military role overseas. Should Britain’s soldiers be heroes or victims, servants or sons –or perhaps people, trained highly, who agreed to do a difficult job.