Address: Service of Remembrance
Major General Colin McClean CBE gave the below address in Chapel on Sunday 10th November as part of the College’s Service of Remembrance.
I am a soldier, so I thought I might tell you a soldier’s story. However on a day when 750,000 Poppies have just been released over the white cliffs of Dover I found myself reflecting also on numbers and thinking how I might incorporate a number in to my soldier’s story. I could have chosen the 19,240 which is the number of British soldiers killed in a single day, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army on the first day of the battle of the Somme, Or the number 749 which is the number of staff and students that are commemorated in your beautiful yet horrific, Memorial Hall. But after much deliberation I settled on a simple number: the number 1. Because each one of us, is a number 1. You are a number 1. And the number 1 I would like to specifically reflect upon in my soldier’s story is Corporal Graeme Stiff who I had the great honour to serve with in Afghanistan 11 years ago. So let me tell you a story about Stiffie, because that is what we all called Graeme Stiff, except his Mum who stuck with Graeme for some reason…
So on 15 March 2009 I was in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Camp Bastion was our main headquarters and I, along with the rest of my Battalion, has been in Helmand Province for six months and we were now in the last two weeks of our deployment. It has been a tough six months because we were battling a ruthless enemy in the Taleban and barely a day went by when we were not involved in fighting with them. But it was also a successful six months. And we measured success not in the number of Taleban we had killed, but in much more meaningful numbers. The number of farmers choosing to grow wheat rather than opium poppy for their livelihood; the number of people feeling secure enough to come in to the local market and buy and sell their goods; the number of mothers and babies not dying during childbirth, the number of Afghan children going to school rather than simply working in the fields; the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs as we called them) we had managed to seize in search operations; the number of men choosing to join the local Police force rather than the Taleban, the number of children who would kick a football around with my close protection team when I was holding a Shura – a meeting over tea – with the elders of a village. In all these numbers the tour had been successful and I guess that we could not help but be looking forward to heading home to loved ones and reflecting on a job well done. And as I worked in the Headquarters there was an announcement over the tannoy system. Op MINIMISE, Op MINIMISE, Op MINIMISE. And that is an announcement that never made you feel good, because what it meant is that someone or some ones had been either seriously injured or killed and as the name implied, everyone was required to MINIMISE. That is all non urgent communication on the radio should cease so that people who had to speak would be able to, all non urgent patrols would stop since we did not want to risk having a further incident to deal with at a time when things were already busy and nobody was allowed to phone home since that could end up spreading rumours and worry about who had been injured or killed. So at that time you largely have to wait until there is something concrete to go on. It was about 30 minutes later that my operations officer came up to me and asked “Colonel, Can I have a quiet word.” Now I do not know what the equivalent of that phrase is here in Marlborough College, but in the Army that is a phrase that tells you “This person has got some really bad news that they want to tell you.” I guess it might be equivalent here when you are asked to go an have a discussion with Mr Finlay or the Master if you have broken some important rules: You probably feels a bit sick. So my operation officer then said to me “It’s Stiffie, and it is not looking good.” And once again the phrase “its not looking good” has a specific meaning, which is in fact “it is looking really, really bad.” And so I then watched as the CHINOOK helicopter flew in over our heads and the ambulance rushed out to meet it to pick up Stiffie and rush him into our hospital where our amazing surgical teams immediately set about their business. And slowly the story got pieced together. Stiffie had volunteered to drive his squadron leader to an important meeting since the normal crew member was tired after being on patrol all day, so Stiffie said he would do it instead. And on that journey the JACKAL vehicle in which they were travelling had hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) which had exploded directly under Stiffie who was in the commanders seat in the front manning the general purpose machine gun which we used for self-defence and that bomb had ripped the vehicle apart. Stiffie‘s mates had administered emergency first aid, had stopped the bleeding, could just about feel a pulse and had managed to get intravenous drips into Stiffies’ arms. Finally they had also called in the Medical Emergency Rescue Team, the MERT helicopter to evacuate him immediately. They had done a really professional job. But by the time I was able to visit Stiffie in the hospital he was dead. So I sat with him for a while, held his hand and tried to come to terms with the fact that one of my soldiers would not be going home alive to his Mother and Father. He would not be at the big party we had planned for when we got back…………… So I promised that I would remember him. Now death was not necessarily new to us – in our 6 1/2 month deployment 45 of the 9,500 soldiers deployed were killed and over 200 suffered serious life changing injuries, but Stiffie’s death was tough because he was such a popular member of the team and it seemed so unfair as he was not meant to be on patrol that day and only had two more weeks to go before he would have been going home. But fair or not we had a way to deal with things. So that evening we got as many of the Battalion together as possible and remembered Stiffie……..we cried together………we wrote letters to his parents and girlfriend………we shared our memories of Stiffie, be it the time he scored the winning goal in the inter squadron football competition, or the time he got a bit drunk and missed his flight back from exercise in Canada and spent an extra week there and had to buy his girlfriend flowers every day for a month to make up for being late, and lots of other fond memories that we shared of Stiffie. Ultimately then his six closest mates carried him, as the last post was played, and as you heard it played so well earlier today onto an RAF C17 aircraft for his final journey home.
So what would it be like if Stiffie, my number 1 for today, was here and what would he say to you if he was standing where I am? Well firstly Stiffie would be stood here as the 24 year old that he was when he was killed. We would not be the 35 that he should be now. He would, as the choir so movingly sang earlier “Not grow old as we are that left grow old.”. He would be stood here as a strong, fit 24 year old and that is how he will always be. Secondly I suspect that many here would be paying him a lot more attention than you are to me, because Stiffie was a whole lot better looking than me. His girlfriend Lauren, whose picture Stiffie had taped to the dashboard of the vehicle that he was in when he got blown up, would certainly be here in the front row making sure that nobody got too friendly with him. And thirdly Stiffie would be a whole lot funnier than me: he would definitely be taking the Micky out of me since his team Liverpool are once again doing better than Arsenal and he would just have to remind me that Leicester beat Arsenal 2-0 yesterday. So in a very easy and funny way Stiffie would just give you a few thoughts. He would not ask you to thank him……….. he would laugh if you tried to call him a hero……………….. but he would tell you with enthusiasm that he planned to return from Afghanistan, go on the holiday of a lifetime with Lauren and then apply for helicopter pilot training because if Prince Harry could do it, then so could he. Because Stiffie was ambitious and he was determined to be the best he could be. So I think Stiffie would look around Marlborough College and say: “Wow; this place is pretty cool. Great sports pitches; Norwood Hall food certainly better than in the Army regimental restaurants, friendly people and he could not be anything but impressed by the drill of the CCF which was better than his own units drill. And he would rapidly make up his mind that this was the place for him and he would really enjoy himself here and leave here with the best qualifications he could, the best friends he could and leave a legacy in the College so that people would remember him as a real team player who treated other people with respect and decency be they fellow students, the staff who make the place run and even may be the Beaks. And he would say to you “If you want to remember me that would be grand. But remember me not in your thoughts:…………… remember me in your actions. And if you are just going to remember me on one Sunday in November, don’t bother. If you are going to remember me, remember me every day you can in what you do by making the best of the amazing opportunities you have and the amazing people you have around you.”
That then is how my number 1 today, Corporal Graeme Stiff, would want you to remember him. And I am guessing that it is not that much different to the 749 people commemorated in your Memorial Hall or those 19,240 British Soldiers killed on 1 July 1916 that none of us have ever met. They were soldiers like Stiffie and I think they would have wanted you to remember them in the same ways Stiffie wanted: not by looking backwards at them, but by looking forwards and promising that you will make the best of what you have been given by them so that you can be the best you can be.
For your tomorrow, they and Stiffie gave their today.
Let us never forget them.