Saturday, 9 November 2013

Barnard Hedger

Being a general practitioner of the law brings all sorts of business to your door.

Perhaps ten years ago an elderly man who was already a client presented at my door. We had sold a house for him; bought another house; made a will. The sort of solid citizen return client on which all family solicitors rely.

I knew little about him beyond the business we had done on his behalf but he came with a problem. One about which he was clearly distressed well beyond the financial issues involved.

His hearing was poor, he explained. Always had been. And his family kept telling him it might be something to do with what he had done in the war. So, eventually, he had applied for a War Pension. And he had been refused that pension, not because his deafness was in any doubt but because the official record showed him to be a deserter. And that distressed him well beyond, indeed out of all proportion to, the fifteen or twenty quid a week that might have come with the pension.

For in early 1945 he had been in Italy. The War was ending but the Allies were still south of the Apennines and had yet to break through to what Napoleon, one hundred and fifty years before, had described as the richest and most fertile plain in Europe. To Milan and to victory in Italy at least.

So fighting still required to be done.  And my client, then a sergeant in the Eighth Army, in pursuit of victory had been charged with assaulting a German pillbox. In which enterprise he had been badly wounded. So badly wounded that his hearing would never recover.

But what happened next was what had caused his grief more than fifty years later. For he was evacuated to a military hospital in Perugia. Where he remained when the War in Europe ended.

And there he was visited by his Officer. The Regiment was to be repatriated to the UK through Naples, he explained, and they were there to take him along. Except the medical staff would not let him go, for he was still not recovered from his wounds. But my man didn’t want to stay in Italy. He wanted to be back in England. For an Englishman, even fifty years later in my office, he undoubtedly remained.

So, in the middle of the night, by pre arrangement with his comrades, he was smuggled out of the hospital in Perugia and driven, in a jeep, to Naples and from there taken home on a troopship.

Now, here I want to stop for a bit of reflection. For I know this geography myself. It is a long way from Perugia to Naples. A long way in an air conditioned, modern suspension, car, travelling in good health and good spirit on modern autostradas.

God knows what that journey was like for a seriously wounded man in a rattly jeep on bomb damaged roads. But it was regarded as journey worth it to get home.

Except even then that is not the end of the story. For although he got home, for my man, the war wasn’t over. His regiment returned to the UK only to be told they would be shipping out to finish off the Japanese. And he remained unfit to fight. So they set off without him, leaving him on a base in the West Country.

And then the war ended. With the regiment no further than Gibraltar. From where, he was advised by telegram, they were to be demobbed. And from where he was, after a further exchange of telegrams, advised that he might as well go home. The war was over.

And so he went home. Although in circumstances I never learned the details of, home eventually became Cumbernauld Village in Scotland and a post war career ended up being in the Prison Service.

From which position, as I hope my even my most leftist and even republican followers will excuse me from observing, he retired believing himself to be a lifelong and loyal servant of the Queen.

Until somebody suggested he might claim a war pension for his deafness.

Now, I would like to tell you that this story has a happy ending. Except that it doesn’t. I did what I could in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence and the regimental archive. My man’s son found the officer who had driven the jeep, still alive in a nursing home, but his memory had gone.

Since I know Perugia, love it perhaps more than any other City in Italy, and am aware that as part of the Italian red belt it would put on a real reception for any veteran of that period, I suggested I might look at organising that. Only to be told my client that he had no desire to ever to set foot in Italy again. Which left me looking pretty small.

And then he died.

For, increasingly, they are all dead: My Uncle Bobby, who was evacuated not from Dunkirk but Dieppe and who saw no further active service as a result of his “bad chest”; my Uncle Adam, who served in RAF Groundcrew in Egypt, where, if asked at family gatherings, he never failed to tell you there were only two classes “The filthy rich and the just plain filthy”; my dad who as a Fleet Air Arm observer, managed to defeat the Germans and the Japanese (and have the medals to prove it) without ever being closer to Germany than Edinburgh or Japan than the Suez Canal.

We have no idea of the experience of these people. We, today, know only of “abroad” as involving foreign locals mediated, if necessary,  through an English speaking guide. And, even then, of foreign locals not ill disposed towards us. And even, even then we only know the war experience of those who survived it.

But I come back at the end to my client. It is one of the rules of my game that you can’t identify the client. But sometimes rules are made to be broken. It is thanks to people like him that we are tonight sitting in comfort watching the Service of Remembrance. Even those who are moaning about it without fear of reprisal.

My client's name was Barnard Hedger. He should have got his pension.


  1. Poignant and well written piece. Lest we forget the futility of war and the woeful treatment of our veterans by the very same powers that persuaded them to fight. RIP Barnard Hedger

  2. Sgt Hedger was not alone in his diffculties with the uncaring MoD. My father had to fight tooth and nail for a War Pension. He was well into his seventies when the back injury he had sustained in his early twenties erecting Bailey Bridges was finally acknowledged.

    I had a neighbour who took his life after returning from the horrors of Bosnia. He was a quiet private man who would not have sought help for himself. Perhaps someone should have been looking out for him a little more.