Having never been a soldier, nor even in the CCF at school, I have never really fathomed the military mind. This is a tricky book to read, as one’s eyes well up with tears when hearing, in a matter-of-fact way, how the various soldiers got injured. Each man has his own story, told frankly in his own words, without flinching from the sometimes gory detail.
The book recounts how the whole scheme was dreamt up by Ed Parker, an ex-army wine merchant from Norfolk, and Simon Daglish, another ex-soldier working in new media, whom Ed met at Sandhurst. ‘Dags’ had already rowed from Cork to Cornwall to raise money for Tommy’s Campaign, after his son was born with cerebral palsy, and on another expedition, he and his team re-traced Scott’s steps to the South Pole, when they raised over £1 million. After Ed’s nephew lost a leg in Afghanistan, they decided to raise awareness, and money, for soldiers who were injured fighting for our Country, by taking some wounded soldiers with them. There was a great deal of opposition, particularly from the army, when they initially floated the idea, but they persevered with sponsors and the press, and eventually secured the support of Prince Harry, which was a major coup.
A great deal of the book is taken up with the selection process, detailed planning and rigorous training, both in England and in Spitsbergen. There were seven of them, including Ed and Dags, and Inge Solheim, their Norwegian guide. Two of the four wounded were missing limbs. Guy Disney lost a leg when his Spartan armoured vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Helmand Province; Jaco van Gass, a South African para, lost his left arm in another RPG attack by the Taliban; Martin Hewitt had a paralysed arm from gunshot wounds; Steve had a broken back from a horrendous IED explosion, which blew up the Mastiff armoured vehicle he was travelling in, having survived a near-drowning when his Viking crashed into a canal a few weeks earlier. Their stories, as well as those from unsuccessful applicants, are interwoven with the account of the planning and problems encountered leading up to the expedition, which makes it difficult to follow Mark McCrum’s patchwork narrative. The team’s patron, Prince Harry, was going to join them for the first few days only, as he had a previous engagement - well, his brother’s forthcoming wedding, where he was best man. Everyone on the trip seemed surprised that he was just a regular guy, and he ensured that any formalities were dropped. When introduced to HRH at Longyearbyen, Guy said “Hello, your Royal Highness”, to which he called him a dick, and said “Call me Spike or H.” So, human after all. The expedition was a great success and led to a television series, with all royalties going to help servicemen injured in the line of duty. This is a story of true heroism, determination, courage and inspiration. What an achievement. What a team.
Walking with the Wounded
By Mark McCrum
Published by Sphere
308pp. Illustrated. £17.99