2:00pm Friday 7th November 2008
Pomp, pride and patriotism may not be as fashionable as they once were, but they will be on show in force this Sunday to mark the 90th Remembrance Sunday since the end of the carnage of World War One.
But, for some people on parade at the Cenotaph on Skipton High Street, there will be a new and deeply distressing emotion: a deep, cold fury.
There is bitter resentment growing, shared by servicemen, past and present, and millions of civilians alike, that our armed forces are being tragically ill-served by their political masters in two nasty wars in which young men and women are dying with no obvious end in sight.
And this deep anger will mix with deep mourning for the man leading the Remembrance Sunday parade, former Royal Marine colour sergeant Alex Bentley, who knows the horror of seeing good men die in war.
Alex, 65, chairman of the Skipton and Craven branch of the Royal British Legion, will be the Parade Marshal again on Sunday. This year, though, he will be handling not just the parade, but also his own swirling emotions. And those include anger.
On this special day, he has remembered for many years the 16 comrades he lost in dirty little colonial wars in Malaya, Borneo and Aden as the final curtain came down on the British Empire. But this year, 10 more dead serviceman will be in his prayers – including a brave pilot who died with his crew because of Government penny-pinching Alex had known Flt Lt David Stead, the pilot of the RAF Galaxy shot down in Iraq, since he was a boy. His mother and Alex’s wife Shelagh were best friends and nurses together in Ilkley. Their children played together.
And, according to the angry coroner who held the inquest on the 10 servicemen who died, they could have survived if fire suppression foam had been fitted to the aircraft’s fuel tanks. But despite requests from senior RAF officers, the improvements were not made – allegedly to save costs.
Alex spoke in a cold, dispassionate voice, but you could see the pain in his eyes. “I know what it is like to lose friends in battle,” he said icily. “I know the pride of being a member of an elite body of fighting men. I understand the regimental spirit and how it hurts that spirit when you lose some of your colleagues.
“Sadly, there are very few politicians in Parliament or in local government these days who have ever experienced such emotions. If they had, they wouldn’t send young men out to die without proper equipment.
“It may be old-fashioned, but I am a patriot. I love Queen and country and what they stand for. I see little evidence that politicians feel the same way.”
As one might gather, Alex Bentley is a fighter, a battler for what he considers to be a great cause. He comes from farming stock in Silsden, although his father worked for the local council in Keighley. His life-long ambition was to go back to farming – but it was to be a long, winding road before he got there.
He served in the Special Boat Squadron of the Royal Marines – which at present is taking the brunt of the fighting on the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border – and later transferred to the Royal Artillery. When he came out of the Forces in 1987, he admits he went through a very bad patch.
“I got a train to Keighley and needed to catch a bus to Silsden, but I felt lost, abandoned,” said Alex. “I wandered round Keighley, not knowing where to go or what to do. I did all the wrong things: I started drinking heavily and could have gone all the way down, but Shelagh and the children pulled me round. A lot of ex-servicemen don’t get that support.”
A former Marine general he had served under got him a job with the British Sugar Corporation and from there he went into the veterinary medicine business. In the end, he got that farm he had always wanted – at Oughtershaw, near Buckden – and became a North Yorkshire county councillor.
But another campaign was looming: the battle to save Skipton Royal British Legion and, with it, the annual Remembrance Day parade.
He recalls: “I had been doing some welfare work for the Legion, visiting old servicemen with problems, when a meeting was called in Skipton to discuss the disbanding of the branch. Just four people turned up, but I said, ‘Let’s give it one more go,’ and from then on I got more and more involved.”
It was a long, hard struggle. The Skipton Town Band withdrew from the Remembrance Day parade so Alex helped found another with instruments “begged, borrowed and stolen” from old service colleagues.
Then there were problems with road closures. He had a stormy exchange with the chief constable – and the parade went ahead as usual.
This Sunday’s ceremony is very special, the 80th Poppy Day Parade to mark the million British and Commonwealth troops who died in the mud of Flanders in World War One, the 750,000 who followed them to the grave in World War Two, and the thousands who have died – and are still dying – for Queen and country.
Old soldier Alex Bentley will be on parade, in charge as usual. He hopes that hundreds of civilians turn up, not only to mourn the gallant dead, but to support the men and women once again laying their lives on the line a long way from home.
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