How my Iraq war mirrored my great-grandad's Battle of the Somme

Here he reflects on how similar his military service was to his great-grandfathers’ 100 years ago.

I was medically discharged in January 2014, aged 27.

I left the army kicking and screaming.

Nothing prepares you for what to do after the experience of war.

I don’t think I ever truly readjusted.

The colours to which I had become accustomed suddenly burst on to my senses when I returned home – I was overwhelmed with how green and wet everything was, compared to the dry and drab shades I’d been living under.

Instead of agonising over thoughts of cheese and fresh bread, people acted as if the world were ending if their WiFi dropped out.

I had never before appreciated how clean everything is in the UK.

All I could do was concentrate on getting my fitness back under control and into better condition, using the advice my doctors had given me.

I wondered whether directionless sense I had was the same feeling my great-grandfather had when he returned after the Great War.

Being a solider is in my blood – both my great-grandfathers served as soldiers.

Like many people, I never met either of them, but I have the black and white pictures to remember them by.

In July 1916, great-grandad William Doyle was gassed in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme.

He was invalided out of the army almost immediately, but sadly he died soon afterwards.

My other great-grandfather, Robert Rodgers, was hit in the stomach with shrapnel – apparently on the twelfth day of the same battle.

He barely survived, but managed to serve the rest of his time in the war.

He lived with his injuries for the rest of his life – to say nothing of the mental scars he bore too.

Hearing these stories injected more colour to the inaccessible picture I had of the war and the army – and inspired me to carry on their legacy.

I was 16 when left my little mining town near Sunderland to join the Army College Foundation.

I did 42 weeks of basic training there and also got NVQ skills to bring my academic grades up.

Three years later, I was deployed in a peacekeeping role to Iraq with the Light Dragoons.

Nineteen-years-old, straight out of training, my confidence was overflowing.

How misguided I was. Nothing prepared me for what I would witness.

Seeing people at their lowest ebb, soldiers weary, families trying to make a living, to scratch out an existence for themselves from a country that’s been completely destroyed by war.

Was the culture shock this immense for Doyle and Rodgers all those years ago?

After six months, I returned home for a period. All my mother could do was stare at me as I sat in the living room.

She said I had changed.

That I’d gone away a 19-year-old lad, and returned a man.

After Iraq came the tour in Afghanistan, where I was to be conducting reconnaissance patrols.

It’s days and days of working in flat nothingness.

In the desert wilderness, there is nothing else to look at but rock.

Little things I took for granted back home – like not having to eat out of bags, or using a proper toilet – seemed worlds and lifetimes away.

The sandy khaki colour of the landscape seemed to infect everything we owned – dusting our clothes, and clouding our minds.

In 2009 I lost friends.

The bond you share with fellow comrades is like nothing else, and losing them was a life-changing experience.

I wondered if this was how great-grandad Doyle’s companions had felt upon learning of his death back in 1916.

Shortly afterwards, a small split in my bowel caused the onset of sepsis and went into septic shock.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I got an infection of the bowel called ulcerative colitis, which made me drop from 16 stone to 9 stone.

What followed was two weeks of unbelievable stress – I had to help my friends pack up their kit and get vehicles ready for patrols that doctors had forbidden me to go on.

After I was medically discharged my path has continued to echo that of my great-grandfather.

I knew that he joined the British Legion in 1921 when it was first started.

I knew I had to carry that legacy on too.

Not just the one he started fighting for our country, but the one he began when he developed our family’s relationship with the Legion.

Every year, I go out with the Legion to sell poppies. I’m constantly amazed at how many other stories you encounter when people buy them.

You hear about what happened to your great-grandparents, your friends, you. And it is all represented in this little flower.

I’ll be taking my 19-month-old boy Johnathan along with me this year to the commemorations – something he’ll do every year.

And as we stand silently with British Legion in contemplation 100 years on, I hope he will remember those stories of men on horseback with their guns held high – and say thank you to my two great-grandfathers.

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