A Long Long War by Mark Barnes

I didn’t like all of it and to be frank, I thought it could have been a bit tighter in places and a little more slick

A LONG LONG WAR – Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland 1969-1998

By Ken Wharton

Let’s get things straight, from the outset this book is anything but classic literature. It is often a difficult read because of the matter-of-fact, laconic story telling of the people it is about. The almost constant stepping stone hop from tragedy to tragedy can wear down the hardiest soul. I often needed breaks to recharge my emotional batteries. Some of the accounts made me very angry, some made me smile. On the whole the experience left me feeling incredibly sad on one level and on another, immensely proud. This book is a monument to the British Army.

Ken Wharton makes no attempt to hide his bias or his love for the subjects of an often visceral testament of recollections of the life of British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998. It pulls no punches and asks for no quarter. There is no room for gung-ho daring do and action packed contacts are rare. The day to day grind of men forming the meat in an unpalatable politico-religious sandwich fills the menu. This does not make for light reading.

I’m not going to repeat accounts and fill my review with easy padding. I’d rather you read the bloody book for yourselves. I didn’t like all of it and to be frank, I thought it could have been a bit tighter in places and a little more slick. But this would have detracted from the honesty of the package. There is no gloss, no cleverness; just plain honest to goodness story telling by the men themselves. One of the clever writers; Hastings or Holmes, once said that British soldiers have an unerring eye for detail, and here the skill stands out.

The book concludes with an appreciation of sorts of the British Army’s time in Northern Ireland, warts and all. It made mistakes and overdid some things. It was ill-equipped and ill-trained in the early years. It was human. There is a roll call of the dead, a sobering list of names, some occasionally well known; but for the most part anonymous. The author seeks to correct the “official” roll call of men and women killed on active service to include a surprising number who have slipped through the MoD’s net. This seems to me to be a colossal insult which needs to be put right.

If you served in Ulster you will recognise the stories in this book as being your own and if you didn’t, like me, you will want to empathise in spades. But, like the whole saga of Northern Ireland, nothing is ever so simple. I have been roundly biased in favour of the British soldier since I was a lad. I was one for a time and I count myself proud to have an eight figure number in common with the men in this book. Other stories from Iraq and Afghanistan may fill the book sales charts and make for tabloid heaven. A Long, Long War was just that, not a snapshot or sound bite, but a feat of endurance.

Published by Helion
ISBN 978 1 906033 18 7

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.