It wasn't that Jack had ever wanted to be a soldier. It was not something he chose from a range of professions. It was simply that Jack was born into an area where poverty and hardship were the norm, where the only choice for the boys who left school was either to slave in the local coal mines, or to join one of the armed services. So when Jack left school at the tender age of fourteen, as children were allowed to do in those far off days, he worked in the dirt and blackness for two long years, until he was finally old enough to join the Royal Marines, a uniform which he wore with pride for the next twenty two years.
This was perhaps the happiest time of Jack's life. He was among comrades, travelling the world, the British Empire still a force to be respected and reckoned with. He saw the Far East, and the Mediterranean. He served ashore and on ships. He was by and large as content as a young man could be.
But then dark clouds gathered on Jack's horizon. Perhaps he guessed what was to happen, perhaps not, but he and so many more young men were to become part of a great conflict as a madman preached his hatred at Nuremberg and the great powers of Europe armed themselves for war for the second time in less than a generation. Many of these young men, on both sides, would never go back to their homelands, and many returned crippled in mind and body. Jack was one of the lucky ones, but before the end he saw horror that stayed with him for his entire life.
Those who have been to war rarely glorify it. Only those who sit at home, and never see the death and despair of it believe that war is glorious. Jack would rarely talk about it afterwards. What little is known about his own struggle was gleaned from him over many years, a few words at a time.
Jack and some of his comrades were sent to an island, a beautiful sun kissed island in a tideless sea, where according to legend two men had once flown on wings made of feathers and wax, and where a monster with the head of a bull roared and slaughtered innocents in a labyrinth until a hero slew it.
The job of Jack and his friends was to help to defend this island. There was an airfield there, which the enemy wanted badly. To defend it, there were troops from several nations, and a small contingent of Royal Marines to man the anti aircraft batteries.
The enemy did come. They came, in fact, in a way which made history, for they launched what was the first airborne invasion of an island. There were no landing craft, they did not storm any beaches, this was not Iwo Jima or Normandy, they came much later in this conflict. Here the invaders came in slow lumbering planes full of paratroops, and huge wooden gliders stuffed with soldiers. These were easy targets for Jack and his friends. The shells split the planes and gliders apart and bodies fell out like black rain, hurtling earthward. But as many as they stopped, many more got through, and parachutes drifted down like giant snowflakes, often with dead men hanging from the harnesses in bloody rags as they were shot in the air.
More and more men the enemy threw into the fight, combined with bombing from their own planes. Eventually the allied forces were forced to retreat, to leave the airfield where so many had died, and to head south, across the island, to where ships were waiting to evacuate them to safety.
Jack told of the trip across the island, the convoys of lorries full of frightened and often wounded men. He told of hitching the gun to a jeep and running past the convoy, stopping ahead, unlimbering, and then the thud, thud, thud of the Bofors gun as they tried desperately to fight off the planes that bombed and strafed the convoys relentlessly, hitching the gun back up again to race along past the lumbering trucks and stop and fire again and again.
At last they reached the beaches at the far side of the island, only to find that the last ship had gone. Thousands were left stranded. There was only one thing that they could possibly do, and they were ordered to surrender. Patiently they waited for the enemy to arrive and to take them prisoner. Unfortunately, the enemy was unaware that they wanted to surrender, and the Stukas screamed out of a perfect sky to sow death along the crowded beaches, scattering body parts far and wide as many died on the blood sodden sands. Again Jack was one of the lucky ones, he escaped without a scratch, but this carnage was too much even for him. He went behind a large rock on the shore, and was violently sick. When he next looked up, it was into the barrel of a rifle. Jack's war was over. He spent the next four years as a prisoner, and was demobbed when he returned to England.
Soon after this war, he married a nurse who knew a little about warfare herself as he had served in a hospital in London throughout the blitz years. They had a single child, a son.
Jack passed away in 1988, from cancer, and all that is left of him are a few medals and fading photographs. His son keeps the medals safe. They are campaign medals, not awarded for gallantry. Jack was not a hero, he was just an ordinary man in extraordinary times who did the best that he could.
One day, when the son himself is old, the medals will be returned to the Royal Marines Regimental Museum for safekeeping. Jack's grandchildren have no interest in them, to them this war is ancient history with no bearing on their own lives.
Every year the old men who fought in that war march proudly in remembrance of their fallen comrades, and every year there are fewer of them. One day there will be none left alive who served at that pivotal point of history. They will leave an inheritance of freedom and democracy which will so easily be taken for granted by those who succeed them.
You who read this, next time you buy a poppy, wear it with pride that men thought enough of your future to die for it. Remember Jack, and the thousands less lucky than him who did not return to another life. You are their legacy.