British soldiers on North: The locals ‘hated us with a vengeance’

TV Review: Squaddies on the Frontline hears of soldiers’ boredom, public hatred and low morale

Squaddies on the Frontline tells the story of the British Army's experience during the Troubles. Video: BBC Northern Ireland

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There’s a fascinating account of an early training exercise during the absorbing documentary Squaddies on the Frontline (BBC One, Wednesday, 9pm), one that provides a revealing and grimly comic moment in a documentary that is otherwise light on humour. In a mock-up of a Northern Irish neighbourhood, known as “Tin City”, one regiment practices subduing guerrilla combat while a rival regiment of squaddies pretend to be the civilians, lashing out at a detested military presence with real gusto.

“It was quite a bit of fun,” a soldier recalls, “particularly for the soldiers playing the civilian population.” Perhaps that’s true; it’s all fun and games until more than a thousand people lose their lives.

But this exercise in play-acting seems to be about as close as the deployments come to seeing things from the other side, given simple ideas of their mission (“We were told it was just a few nutters,” one says of the paramilitaries), or developing awed ideas of local enmity: “Whole communities were our enemies, they hated us with a vengeance.”

Squaddies on the Frontline, on the other hand, very effectively provides us with the perspective of these “ordinary rank soldiers”, mostly young recruits who joined the army for reasons either passionate or banal - “It’s a job at the end of the day” - and found themselves serving as part of Operation Banner, which began as an emergency response to the Bogside War, in 1969, and over almost 40 years became the longest operation in the history of the British Army.

What registers more than the daily contempt the soldiers encountered is their visceral surprise at receiving it: covered, he recalls, head to toe in phlegm, a touchingly naïve Gus Hales remembers thinking, “They don’t like me”.

Another vivid sensation, which the documentary is wise to include, is their utter boredom. Barely informed about the point of their deployment - “To keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom,” summarises General The Lord Dannett, top brass and notably upper class - they describe endless patrols, being confined to their barracks, watching MTV and porn, getting pissed or stoned, sleeping irregularly, losing morale, gathering in dread.

“Why are we here? What are we achieving?” the bluff Glaswegian Michael Pike describes his response to the Hunger Strikes, remembering during its nerve-scrambling unrest, “good friends cocking weapons at each other”.

One subtly affecting manoeuvre of directors and producers Vinny Cunningham and John Peto is to film these retired soldiers as though they were looking directly into the camera, which is to say, directly at you. War demands dehumanisation on both sides, pitching “nutters” against “paras”, but listening restores that humanity.

A bleak statistic records that the army killed 305 people during the Troubles and that 720 of its soldiers were killed. The last of these, Bombardier Stephen Restorick, was shot by an IRA sniper during the political stasis of the 1994 ceasefire. “I have absolutely no idea what we achieved, if anything, apart from [to] divide and cause animosity,” says Pike. “Typical Britain. Sledgehammer tactics.” Not everyone assesses the legacy of Operation Banner as bitterly, but like Pike, at this far remove from the role-play of Tin City, most people have learned to see it from a different perspective.

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