Monday, 26 March 2018

Britain, after all these years, still no country for old soldiers like Fergus Anckorn

Fergus or 'Gus' Anckorn, who has died at the age of 99, was a truly remarkable old man whose life in the 1940s, when he was in his twenties, was testimony to the triumph of his will over unimaginable wartime hardship and deprivation. It was also, although he never once complained, testimony the Britain's failure in peacetime in the 1940s and 50s to give him any help to put his damaged mind back together. What was true for Gus seventy years ago is sadly still true for contemporary 'old soldiers' in Britain today. Witness :

In 2007 'The Telegraph' ran an article entitled :
It reported that there were no dedicated mental health wards for Service personnel and
the number of troops who have committed suicide after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is equivalent to 10 per cent of deaths suffered on operations. Veterans said they were being failed by the authorities as they had to wait 18 months for treatment by an NHS psychiatrist as they were not given priority treatment.

In 2014 'The Telegraph' ran an article entitled :
Wounded soldiers failing to receive the care they are entitled to 
It highlighted a by Professor Tim Briggs that injured soldiers are being left to fend for themselves once their care passes from the Armed Forces and instead GPs should be specially trained to treat war veterans.

In 2017 'The Express' ran an article entitled :
It highlighted the the case of mentally traumatised war veterans are rotting on the streets of Britain because the Government is not adequately enforcing a law which states military heroes must be offered homes.

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Fergus was born with his twin sister in Dunton Green in Kent, in December 1918, just after the end of the First World War, at age 4 he was given a magic set by his mother and as a young boy would perform tricks at parties and by the time he was a teenager was a skilled performer who as 'Wizardus' became the youngest member of the Magical Circle at the age of 18.
After leaving school, he had taken a course in journalism, but despite the efforts of his father and brother continued to work at Marley Tile Company until being conscripted into the British Army and the Royal Artillery at the age of 20 in the Spring of 1939. He remained an enlisted man for the next seven years and three days and received his last Army-related medical care in 1962.

After the outbreak of the Second World War Fergus was posted to India with his Regiment, the 118th Field ,but was redirected to Singapore as re-enforcement for the troops there against the forces of Japan in 1941. He survived five days of combat and after the British Army surrendered Singapore was forced to endure almost four years of extreme hardship and sadistic torture as a POW working as a slave labourer on the Burma Railway.

During this time he :

* had his first experience of death when, at the age of 23, having docked in Singapore and under attack from the superior Japanese forces, he jumped into the water, while six of his friends, who sought shelter, were killed.

sustained serious injury to his hand when hit by a Japanese bomb blast and was shot in the back of the knee while escaping from his burning lorry and when found in a ditch was assumed to be dead and as a result his parents were told he had died in action.

* having found to be alive, was tended to and told his hand would have to be amputated when by chance, the orderly about to administer ether recognised him as a magician from England and told the surgeon to save his hand because he was a brilliant conjuror.

* woke up in another hospital to find his hand still there, but pouring with blood and the building under attack from the Japanese who were systematically bayoneting doctors, nurses and patients, yet miraculously survived what became known as 'The Alexandra Hospital Massacre.'

* recalled that he buried his head under his pillow, muttered to himself, "Poor Mum" and waited to die" and : “When the Japanese were two beds away from me I said to myself ‘I’m dead, it’s all over. I’ll never be 25’. I went into unconsciousness and woke up and everyone was dead but me. Apparently the tourniquet was no good, blood was still pouring out of me and when they came to bayonet me they saw all the blood and thought they’d already done it.”

* found that his hand remained clawed, but saved, after maggots had been introduced to devour the gangrene and that, with the wound in his knee, he could only walk with difficulty and could not participate in the heavy labour, such as repairing the Singapore docks or carrying heavy sacks of rice, but found a job trapping flies to help stop the spread of dysentery, for which he was paid 5 cents a day.

* was then interned with 15,000 men in Changhi Barracks, nicknamed 'The Black hole of Changhi' where he entertained the camp commandant with magic tricks and was able to secure extra food by using bananas and eggs as conjuring tools, knowing the Japanese refused to touch any food touched by a prisoner and recalled : "I was doing tricks with anything that would give me vitamins” and in addition : “We had 10 minutes breaks from work. I’d do magic and the guards would watch turning those breaks into 45 minutes, when my friends would be stealing potatoes from the Japanese stores."

* in 1943 was taken 'up-country' in a metal railway car and travelled five days and nights to build a railway from Bangkok to Burma where he worked for 18 hours a day in 110-120 degree temperatures, as a slave labourer on the Bridge On The River Kwai and was fed on a handful of rice a day and supplemented his diet with rats, cockroaches, maggots and slugs.

* had suffered from vertigo after being bombed and, on one occasion, working on the bridge : “I started climbing up there a leg at a time but when I got to the top I couldn’t open my eyes. I was just clinging to the bridge. The guard came up after me and threw my five gallons of creosote over me and I started to swell up like the Michelin Man. I ended up in the river but so badly burned I was taken away for treatment.”

* was sent to recover at another camp and as he said goodbye to his eight friends he realised that they would never meet again. : “Three weeks later they were all dead. If I hadn’t been burnt I would have been dead as well.”

* in the Chungkai Prison Camp in Bangkok, designated a 'hospital camp' for those coming from the railway and suffering from exhaustion, sickness or injury, worked preparing the dead for burial and on some days, would have prepared up to 15 bodies and forced himself to stay clean shaven, washed and kept active in order to keep his spirits up and, in addition, slept on top of the corpses to avoid sleeping in the mud.

* managed to keep a tiny photograph of himself and his fiancee back home, Lucille, throughout the
War and set it in a discarded wristwatch face and communicated that he was still alive to his wife Lucille and his Mother, on a rare card sent home by incorporating the shorthand characters for 'still smiling' into his signature on the understanding that she would recognise her nickname for him : "Smiler"

* had his final ordeal when he was about to be executed by guards after the Japanese surrender in 1945 who, fearing reprisal, changed their minds at the last moment.

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Fergus was liberated in September 1945. He weighed just five stone and was sent to Burma to put on weight before the slow boat journey home. He was 27 years old and, like his fellow brothers-in-arms, was condemned to spend years rebuilding his life in a Britain which had little time for heroes and wanted to forget forever the disaster that had been Singapore which Winston Churchill had described as the “largest capitulation.” With hindsight he was clearly and understandably suffering from post traumatic stress disorder,

Sixty-five years later Fergus was able to articulate his feelings when arriving home and in the years that followed to Peter Fyans in his 2012 book : 'Conjuror of the Kwai' :

* 'In the days that followed I really didn't think about things much, I just floated along and took everything in like a sponge. It took me a long time to feel that it was really over. All those years when, at any moment, they could kill you and all that time feeling constantly that something awful was about to happen. All those nights when, in accepting sleep, I had also accepted that I may not wake up again. Now, in my own home and in my home surroundings, no one was going to kill me. I would see tomorrow.'

* 'Unfortunately, just being amongst ordinary people again was a trial for me. I just couldn't identify with them and their busy lives. I felt so out of it that I didn't want to actually meet anybody and so at first I only went out in the dark or in the nearby wood for a walk in the daytime. If I saw someone coming, I'd turn round and go back the other way.'

* 'It was impossible to put it all behind me and blend in. I really couldn't accept that it was all over and there never seemed to be a way of telling people what it was that I and so many others had been through. Everybody at home was full of their own stories of hardship that they felt deeply - how could they ever understand what it was like for us ?'

* 'My elder sister was saying things like, 'I suppose you had plenty of fruit out these - we haven't seen a banana for years ! I didn't really respond. How could I explain the depths to which we'd been plunged ? How men would fight over the smallest scrap of food that might have dropped on the dusty of muddy floor. We had been worse than wild animals. I couldn't even begin to tell them, so I just sympathises with their plight and said little about my own.'

* 'When I left home, I was naive and unworldly in every way. Since then, I'd been though so much and seen so many unspeakable things, I was returning a different person. They could look at me but they couldn't see inside of me. They were simply glad to see me return home with all my limbs and still looking like the person they knew.'

* 'I don't think I was in touch with reality during that time. I was withdrawn, as if stunned by all the goings on around me. I would simple wander around, go into the woods that I loved and look at the trees. I would listen to the wind blow and once again gaze at the cloudscapes. I just felt so happy to be alive.'

* 'I was existing somewhere between the living and the dead. I didn't realise it then but these were typical of the feelings of all those who had returned, while others had not.'

* He ventured on a train to London and on visiting a Lyons Corner house cafe where 'There were the tables, all beautifully laid out with white table cloths. There was the glistening silver cutlery and sparkling clean crockery. I just sat there taking it all in- dumbstruck, like a child again, filled with the wonder of this unbelievable sight. Then, gently, the orchestra struck up with Jerome Kern's Long Ago and Far Away, and that was it.My head went down into my hands and I began to sob. I just wouldn't stop. I just sobbed and sobbed.'

* 'It was all too much. Everything was so fine and so clean and the music so beautiful. Somehow, at that moment, all of the past four years seemed to explode out of me. Things I had kept within myself now impinged themselves upon my mind and tore at my feelings with a vengeance. I realised, on seeing that orchestra perform, how much I had taken it upon myself to entertain my fellows in the camps and keep spirits up. I had been the smiler, the positive one encouraging others, ignoring my own feelings and saying how things weren't that bad or how they would get better. Now, it seemed, the grief of it all hit me, all at once, here in a Lyons' Corner House. Not the best place to fall apart, but that's what happened.'

* 'On another day, I had tried taking myself up to London again and arrived at Charing Cross Station. Suddenly, I didn't know who I was or what I was doing there. The funny thing was - it didn't bother me in the slightest. I seemed to be possessed with a private euphoria at being alive and free.'

* His father met him and took him home 'But going into the house, i found I didn't know where my bedroom was anymore. Eventually, I found it, and for the rest of the day, I went about the house pretending nothing was wrong and believing my memory would come back. But it went on like that for days. The odd thing was that nobody else in the family noticed anything or thought anything was wrong. Life went on as normal. Once again, I was dealing with something privately. Only I should know about it.'

Because of the medical complications Fergus had accrued through his years of maltreatment it was to be another 6 years before he was discharged from the Army in 1952. In addition to serious amoebic dysentery and hookworm 'after a medical check they suspected that I had all sorts of residual infections, including TB, and also found liver complications which I knew was thanks to a rifle butt bashing in one of the camps.' He was eventually discharged with an Army pension based on 'effects of malnutrition and privation; injury to right wrist; injury to left knee; ancyclostomiasis and amoebic dysentery.' Every year until 1962, he had a annual stay in hospital to monitor and treat his conditions.

In the 1950s Fergus picked up the threads of his old life and returned to his job for Marley Tiles where he worked for six years before moving into teaching at West Kent College. He also became a semi-professional magician who was booked and rebooked many times for prestigious venues and tv and led to him becoming, in 1986, a member of the Inner Magic Circle with Gold Star. But it wasn't until he was 87 years old in 2005, that he revisited Singapore and finally laid his remaining demons to rest.

Apart from relying on his own resources, Fergus also owed a large share of his recovery to his wife, Lucille.

'She never pressed me on anything and I felt no need to talk about what happened to me. While I was with her, everything was alright and she knew just how to handle the moods I might find myself in. She would simply take over when there were details to be dealt with - details that to me always seemed so unnecessary and that could easily make me fly off the handle. I was just happy to be alive and to know that nobody was going to kill me today.'

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