Martin Bell / Image contributed
The Suffolk Regiment was one of the great infantry regiments of the British Army. It finally disappeared, after 274 years of continuous service in 1959, after a service with distinction through two world wars and in many other conflicts including Cyprus. Martin did his national service with the regiment in its final years and his latest book, End of Empire, serves as a worthy tribute about the regimental swansong spent on a tiny island fighting a conflict which people today still know very little about. Originally intended as a personal memoir, what we can now read is the story of the Suffolk Regiment via a period of active engagement by a man who has continued his close association with what he calls “the 12th of foot.” Indeed, as you study the Suffolk Regiment Museum vitrines displaying artefacts from the regiments final tour of duty in Cyprus, look closely and among them you will find photographs taken by a young Bell during his time in the Intelligence Service. Taken for press purposes, they are of a young recruit called Tim Davis and Tim is now one of the museums senior volunteers after an illustrious 26 year career in the Army which saw him rise to the rank of Sergeant Major.
The Suffolk Regiment Museum and Friends was established in what was once the officers mess inside the red-brick Keep at Gibraltar Barracks. The museum documents over 274 years of military history and provides a vital contextual backdrop for modern day military conflict. Located on the Newmarket Road and next to the West Suffolk College which was built upon its once very extensive grounds, little remains of the original army depot which was originally built in 1878. Enter the museum and you will see the original site maps, tracing the former location of parade grounds and infirmaries, office buildings, munitions, vegetable patches and the extensive cellars which have not been explored to date.
(Exterior of the Suffolk Regimental Museum)
The Suffolk Regiment was formed in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment and include men from Norfolk and Suffolk, although the next century saw more of a Norfolk influence than a Suffolk one. The Regiment already possessed informal links with the Suffolk Militia and tended to depend upon them for new recruits but eventually the Cardwell reforms of 1873 formally recognised these links.
Cambridgeshire was then added to the recruiting area and the Depot of the Regiment was established at Bury St Edmunds where the barracks to house the Depot was built in 1878. However, the title of The Suffolk Regiment had been conferred earlier in 1881 and the West Suffolk Militia and The Cambridgeshire Militia became the third and fourth Battalions, respectively. By the end of the century, 90% of regimental men came from Suffolk whilst the forerunner of the Territorial Army, the Territorial Force, was formed in 1908. This strengthened county links, establishing the fourth Battalion throughout East Suffolk and the fifth Battalion in West Suffolk.
Martin Bell served as a soldier in Cyprus between 1957 and 1959 and a few years ago, as he rummaged through his attic, he rediscovered a chocolate box filled with more than one hundred letters written to his family by him whilst in service. Although he was not a journalist at that point, the letters appear to hint at his future profession because they serve as a subjective war report, giving valuable insights into the life of a young conscript, serving in a conflict that was poorly understood and sparsely covered by the British press. Those letters went on to underpin End of Empire and their descriptions of explosions and terrorism, cordons, searches, interrogations, and riots in the face of a repressive military response with roots in our old colonial history demonstrate why the strategy was doomed to failure. Hearts and minds this was not as EOKA fighters (Εθνική Οργάνωσις Κυπρίων Αγωνιστών / National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) were treated like heroes and fêted on the streets of Nicosia which, to this day, remains a divided city.
Bell ended up falling out with his Regimental Sergeant Major but he acknowledges that a great deal of his National Service was ‘on the sunny side of tolerable’ and he received an education which was not only the best he had (even in the light of going up to Cambridge shortly after) but imbued him with a pride which has not faded as the years have passed. This is clearly apparent when I asked him about what audiences might expect when they come to see him at the Theatre Royal:
“I wrote this book about my time with the Suffolk Regiment at the very end of their tour,” he says.
” I had the idea to perhaps raise money for the theatre itself and to talk about the book and when I said “can I bring my band?”…They said, ‘band?’ and I replied, ‘of course I’ve got a band.’ I’m the president of the Suffolk’s concert band which inherits the traditions of the music of the Suffolk Regiment,” he added. “It’s going to be a mixture; I’m going to talk a bit and play some music, mainly military stuff and we’re going to recall the glory days of one of the finest regiments in the British Army.”
Bell is the son of ruralist writer Adrian Bell who lived and farmed in various locations in the county from Hundon and Bradfield St George to Beccles and he sent his son to school in Cambridge. The Suffolk’s were his local regiment when it came to the obligatory period of National Service that all healthy young men were required to submit to.
“In those days we had an army of 400,00 thousand strong and when I was eighteen years of age, a draft letter arrived requiring me to report to the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds on a certain day in June 1957 and serve two years with the Suffolk Regiment,”he said.
After his demob, he went up to Kings College, Cambridge where he read English, gaining a first class degree, and then joined the BBC as a reporter in Norwich in 1962, following his graduation at the age of twenty four. Three years later Bell transferred to London and covered his first foreign assignment in Ghana. The next thirty years saw him covering eleven conflicts globally, from Angola and Rwanda to the Middle East, a career that many might say was usefully underpinned by a peripatetic period of National Service.
The Cyprus conflict seems to be a forgotten conflict, I say. So much of what happened there sounds pretty horrific and it also sounds familiar, reminiscent of the conflicts we face today. What can we learn from it?
“I think we have some lessons to learn from it. It’s a forgotten episode of our history, towards the end of empire. We had 35,000 soldiers deployed in Cyprus, it was on rather a large scale and in and around Nicosia, the capital, we had four or five battalions. There were lots of us,” Bell replied.
“I was very fortunate that when I got to write the book I went through the National Archives and all the top secret documents of the time- exchanges between the governor and the colonial office- had been recently declassified and now we can tell the whole story. It’ s not something of which we can be especially proud although I think we soldiers did pretty well.”
That’s often the case isn’t it? The actions of those who execute the decisions of those in power tend to be ‘better’ than those of the decision makers
“That’s very true. I wouldn’t say that in the end we were successful. We held the line against the rebels of this organisation called EOKA, the National Association of Cypriot Fighters, until a constitutional compromise could be arranged and Cyprus could become independent but of course the independence didn’t hold and 14 years on the Turks invaded and Cyprus has been conflicted and divided ever since. So I don’t think we can put it down as one of Britain’s success stories.”
Is it true that some of the EOKA fighters are sueing the British government?
“Yes there are veterans who are, some were EOKA fighters , others were detained by the British under emergency powers and others, they are threatening legal action. They’ve been in contact with me but I said that I was was never more than a low grade operative: I was never more than an acting sargeant and what they were complaining about were interrogation techniques, especially, but these were usually done not by the army but by Special Branch.”
What was it like going up to Cambridge after doing your national service?
“I think that what happened, those two years, were the best education I’ve ever had. Better than three years at Kings College Cambridge. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get out of the army and my views were very much like those of the late great Peter Ustinov who served as a private soldier and said that he hated the army like poison but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. So I felt much the same.”
From time to time we hear calls for National Service to be brought back and championed as some kind of cure for crime and youthful miscreancy. One imagines that there was no crime at all during the period of history that it was in force, if we listen to the extravagant claims made for its return. Should we bring back National Service?
“I deal with this in my closing chapter of my book and I say there might some be a case for some form of civic or voluntary service but it could not be brought back in the form in which we experienced it because todays generation just would not stand for it,” Bell counters.
“We were much more deferential, that generation. When our Sergeant Major said jump, we jumped. I think today they would say ‘why?’. I think even my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who is still alive at the age of 97 would not not be able to tear young people away from their Ipads. We did what we were told. It did us a lot of good but I don’t think its realistic to dream about bringing it back.”
Would you say that our sentimentality about the army risks masks the reality of an underfunded service where the mental health of veterans and serving soldiers is neglected?
“I am a supporter of Combat Stress and I think the armed services have turned a corner on this. I think they know it is out there and they are trying to erase any stigma attached to it. But we know that between the original bruising of the mind, usually in active service, and a soldier coming forward for treatment, there’s an average gap of twelve years. It’s no longer viewed as it used to be and it is viewed now as a hazard of service. Of course there have been many obviously life changing injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan but a soldier who has PTSD may not necessairly know it at that time,”said Bell.
You must have seen and been involved in events that many would find traumatising? What psychological support have you received from the BBC, I ask.
“None at all” he says emphatically. “But they did summon me to see the doctor now and again to see if I was okay but I have just been relatively lucky in that all my nightmares have not been about the wars I have been in but about losing my bags at Heathrow – much more mundane,” he laughs. Bell seems to come from a time when it was not done to seek counselling or expect it although he is not that much older than I am.
Martin Bell stood for election in 1997 as an Independent candidate on an anti-sleaze ticket against the sitting MP, Neil Hamilton. I ask him about his subsequent election and time as an Independent MP. I can imagine him taking a keen interest in the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader and the problems that arise when the party rhetoric is defied by Labour party members and some of its own MPs.
“It’s still unrealistic to be elected as an Independent. There was only two of us, three of us in the last 15 years but what is happening now, I have noticed, is that there are many more independent minded MPs being elected and I welcome that, although it would be imposssible for the new Labour leader to insist on blind loyalty since he was a serial rebel himself. And no Labour leader has ever been elected to rebel against his own party so things are changing fast.”
Do you think we’ll ever have a crusading government, a government properly concerned with raising standards in their own house?
“I think it is important that the regulation of the House of Commons should be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons,” Bell is firm about this.
“And by the way, this [issue of expenses and MPs self regulation] has been going on nearly 20 years now. They are incapable of regulating themselves and lessons have to be learned. Another thing, in the interests of MPs if they are accused of some wrongdoing, we seem to have a Gentleman’s Club looking after itself. If they had a proper regime of external regulation, that would be better for them and better for us,” he said.
Returning to the subject of his recent book, The End of Empire, I ask Bell about the writing itself and the research involved which appears extensive.
How long did the book take?
“It was a fun book to write and I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I discovered the letters in my attic at the beginning of last January (2014) and it was in the hands of the publishers by December.”
I’m intrigued by Bell’s account of another book about the Cyprus conflict called The Flaming Cassock. In End of Empire, Bell describes its author as “the most remarkable soldier I served under…who should have commanded the Battalion but did not” and a soldier whose command enhanced the Suffolk’s reputation for steadiness under the direst of circumstances.
“It was written by one of our officers, a wonderful man called Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Campbell who had already written a bestseller about the Malayan emergency of 1950 titled Jungle Green,” Bell told me.
“He was commissioned by Field Marshal Sir John Harding to write a book about what Harding thought was a winning campaign and it very nearly was. Then in December 57, Harding was succeeded by Sir Hugh Foot who was not a soldier but a conciliator and he thought that this book which by then was finished would be an impediment to a settlement so he ordered it to be suppressed.”
Foot’s reputation was as a liberal administrator and it was certainly hoped that he could play an important part in setting Cyprus on the road to self government within the Commonwealth. This in itself was very important because according to the Sandy’s Defence White Paper, Britain would no longer be able to maintain a large enough presence on the island to retain it by force. Foots attempts to conciliate a settlement that pleased both Athens and Ankara resulted in Cyprus descending into a downwards spiral of violence as the two communities railed against each other. It is clear, in retrospect, why the decision to redact Flaming Cassocks was made, regardless of the rightness of such a decision.
Bell is convinced of the importance of the book to future narratives of Cyprus and its bloody history.
“It [the book] has been resting under lock and key until I got it under the Freedom of Information in July 2014. It’s a marvellous story of the campaign against EOKA by a soldier with a real flair for language. And I think that if we can get it published it will be as important a contribution to the literature of Cyprus as Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons.”
Three copies are believed to have survived according to Bell’s book. Two are held in the National Archives at Kew whilst the third is an unedited text subjected to a sixty year gagging order meaning that it will be available to read after 2022. There is also an earlier draft which has been redacted under an eighty year restriction. The reasons for their suppression aren’t strikingly obvious considering the book was a commission from the governor, intended for publication as opposed to a sensitive government document, according to Bell. The file of documents relating to its suppression is over an inch thick apparently.
Are publishers interested in the book, I ask?
“We have only just started finding out because for a start we couldn’t find the family of Campbell because of course the copyright lies with them.
“Arthur Campbell died in about 1992/3 and we’re looking for the family now” Bell replies.
It is to be hoped that Campbell’s descendants are swiftly traced and agree to the books re-issuing. What seems to be clear is that between its pages lie a considerable contribution to not only the history of Cyprus but of British military engagement too.