Evgeny Lebedev

Homeless Veterans Appeal: We must not forget our elderly veterans, who continue to battle on

The Independent Monday 8 December 2014

Of the 4.6m veterans who live in Britain, it is the elderly who often struggle terribly

“So what made you join the navy?” I ask.

There’s a brief silence. Clearly Albert Young hasn’t heard me. He is 95 years old and, though his mind is wide awake, his ears are temperamental. I lean in to ask again, this time a little louder, but his eyes light up with a mischievous disdain and I am interrupted.

“Why d’ya think? Because I wanted to go to sea.”

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On the wall behind Albert in his room at Erskine Home in Glasgow is a painting by his nephew, of the HMS Windsor, a Royal Navy Battleship active in the notorious Arctic Convoys. A solitary figure mans the Y-Gun at its rear. It’s Captain Young as a younger man.

Albert faced down quite unimaginable hardship more than once, on those brutal journeys round the Arctic Circle, going the long and hard way to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union. But he has now spent almost 70 years laughing about them, in his brutally matter-of-fact Glaswegian way.

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“We had no supplies for the way back. We lived for six weeks on custard and tea,” he says, a broad smile on his face. One such brew lives long in the memory.

“I went to make the tea in the galley one day. A great urn with the strainer right inside it. When I came to pour it out, the tea was purple. They all asked me, ‘Why’s the tea purple?’ I opened it up, and my balaclava was right there in the strainer. I don’t know how it got there. We laughed, but we all had to drink it.”

Now, Albert prefers pies. Those, and not drinking or smoking are, he claims, the secret to his longevity, but his height, or rather the lack of it, has helped too.

On one of his journeys back from Spitzbergen, his Y-gun position position took a direct hit. Had he stood just two inches above his diminutive 5ft7, he would certainly have died.

His neighbour down the hallway, 93-year-old Douglas Cameron, also smiles as he recalls the war. “We had three months training in Blackpool, then joined a company at the Holy Loch. There were battleships, destroyers, two big liners. It was a magnificent sight. I wanted on one of those liners, but no. We got on a small boat to Wales and spent weeks being shunted up and down.”

By the time he made it to Singapore, it had already been taken by the Japanese, so they moved on to Bombay and, later Burma where, in the middle of a jungle in a little tent, he had to have an hernia operation. “I remember a doctor asking me, ‘Were you the one who had the hernia operation?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘We operated on the wrong side’.”

Douglas then made his way to Assam to have it redone.

“They shall grow not old / as we that are left grow old.” Laurence Binyon’s memorable words have been heard more often than usual in this, the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, as a grateful nation has made so many moving efforts to dignify the millions of deaths for which we all owe the lives we live today.

But for all the millions who grew not old, there are many more who did.

Today 4.6m veterans live in Britain. Of these, it is those who are the most elderly who often struggle terribly, particularly when they have lost their family members and no longer have savings. A recent British Legion report found some 440,000 people in the elderly veterans community had to turn off their heating to save money. About 310,000 admitted to going without due to lack of funds, including not being able to keep their home free of damp or in good repair.

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DONATE NOW TO THE HOMELESS VETERANS APPEAL
TAKE PART IN OUR CHRISTMAS CHARITY AUCTION
EXPLORE THE CAMPAIGN SO FAR

That is why our Christmas appeal is supporting places like Erskine Home. It began in 1916, as The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, when it became obvious that existing hospital facilities simply couldn’t cope with the sheer number of men returning from the battlefields with their arms and legs missing.

Now, it specialises in providing a home for elderly veterans who can no longer live by themselves. Albert and Douglas are among the fortunate ones. At least two thirds of 376 veterans that live at Erskine are living with varying degrees of mental deterioration.

The two old servicemen both enthuse about life there being surrounded by other veterans; about the days out, to country parks and football matches. To provide them with this care – not only medical but physiological – Erskine House relies entirely on donations from bodies such as one of our appeal partner charities,ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

That is why I am delighted that, through The Soldiers’ Charity, the funds we raise as part of this appeal will be able to help support it in future.

“We must look after our veterans throughout their lives,” said Maj Gen Martin Rutledge from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. “We are here for the long haul. Erskine is a real demonstration of that – they offer these elderly veterans the care they deserve.”

The wreaths, the minute’s silences, that blood-red ocean of poppies at the Tower. How proud and humbled we have all been this year to honour the sacrifice of those who fought on our behalf. Your response to this paper’s acclaimed series, A History of the Great War in 100 Moments, exemplified that pride and humility.

Whatever the conflict, there is dignity in our remembrance of those who died at war. But we must not forget that there should be dignity for those who live on. Please donate generously.

Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter:  @mrevgenylebedev

For more information or to donate online, go to homelessveterans.co.uk