The new Tory MP for Plymouth, Johnny Mercer, was until recently an officer in the elite Royal Horse Artillery, leading a fire support team in Afghanistan.
On one fateful day, he and his men were caught in a Taliban ambush. It led to the death of LBdr Mark Chandler..
Mark’s story appears in Graham Bound’s recent book AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN, and Johnny Mercer was one of the interviewees.
Here’s the chapter in question, which I think you may find moving.
LANCE BOMBARDIER MARK CHANDLER
D BATTERY, 3RD REGIMENT ROYAL HORSE ARTILLERY
APRIL 26, 1977 – JUNE 8, 2010
FATE IS A CRUEL and fickle mistress, and never more so than for soldiers in time of war: she makes eternal brothers of men, and then rips them apart on the merest whim.
LBdr Mark ‘Bing’ Chandler, Cpl Shaun ‘Baz’ Barrowcliff and Capt Johnny Mercer were three such brothers. Ignoring the niceties of rank, in the heat and fire of Afghanistan these men forged a bond – as a fire support team that was often danger-close with the enemy – that could never be broken.
And yet it was shattered in a moment by a Taliban bullet.
Mark Chandler (right), with Johnny Mercer, centre, and Baz Barrowcliff
For most who join the Army it is the realisation of a childhood dream. Mark Chandler was different. He had never considered a life in green until he turned twenty-five. He was perfectly content with his life as a welder in the picturesque Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, and had just bought a house with his girlfriend. A happy-ever-after ending beckoned.
‘His ambition,’ said his mother, Ann, ‘was to be a married man with 2.4 children, a dog and a cat, and a house with an apple tree. Just like anyone else.’
But then Mark’s girlfriend decided she wanted to go to Australia for a year, on her own.
‘He said, “If that’s all you feel about our relationship, we’ll sell the house and you can go,”’ said his father, Mike. ‘He came back to live with us, and then one day he came home from work and said, “I know what I’m going to do, I’m joining the Army.” We were amazed. We’d never seen any hint of that.’
The following year, Mark was a member of D Battery 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery – the RHA comprising the elite regiments of the Royal Artillery – where he had acquired the nickname ‘Bing’, after the character Chandler Bing in the TV sitcom Friends, and had fitted into military life as though to the manner born.
‘He never looked back,’ said Mike. ‘And going into the Army changed him. I remember looking at him as we took him to the station once, and you could just tell he was a soldier. D Battery Royal Horse Artillery is a very professional unit and a close-knit family, and it can be difficult to become quickly accepted, but Mark was instantly popular. Everyone said he was always on top of his game. He’d needed more structure in his life, and the Army gave it to him. He needed something to aim for, and the Army also gave him that.’
Mark had a ‘best book’ – a diary that recruits were encouraged to keep in training, in which he recorded his private thoughts and feelings. In one entry, read by his parents after his death, he wrote, I think about home and my friends, but I’m not at all homesick. In another, he talked about meeting up with his ex-girlfriend for a drink one night. She still goes on about how great I am, he said, so why did we split up? I don’t know. But I’m not regretting what I’m doing now. I’m still feeling good about the change of lifestyle.
The change of lifestyle included learning winter sports – he became an excellent skier, and was the British Army luge champion two years running – and taking more pride in his appearance.
‘He stopped being slouchy,’ said Ann. ‘I’d do his ironing for him when he was home, and he’d panic about “tramlines” – two creases in a trouser leg, instead of one. They get hauled over the coals for that. I’d say, “You can do it if you like,” but he’d say, “No, mum, you do it… Just be careful.”’
Their son hadn’t had the easiest time at school. ‘His IQ was fine,’ said Mike, ‘but he had a type of word blindness. It wasn’t dyslexia, but, as the experts put it, they had to teach him a new language. We hadn’t noticed because his older brother, Stephen, did all the talking for him. He went to a special school for a couple of terms, and at the end of that we wouldn’t have been able to guess there’d been anything wrong with him. They did a very good job.’
There was a hidden silver lining to this. ‘His homework took him longer than it did other children,’ said Ann. ‘I used to say, “You can go out and play, and you’ll end up being kept back a year, or you can do your homework and stay with your mates.” So from the age of about six, he got used to having to work, and that he never lost that work ethic.’
Mark was never clingy; indeed, while in basic training, Ann was shocked to receive a Mother’s Day card from her son – the first she could remember him giving her – but, under close questioning, he confessed sheepishly that it had been posted on the orders of his instructing NCOs. And once he had arrived at 3 RHA in Hohne, Germany, months could go by without his parents hearing from him. It didn’t mean he didn’t care – he loved them deeply. He just didn’t feel the need to say so every day.
‘Now and then he’d call, and say, “I’m sorry for not ringing more often, mum,”’ said Ann. ‘I’d say, “As long as you’re fine, that’s okay.” When he was based in Germany, there was a whole year when we didn’t see him. He called to ask if we would mind if he stayed away over Christmas and went skiing. I said, “No, you carry on.”
‘Whenever we did see him, he’d mostly talk about the Army, and his mates. Like the lad who ran off with a Russian prostitute… Mark said he’d rather have the military police chasing him than the Russian mafia!’
But when it mattered, Mark was there. While he was in Hohne, his mother discovered she had cancer.
‘I rang him one morning to tell him about his mum’s diagnosis,’ said Mike. ‘He sounded a bit non-committal, but at about five that afternoon the phone rang, and it was Mark, at Cheltenham station, wanting a lift. He’d told his RSM about Ann, and they’d given him immediate compassionate leave. Within half an hour, he was heading for Hanover airport. He was a very compassionate chap. He was always good with us, and never caused us any trouble at all.’
In his early days in the RHA, he was assigned for over two years as driver to the-then CO, Lt Col Ian Bell. Bell, later promoted to full colonel, and now working in a senior ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance] role with UK land forces, remembers a ‘very impressive’ soldier.
‘Mark was a quiet, mature and steady person who did what he thought was right,’ said Col Bell. ‘I considered him a friend. I saw him several times after leaving the regiment, and it was always great to bump into him and catch up. Had he still been around in ten years’ time, I’m sure we would have met at reunions, had a beer, and talked about our families.
‘He was my driver in Germany, but also a bit of a fixer. He would stay in the background so people didn’t notice him doing anything, but he had a really excellent knack of making sure that things happened for me and the RSM. It helped that he was mature and slightly older than most of the other guys. I appreciated what he did, and I trusted him implicitly. He knew my family, too, and he was the only person that my wife trusted to drive her and the kids when they needed a lift.
‘He had a great ability to engage with life to full. He stopped others sitting around the barracks. When he had time off, he’d often take young soldiers away to various parts of Germany to do things. I thought he was very impressive, such that, when I left the regiment, we were looking at different career paths that might better utilise his talents. We looked particularly at the fire support teams, which was in fact what he went to do. He was absolutely the sort of soldier who was required in that high-pressure environment.’
It had rapidly become clear that Mark Chandler’s early educational problems were not a brainpower issue. Calling down air or artillery fire under fire is a demanding task, and not one for those who do not possess an agile mind which functions well under the most severe pressure.
‘That job combines the ability to see the enemy and what is going on around you, while controlling a significant amount of the firepower, with the ability to strike as appropriate,’ said Ian Bell. ‘The role provides the firepower around which people can manoeuvre to achieve what they need to do. Forward observers are often in massively high-pressure situations. They may be under fire, while needing to understand the locations of civilians, the enemy, and our own troops. They’re often speaking to aircraft, or people on the ground ten or fifteen miles away, and are making very significant decisions about the proportionality of their actions and the potential for collateral damage. They may be watching one viewing screen while pumping data into another, or sending it over voice, while lying in a wet ditch, being shot at and shooting back. And even though they may be using modern electronic equipment, they need to be able to fall back on procedures that don’t rely on electronics. It is a really high pressure, difficult job, and Mark was well suited to it because he was bright, agile, worked really hard, and he got on with people. Furthermore, he could appreciate the bigger picture.’
At ease with generals and squaddies alike, Mark Chandler was offered the chance to drive General Sir David Richards, later Chief of the Defence Staff. Some would have killed for such a plum job, but he turned it down in favour of that altogether more thrilling and dangerous career – as an FST member in Afghanistan.
CAPT JOHNNY MERCER was on his third tour of Afghanistan, and it wasn’t getting any easier. In large part, this was because the Taliban had changed tactics. Now, they rarely engaged the British Army in firefights – because they invariably lost, badly. Instead, they were sowing IEDs like confetti.
Mercer still didn’t rate them very highly. ‘If I’m honest,’ he said, ‘I thought the enemy could be poor. They had the local knowledge to cause great damage, but they didn’t use it. I remember men engaging me and then just getting up and running without covering fire, which made it easier for me. But I often sympathised with their plight. They weren’t well-trained, and they didn’t seem to have a basic understanding, on a number of levels, because they had no education. If I was a young lad there, and someone offered me twenty dollars to fire a weapon at a patrol base, I’d probably do it; that’s a month’s earnings, and some of them were doing it so their families could survive.
‘But while some of the foot soldiers were clearly amateurs, I also fought some of the people pulling the strings, the real cowards at the highest levels of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, who indulge in extreme brutality; the very worst that mankind has to offer. There are and will always be some very dark people who do some very dark things. These people cannot be reconciled, and they need to be dealt with by the security forces.’
Mercer’s job was to lead a small fire support team, calling down artillery fire, mortars or air assets on enemy positions in order to support infantry patrols out on the ground. Some FST officers find it easier to do this work from the relative calm of the PB, but Mercer preferred to go out with the patrols. It was better to have his own eyes-on, he felt, and better, too, for trust between his team and the infanteers. His team was small, just himself, Baz Barrowcliff and Mark Chandler. Mark was qualified to control guns and mortars, Baz to control fast jets. Capt Mercer – who was able to control all such assets – was in overall command.
‘My initials are on the shell or bomb as it comes in,’ he said. ‘I control all the situational awareness, and make sure I’m happy with the appropriate fire support for the situation. My job was to produce the effect on the ground. If it needed to be done in haste, I’d do it myself without the other guys, but one of them would always check me. I was always chattering on the net, being as proactive as I could in lining up assets to deal with a potential contact. It also gave me a chance to be more courageous than perhaps I naturally am, as I was always busy and always thinking.’
He needed men alongside him whom he could trust utterly, and Mark Chandler was just such a one.
‘Mark, Baz and I just got on very well,’ he said. ‘Some people join the Army for different reasons, but we were there because we wanted to be soldiers. We understood each other, and the risks we were prepared to take and the risks we were not prepared to take.
‘Mark was the perfect soldier – a selfless man who would just as readily volunteer to empty the bins as go out on a patrol. Under fire, Mark would be sat in the ditch next to me smiling, seemingly without a care in the world. It was an absolute privilege to command this example of a man.’
On their return from an exhausting, twelve-hour contact, Mark would quickly clean his own kit and then – conscious that his boss had paperwork to complete – would clean Capt Mercer’s, too. A rare thing to do in the heat and dust and filth of Afghanistan, but it meant the team got to knock off together.
Baz Barrowcliff and Mark Chandler were the perfect men to have out on the ground. ‘There’s a large technical side to our job,’ said Mercer. ‘You’re doing arithmetic on the hoof, and it’s a huge responsibility. But those guys were cool. It wasn’t just running around with a gun, although there were times when we had to fight our way out with our personal weapons. We liked working together – we worked with varying standards of soldiers, and we felt that, if something was to go wrong, we were best placed to get ourselves out of it.’
Mark Chandler had earlier told his parents that he had specifically requested to work alongside Johnny Mercer.
‘Everyone said, “You must be nuts! He’s impossible to work for!”’ said Mike Chandler. ‘But they got on like a house on fire. Johnny had a bit of a reputation for being difficult, but Mark said he was the kind of man you wanted on your side in a punch-up.’
Mercer admits to having perhaps been ‘quite an arrogant young man’ in his early days, but believes the confidence that came with it might well have given his men that sense of security required to conduct close-quarter battle with the Taliban.
‘The soldiers appreciated it, I think,’ he said. ‘They thought they’d be okay with me; they would enter more dangerous terrain because they thought I had the skills to extract them. It almost became an act; pretending I was braver than I was. And Mark’s loyalty was absolutely unquestionable. He was prepared to do anything for me, and I for him. That is a humbling thing, and I’ll be forever privileged. But it does have its responsibilities. Soldiers relying on you alone to extract them under fire, day after day, month after month… I found quite stressful. And there is clearly some guilt when it goes wrong.’
The FST and their allied infantry, Anzio Coy, 1 Lancs, were based in PB Khaamar, in Nad-e Ali.
This is a town and wider district of some 75,000 people which forms one point of a triangle with Lashkar Gah to the south and Camp Bastion to the west. It had long been a Taliban stronghold. An old crane overlooking the main canal through the town had often been festooned with the bodies of those hanged for their failure to support the insurgents, and was the scene of much fierce fighting. By the time British forces finally withdrew in 2013, it had a thriving bazaar, schools and health clinics, but, on the debit side of the ledger, fifty-two soldiers would have lost their lives in bringing those benefits to the locals. The governor of Nad-e Ali, Mohammad Ibrahim, would pay tribute to them, saying, ‘The sacrifices that have been made by your soldiers… we appreciate that, and will never forget that.’
One of the more infamous of those sacrifices was the murder in November 2009 of five British soldiers by a traitorous Afghan policeman, who open-fired on them at Checkpoint Blue 25 in the town without warning. Another six British soldiers and two Afghan policemen were wounded in the incident.
With incidents like that playing on their minds, the soldiers of Anzio Coy called the area ‘The Jungle’.
Khaamar was ‘austere’, said Mercer. ‘When we first got there, we washed out of a well. There were no showers. We eventually rigged up a crap shower, with shower bags. We were on rations out of a box for six or seven months, with very little fresh food. I was sleeping on a camp cot under a mosquito net. But we had an exceptional team in Bastion keeping us well supplied in all aspects. A helicopter came in every three or four days, but it was not predictable, and it was guaranteed to come under fire. The Royal Logistic Corps did CLPs [combat logistics patrols], and if there was someone important coming in or going out by helicopter we’d try to ensure they also brought in mail and essential kit. You plan a long time in advance, and we had three to four months’ of ammunition at the base.’
Despite the obvious lack of home comforts, Johnny Mercer was not complaining. ‘I didn’t have a problem with it,’ he said. ‘I suppose, yes, there were two sides to the Afghan deployment – those of us who had to be in the FOBs and PBs, and those who were at Bastion. But even in Bastion troops and commanders were away from their families. And it was only relative comfort. Still not much fun, working incredible hours to make sure we were best-equipped and looked after to carry the fight.’
As the fighting season began, the area quickly hotted up.
‘The day after the poppy harvest finished, the Taliban tried to get over the front gate and over-run the PB,’ he said. ‘It was a Sunday morning, and I was in bed. That’s how close they were. And whenever we walked out of the gate, the action could happen at any time.
‘The over-arching task was to secure areas so that others could get on with the business of bringing good governance to the place, and introduce schools and clinics, that kind of thing. Often, we were trying to take the same bits of ground day after day. It could be depressing, but you just had to get on with it.’
ON THE MORNING of June 8, 2010, the FST were out in support of another dawn patrol to reassure the locals and push enemy fighters back. They had an Afghan special forces ‘Tiger Team’ with them, and had pushed out into an area criss-crossed with irrigation canals and single track roads built in the 1970s by American engineers.
At first, progress was easy, and children were playing happily in the shade of a number of walls and homes dotted around. But then came a classic combat indicator: women began rounding up the children and herding them away. Simultaneously, Taliban radio chatter intensified. An attack was clearly imminent. As they pushed forward over a drainage ditch, the soldiers were able – through Mercer’s overhead surveillance – to identify the compound where most of the enemy fighters were located.
Mercer busied himself in checking communications with his artillery and with a nearby helicopter.
‘I needed to be sure that we were ready to call in support,’ he said. ‘Meanwhile, the infantry and Mark and Baz discussed a plan. Once I had finished, I said to Mark, “What’s the score, mate?”’
The plan was to leave a reserve in situ, and to send the Tiger Team north, in a standard infantry advance-to-contact, as a small FST/1 LANCS six-man team closed in on the insurgent compound. The hope was that the Taliban would engage the Tigers; with their focus drawn, the British troops could smash their way into the compound and take them on at close quarters.
‘I briefed the helicopter and the artillery, had an even briefer chat with the ground commander because I trusted him, and then we went for it,’ said Mercer. ‘I was in front, then came Mark, then Baz. We got to a junction on this narrow track where we were going to flick north and close with the insurgents. The first three blokes crossed the road, then me. Mark was just on my shoulder – protecting me, as always. We always remained closer than was tactically ideal, because we needed to be together to do our jobs.’
Unfortunately, they were confronted by a classic problem of fighting in Afghanistan, indeed against any insurgent force. There were men nearby in traditional garb, but there was no way of distinguishing innocent farmers from Taliban fighters with AK47s secreted in their robes or lying by their feet.
‘It’s not a classic, face-to-face battle,’ said Mercer. ‘Often, they open up from twenty metres away, and they look like civvies right up until then. As we progressed the attack, we knew there were people there, but not necessarily that they were Taliban. We thought they were in a row of buildings, but not in this particular building twenty-five metres or so away.
‘I remember it as if it were yesterday. I started crossing the road. As I got to the second wheel rut, we were engaged from twenty to thirty metres away by multiple automatic weapons. Mark and myself were the only two visible to what was now the enemy.’
Amazed that he himself had not been shot, Johnny Mercer hit the ground. Then he heard Baz Barrowcliff shout, ‘Man down!’
Mercer whipped around. Cpl Barrowcliff was in the ditch on the other side of the track, and Mark Chandler was lying motionless, face down, in the dirt road.
‘Baz shouted again, “Boss, boss! Man down, man down!”’ said Mercer. ‘Mark was a matter of feet from me. He was motionless, and there was not a lot of blood, so I knew it might be an immediate fatality. I immediately jumped on the radio to engage the enemy.’
He had a battery of 105mm artillery some twelve kilometres away, and – desperate to snatch the initiative back from the Taliban, so as to create time and space to get to Mark – decided to call them in to eighty metres with his first round, a lot closer than normal.
‘Typically, your first round might be four hundred metres away from the target,’ he said. ‘The shells should be accurate, assuming they use the same ammunition and haven’t moved the artillery pieces, but it’s a sensible precaution. But we spent lot of time zeroing the guns, so we knew exactly where the shells would land, and additionally we were perpendicular to the flight of the shell [so shrapnel would splash away from them]. In an ambush, most casualties are taken in the first four or five seconds. The enemy have engaged you at a time and place of their choosing, now you need to wrestle that initiative back, or take more casualties. You can get more precise weapons than a 105mm gun, but they take time. With guns, the flash-to-bang time is so quick. That’s why artillery is still the god of war.’
Unfortunately, even gods of war need comms, and Mercer now found he was in a dead spot, unable to talk to the battery. Frustrated beyond belief, he got through to the patrol commander on the local net, told him about the casualty, asked for covering fire to extract him, and then ran out into the Taliban bullets.
‘Bing was quite a big guy,’ he said. ‘Baz was struggling to pull him into cover by one foot, and I could see the rounds going through the reeds above Baz’s head. I thought he was about to be killed in front of me. I heard him saying, “He’s dead, boss, he’s fucking dead!”, and just then Bing’s body flipped over towards me. I could see his eyes. They were open, and I knew he’d been killed.
‘I told Baz to leave him, that I would run across the road and we would pull him in together. I had a machine gunner in front of me, and I remember screaming at him to engage the enemy. But he was looking at me over his shoulder, helmet awry, eyes glazed over. He’d just gone. He’d frozen. I lost it with him. I yelled, “Get the fucking rounds down, now!” and then moved towards him to grab his weapon, which was far more powerful than mine. He faced up the track and put a burst of three rounds down. I thought, For fuck’s sake, I’m just going to have to go! I lost it at him again to give me covering fire, and he again tried to, but this time he only got one round down before his weapon jammed. At that precise moment I’d just stepped out and couldn’t return. I thought, Shit! This is going to sting! It’s all over!
‘I thought that if I got hit and wasn’t killed outright, the chances were it would be in the legs, so I consciously ran across in such a way that my momentum would carry my body into the ditch with Baz, and he’d at least be able to treat me. It’s like running past a winger in a game of rugby: with momentum, you might still just get across the tryline.’
Remarkably, Mercer made it unscathed to the ditch, and he and Baz managed to pull Mark Chandler down next to them. They lugged him to the cover of a nearby building, hoping against hope that they would be able to give him some kind of first aid. ‘I took his helmet and body armour off,’ said Mercer, ‘and looked for blood. I got around the back of his neck and found the hole where bullet exited, but I couldn’t identify an entry wound. Later, I did, just a small scorched wound under his left eye.
‘The Taliban go ape-shit if they think they’ve killed someone. Everybody comes out to have a go. Within two minutes, we got engaged again from another two firing points from the east and the south. It was going to go all wrong. We were surrounded.’
As dozens of rounds zipped overhead, a young medic – LCpl Gemma Owens – risked her life to race over to Mercer’s position.
‘She was in a state,’ he said, ‘but she was a credit to her profession. In a horrific situation, she pretty much kept her cool, and went through her drills. I didn’t think they would help, but she was the medic, not me. I helped her attempt CPR, but it became clear that it was doing more harm than good. That’s it, I thought. It’s over. I grabbed Gemma’s hands, which were now soaked in Bing’s blood, and shouted at her. “Enough, Corporal Owens! I’m telling you, enough!” I called her Corporal Owens so she remembered where she was. “Gather up your stuff, and we’ll extract from here.”
‘At that point, we were engaged again, from closer in, to the north where we had just been. In my position, I was the senior rank on these patrols, but I always focused on Joint Fires – my primary role. I was always there for advice to the JNCOs, but I wanted them to make the tactical decisions. I was more experienced, but they were infanteers and I wasn’t. I always had them call me by my first name, to emphasise that fact. But there was a real threat of actually getting over-run. I told everyone there, “Right, fucking listen to me. We need to get this guy out of here now, otherwise we won’t get back.”’
‘Everyone there’ was three or four UK soldiers. The small reserve force of four or five 1 LANCS men had bravely fought their way over, but had then extracted almost immediately under the mistaken belief – in the chaos of the contact – that the party was ready to go, and was following.
‘Bing wasn’t even on the stretcher at that point,’ said Mercer. ‘Baz was heroic, as usual, but I could see the enormity of what had just happened was starting to have an emotional effect, and I needed to focus him. I said, “Look, mate, we’ll be okay. I’ll extract him with three others, but you need to cover my arse against this incoming fire.” Without hesitation, he advanced alone ten metres towards the enemy, into their fire, and began returning fire. Massively brave, I could have cried with pride.
‘Eventually the extraction party consisted of Mark, the medic, the interpreter, and me, and one other soldier. Baz was our only real covering fire. I think people sometimes think these battles involve large numbers, but often they’re not like that, it’s just a few young men and women fighting for their lives, hoping to live to tell the tale. I manhandled Mark onto a stretcher rather unceremoniously. The interpreter picked up Mark’s weapon. He didn’t even need to be there. If anyone says, “All the Afghans are terrible,” that’s bollocks. This guy was prepared to give up his life for Mark. He thought all his Christmases had come at once. At last, a chance to kill some of the Taliban who’d been trying to kill him. I took the safety catch off, and made him point it away from me. Then I said, “Guys we’re just going to have to go!”’
They pepper-potted as best they could, struggling with the dead weight of LBdr Chandler.
‘I remember seeing these fuckers engaging me from a house on the side that me and the interpreter were on,’ said Mercer. ‘I remember running along, carrying the stretcher, me and the interpreter both firing at the house with one arm. It’s almost impossible to hit anything like that, but you’ve got to try. I actually wrote him a citation, but I think it got lost in the maelstrom that is the British Army’s paperwork.’
During one pause for breath on the 800-metre extraction, Mercer finally managed to get through to the guns.
‘I opened up with four 105mm high explosive shells into the field 150 metres to our north,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t drop them into the building, because I knew there were women and children in and amongst the guys shooting us. Eventually, we met up with the QRF and the Tiger Team, so we actually had numbers, about fifteen of us. I had good comms now to both artillery and air support, and I started engaging the main enemy position with artillery rounds. Again, I didn’t want to hit the house directly, but I was trying to force any squirters [Taliban who were running or ‘squirting’ from the target] to another firing point where I could engage them with an Apache I was talking to on another net.
‘We started running towards a main road where the armoured vehicles were, but now under the cover of large artillery explosions to our rear. The main patrol was carrying Mark, and Baz and I were at the back doing individual fire-and-manoeuvre. We had to cover the last 200 metres like this. I suppose we were under fire right up to when we got close to the armoured vehicle column. Just as we were finally getting close, still twenty or thirty yards from safety, Baz ran out of ammunition. He was screaming at me to put down covering fire so he could get in. I ran out into the field to draw the fire, seeking some cover behind what looked like a small mound of earth. But when I got there it was just dry stacked poppies from the opium harvest, so I just emptied my entire magazine into the two firing points that continued to engage. That enabled Baz to get to the vehicles, and by the time I got there the contact was broken. We had helicopters coming on target, and the insurgents were running away at the sound of the Apache.
‘I wanted to lie Mark down in one of the armoured vehicles, but it wasn’t long enough, so I got in – I’d had my assets taken off me by my fire co-ordination cell – picked him up like a baby, put him on my lap and cradled him, while someone shut the door on us. It was just me and Mark in there for the forty-odd minutes it took to get back to the PB. I was shaking him a little bit, and talking to him. It was pretty harrowing, really. Every soldier’s death is terrible, but when it’s your mate, someone you’ve laughed and cried with, had coffee and a smoke with every morning, and fought for your lives together, it’s very, very different.
‘He didn’t feel as warm as he would have if he was alive, but he didn’t feel cold, either. It’s strange when somebody has just died. It’s not black-and-white by any stretch. I kept feeling for a pulse and thinking, Have I got this wrong?’
UNFORTUNATELY, JOHNNY MERCER had not got it wrong.
At their Cotswolds home, Ann and Mike Chandler had risen early and were picking at a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast.
‘I said to Mike, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I can’t eat this,”’ said Ann. ‘I took a couple of sips of coffee and I said, “I can’t drink this, either.” It might have been my cancer tablets, but it was also about the time Mark was killed.’
A little while later, as Ann got started on a pile of ironing, there was a knock on the door.
‘I looked out the kitchen window and saw two youngish chaps in dark suits,’ said Mike. ‘I thought they were Mormons, and if I ignored them they’d go away. But they carried on knocking, and Ann suddenly said, “It might be the military.”
‘Of course, I then shot through and opened the door, and it was these two Army chaps. I knew why they were there. It must be an awful job. The first thing they said was, could they get us a cup of tea, and was there anyone we would like them to call? I said, “No, all we want to know is, is he dead?”
‘They said, “Yes, he is. He was killed at six o’ clock our time.”
‘There was nothing to say. It was just bloody awful. It just wipes your mind blank. I guess I was telling myself this wasn’t happening. I was just staring into a void. After they’d gone, Ann and I just sat and looked each other and thought, What do we do now? We couldn’t believe he wasn’t coming back. Sometimes, even now, we look at his pictures, and we think he’s just gone outside and he’ll be back in a minute.’
‘There’s no plan for this,’ said Ann. ‘Myriad things come to mind. The main thing was what a great loss Mark had suffered, and that we wouldn’t see him again. We hadn’t seen him for months, and now we weren’t going to see him again, ever. You just cope with it as best you can. Each person has too much suffering to deal with. It’s too much. We phoned Mark’s brother, Stephen. I was concerned the news would leak out. I said to him, “Something’s happened. Can you come over?” He wanted to know what it was, so I told him. I said, “You can spend time here, or we can come to you.” He said, “Mum, I just want to be on my own and work it out.” We’re a close family, but not a cloying one. Stephen drank too much whiskey that day, and he called a few of his mates, who plied him with even more whiskey. I think he slept the sleep of the just that night. He was the big brother who taught Mark to read, to write, to walk, to skateboard, to ride a bike… For two or three days, he was inconsolable, though he eventually got out of it all right. He can talk about it now quite dispassionately. As a family, we talk about Mark quite a lot.’
Mike and Ann are still struck by the mind-numbing speed with which everything happened. Mark was killed on June 8, 2010, his body was flown home on June 10, and he was buried on June 23. At the repatriation ceremony, they were introduced by their visiting officer [WO2 Paul Corkhill] to Mark’s commanding officer, the RSM, the adjutant, and one of Mark’s friends.
‘After about twenty minutes, it was as if we had known them all our lives,’ said Ann. ‘They were fascinated to find that we could actually laugh about some memories from Mark’s life. Everyone was so very sombre, and I thought, Perhaps we’re wrong; perhaps we shouldn’t remember the fun times? It was a bit surreal, really.’
Hundreds attended Mark Chandler’s funeral at the Garrison Church of St Michael, in Tidworth, Wilts. His family took the decision to bury Mark there so that his mates – many of whom were and are based at Tidworth – could visit his grave. The wake in the officers’ mess at Larkhill was ‘more like a celebration’, said Mike. ‘We met some amazing people. They’d come up and put their arms around us – there were so many that we couldn’t talk to all of them. We’ve been in touch with a lot since. The experience has brought out a lot of love and friendship.
‘And after the rest of Mark’s team came back we met many of them, including Tom Platt, his battery sergeant major. He looked like an angry pit-bull, with tattoos all over him, but he was actually the nicest of guys. He couldn’t do enough for us.’
Mike and Ann had not thought for a moment that their son would die in Afghanistan.
‘I was worried that he might get injured,’ said Mike. ‘We knew it was very dangerous. They were in camps behind tumbledown walls, miles from medical help. Every week brought reports of soldiers being killed. If your son’s a soldier in those circumstances and you’re not apprehensive, you should be. But never in my worst nightmares did I think he’d be killed.’
Mark himself dealt with the risk in his own characteristically humorous way.
‘I remember him hovering around me one day,’ said Ann. ‘I said, “What’s going on, Mark?” He said he’d just worked out that if he lost a limb he’d get into the GB Paralympic Winter Sports team. “For God’s sake,” I said. “You’re going to be fine!”’
A few days later, she said goodbye to her son for the last time, as Mike prepared to drive him to the station for his train back to camp.
‘I couldn’t fit in the car because of his kit,’ she said. ‘So I stayed at home. He saw me crying as they left, which I didn’t normally do, and he said to his dad, “Why’s mum crying?” Mike said, “Just work it out.” And off they went. I was really looking forward to the man that this war was going to reveal. I knew it would strip anybody right down to their basics. And I know he had a great time out there. I asked Johnny Mercer if they were enjoying their war, and he laughed, and said, “Actually, we were having a super time. We were doing a difficult job, but we were doing it well, and enjoying it.”’
Mercer – who has left the Army and is standing for election to parliament in 2015 – looks back with some guilt.
‘I think about him and Baz every day,’ he said. ‘It was my responsibility. If I hadn’t been there, the patrol wouldn’t have attempted that engagement. Mark was with me because he never thought he’d get killed in my team. I almost feel a bit stupid for engendering that mind-set in both Mark and Baz. And I feel guilty about it. Felicity, my wife, and everyone else who loves me and has supported me, they say it’s not my fault. I suppose my respective commanders have also often been quick to tell me I was saving countless lives over the years, but, you know… I didn’t bring all of my men home, so I cannot have been that good.
‘I don’t think I’m being harsh on myself, because my primary job was to bring the team home. Over the years I’ve lost other friends too. But Mark was different. It was a special tour for me; one where we were presented with harder challenges than I have ever faced. But when I think of Mark, I think about him, rather than the nature of his passing.
‘Baz still comes to my house often. He has struggled with the loss of Mark. For me, the emotions hit at odd times. Remembrance Day is difficult, but there are less obvious times, too. I almost had a little cry today. It’s my daughter’s fifth birthday. We were singing Happy Birthday, and I had the dog and my new four-month-old on my lap as I watched her opening her presents. She was so happy. But I was thinking, Mark’s never going to have this. I will carry that with me as a burden. His life ended that day, and mine didn’t. I always get up at dawn on June 8.
‘I got back from Afghanistan having done what I wanted to do. Pushing on in the Army, perhaps being a staff officer – that always scared me. It looks horrendous. I joined the Army to be a soldier, not to be at a desk. I wanted to test myself against evil people, and I couldn’t do that anymore with a young family. It’s a young man’s game, and I just couldn’t take the risks I was previously prepared to take. My wife and I wanted to have another child. So it was time to leave.
‘I don’t feel that we were wrong to be in Afghanistan. If you have the capability to intervene in a state that’s sponsoring terrorism, you should do so. Did we always get our doctrine right? Absolutely not. Did we set Afghanistan back when we first went there? Yes. Did we handle counter-insurgency properly? Probably not. But did we eventually make it a better place? Yes.’
That final emphatic ‘yes’ is shared by Col Ian Bell.
‘We have achieved a level of results that means we can go and leave it to the Afghan people,’ he said. ‘We’ve made a significant difference. An argument will continue that we stayed too long, or left too early, but, if I’m honest and from a soldier’s perspective, we look at what we are asked to do, we do it, we move on. We helped the Afghan Security Forces reach a standard where they now conduct the operations. The argument will run forever. People who have not yet been born will be writing essays at staff college about this.
‘I’ll never forget hearing about Mark’s death. It was my son’s fifth birthday. Thankfully, my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Artillery, knew when they got the message that he had been my driver, so they tried to contact me directly. But that wasn’t possible, so they told my wife, who also knew Mark really well, and she then told me. I was absolutely gutted, obviously, and hugely surprised. He was a guy I’d known really well and spent a lot of time with. I guess anyone can imagine what that feels like. Just thinking about the moment now is pretty emotional for me.
‘I didn’t know his parents before, but I met them at the repatriation ceremony, and we’ve been in touch since. I hope we’ll remain in touch. They visit us sometimes when they go to Mark’s grave and they have a very strong link with 3 RHA. They see us as people who were part of his life, and they know that he valued us and we valued him. I’m really impressed by Ann and Mike’s attitude.
‘As for Mark, there is no question in my mind that, had he lived, he would have been promoted further than most soldiers would expect. He excelled at everything he did.’
ANN AND MIKE Chandler are less convinced about the Afghanistan campaign, though they do know that their son was respected, and is remembered fondly, by a great many people.
‘Johnny told us, “A lot of people looked up to Mark, so don’t think he has wasted his life by being killed in Afghanistan, because he hasn’t,”’ said Ann. ‘“He’s left quite a legacy of people who will never forget him. He touched a lot of people, and did an awful lot of good. He was a much-respected man.” Those words came from a guy who is a really hard-bitten soldier, so they mean a lot. But I remember Mark saying that, while he quite liked the local people in Iraq, he didn’t think much of the Afghans. He said they had low standards, and that they treated their animals and even their wives absolutely appallingly.
‘He told me about a young woman who’d gone with her married sister and her mother to the next village to carry food back, and her brothers were so incensed [that a single woman had gone out without a male chaperone] that they cut off her nose and ears. If they were good guys, who were we fighting for? I don’t think Mark met them. He said to me once, “It’s a lost cause. We all know that within two years of us leaving, everything will have gone back to the way it was.”’
The Chandlers are left with good memories of their son, and immense gratitude for those who were with him on the day he died, particularly his fellow FST members. ‘Johnny and Baz risked their lives to get Mark back to the base,’ said Mike. ‘Johnny holding Mark on his lap in the armoured vehicle… That was a wonderful thing to do. It was fabulous. Two newspapers suggested that Mark had been abandoned, and when we complained about that we were awarded £2,000. We used the money to set up an award in Mark’s name for his old unit. The bombardier who performs most impressively on the lance bombardier leadership course gets a rugby shirt with “Bing” written on it [Mark was a lifelong fan of Gloucester Rugby Club], a hundred pounds, and a beer stein. The course is tough, so they deserve it.
‘When Johnny came home on R&R shortly after Mark was killed, he came straight to see us. He was concerned that we would blame him for Mark’s death, but how could we? And the autopsy report said that death would have been virtually instantaneous. So Mark wouldn’t have known. That was a huge relief. Johnny has become a good friend, but poor old Baz just can’t come to talk to us. We would love it if he did. His wife has been in touch, but Baz just can’t. We often think of him.’
They are coping with their loss, in part thanks to their other son Stephen, who works for Mencap.
‘Stephen has been a great help,’ said Mike. ‘We can talk about what happened now, and I like talking about Mark. I hope people don’t think we have forgotten him, because we haven’t. Sometimes it’s a bad day, and I just cry. But, generally speaking, we’re pretty well up for it. Because life has to go on, doesn’t it? You can’t just curl up and die. We do our best.
‘We like to go to Mark’s grave – it has settled, at last, and the headstone’s been erected, and another soldier has been buried next to him. It’s nice that he has someone on both sides, now. I don’t feel his presence there, but I do see him here at home sometimes. It’s strange. I said to Ann the other day, “I haven’t seen Mark for a long time.” And then yesterday he was here, just like you are, on the settee there. It’s nice to see him. I like the feeling that he’s here. I might be working on my laptop, or reading, and suddenly I get this feeling that there is someone in the room. I’ll just see something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to look at him, he goes. I said to Ann, I must not look at him.
‘I don’t feel he’s trying to tell us anything. I just feel he may be checking we’re okay. Sometimes he’ll be there in the car, too. I can feel him on the back seat. I don’t know why, but I just know he’s there. Sometimes if I’m driving his old car, he might be there, and I feel he’s telling me off for my poor driving, as he did when he was alive. Amazing, isn’t it? I’m not into that sort of thing at all, and I don’t believe in ghosts.’
Ann has had similar, though less vivid, experiences.
‘Mike often sees enough to know what Mark’s wearing, and it’s often clothes he didn’t have when he was alive,’ she said. ‘I don’t see him, but sometimes I’ll be sitting here doing a Sudoku, or watching the telly, and there’ll be a movement of air. I will feel this presence, and I’ll look up thinking there is someone there. But I don’t see him. Perhaps he is there. I’ve dreamed about Mark sometimes, but he’s just Mark in my dreams. It’s comforting to know he’s around.
‘Mark didn’t have a wife or children, or even any pets. He did have a very nice Lancia car, which he treasured, and he’d saved up quite a lot of money to get it re-sprayed and engineered from the floor up. When he died, we wanted to do something that he would have done had he lived. So we spent some money doing up his car. It’s now kept somewhere nice and dry, and we take it out from time to time. We’ve also started raising money for Help For Heroes in a quiet way. The worst thing is hearing of his mates getting married and having children. That’s what he would have been doing if he had lived.’
Mike Chandler’s attitude to life has changed somewhat.
‘I don’t suffer fools at all,’ he said. ‘If someone upsets me, I just ignore them or tell them to bugger off. I’m not generally a confrontational person, but life is too short and there are too many nice people about to worry about the ones I don’t like. We were up at the pub one lunchtime. I suppose I was moaning about the people who killed Mark. Someone said, “You must learn to forgive and forget.” I nearly hit him. I said, “What a bloody stupid thing to say! I’ll forgive that man when I shoot him between the eyes. You don’t have a clue about what you’re talking about. You cannot have an inkling of what we’re going through.”’
‘Someone said to me, “Well, he was paid for it,”’ said Ann. ‘I said, “Actually, soldiers don’t join the Army to be killed, they join to save us from being killed.” But generally people are very nice. They just find it hard to know what to say. But there is nothing to say, really, is there?’
The Chandlers received a box of their son’s effects from Afghanistan. Among them was his wristwatch. ‘I know it will sound strange,’ said Ann, ‘but I’m dreading the day that watch stops. We keep it here in the living room. It’s still ticking after nearly four years. He was wearing it the day he was killed, and it’s our last living link, if you like, with him. I don’t know what’s going to happen the day it stops.’