EVERY day, Captain Walter Barrie went for a run round Forward Operating Base Shawqat. At a pace men half his age would struggle to keep up with, the 41-year-old officer could be spotted circuiting the base in the dusty heat of one of the British Army’s most remote outposts in Afghanistan and where, since his deployment in August, he had become one of its central characters.
Last Sunday should have been a day much like any other at Shawqat, which squats on the remains of an old fort last used by the British in the 19th century to fight the Russians. It was Remembrance Day, and in the morning, a service to honour the fallen was held. Barrie, of the Royal Scots Borderers 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, went for his daily run. And in the afternoon, there was a football match.
Barrie, of course, was playing. Glasgow born and bred, he was a passionate Rangers fan, football mad his pals joked. And in his latest posting as a mentor with the transition support unit in Nad-e-Ali, training and advising members of the Afghan National Army, he saw football as a great way to strengthen the relationship between the Afghans and their British counterparts.
During the kickabout, Mohammad Ashraf, a new Afghan recruit from the Panjshir valley who was said to have argued with some of the soldiers on base, approached Barrie and shot him at close range. Barrie was killed. His attacker died shortly afterwards following a shoot-out.
The Royal Regiment of Scotland has a motto. Nemo me impune lacessit: no one attacks me with impunity, or, in plain old Scots, wha daur meddle wi me? In the week since Barrie’s death, many of his friends and colleagues have expressed their shock and disbelief that anyone would meddle with Barrie. He was honest. Friendly. Funny. Decent. He had a word and a smile for everyone – the ideal sort of guy to be mentoring wide-eyed Afghan soldiers who in less than two years will be in charge of security in a country where Barrie has become the 438th British soldier to die in the past 11 years.
“There are people the length and breadth of the UK who knew Walter Barrie who are trying to move through this period of disbelief,” says Lieutenant Colonel Sandy Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of 6 Scots and a close friend of Barrie’s. “Morale takes a dip. Nobody was ever a stranger to Walter. Once you’d met him, you’d never forget him.”
The first time I heard the name Walter Barrie was in 2008, in Afghanistan, when 2 Scots Royal Highland Fusiliers, whom I was embedded with as a reporter, were deployed to Helmand as part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Back then, Barrie was the battalion’s Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), formidable yet likeable, the battalion’s “senior soldier” and revered by those who served under him. With over 20 years in the Army, he already had tours of Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Northern Ireland under his belt and relished the chance to get involved in Operation Herrick – the British Army’s name for the Afghan conflict. I’d heard of him while I was in theatre – everyone had, everyone knew Barrie – but I hadn’t yet met him.
“He was one of the best RSMs you could get,” says Gary Stewart, a close friend of Barrie’s who signed up to the Army at the same time as Barrie, back in 1987, and served with him in Afghanistan in 2008. “He was like a thoroughbred. Everything he did was absolutely to a tee. No matter where he was, he was always immaculate.”
Barrie and I eventually met in Edinburgh in 2010 to discuss the Royal Highland Fusiliers’ White Hackle Fund. By this time he had been commissioned as an officer, and appointed the battalion’s Unit Welfare Officer. White Hackle, named after the distinctive plume in the Fusiliers’ caps, was an ambitious project to raise money and provide support for the families of those who might be injured during the battalion’s upcoming second tour of Afghanistan, and Barrie was at the heart of it. He was keen for the fund to be publicised, and along with his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dougie Graham, agreed that Scotland on Sunday could spend the day with him as the battalion prepared for deployment.
And so it was that Barrie and I met again at Glencorse Barracks in Penicuik, early in September of that year. The place was a hive of activity. The entire battalion was being deployed to Afghanistan just a few weeks later and the barracks thrummed with life as kits were packed, equipment moved, and desert boots broken in.
Over at Glencorse’s family centre, the command post for the 150 or so houses on the base and the families that occupy them, Barrie greeted me warmly. He had arranged for a number of families to come in to be interviewed, soldiers in their uniforms with their wives, children and babies. He knew them all by name, was funny and kind, and put them at their ease with myself and the photographer, laughing and joking as he did so. I quickly saw that he was in his element. Those who knew him well tell me that when it came to the Army, he always was.
Unit Welfare Officer is, say many soldiers, one of the most difficult jobs an officer can do. You are the first point of contact for wives, mothers, fathers and children, all of them anxious for news about their loved ones deployed to a theatre of war. At the same time, you’re left behind while the rest of your battalion heads to the frontline, keeping the home fires burning while your colleagues are fighting. It takes a certain strength of character.
“I’ll be expected to look after the families back here,” Barrie told me that day after we’d settled in his office and he’d fetched me a cup of coffee. “We’ve got a large estate of houses here. I’m the focal point for all the extended families, for all the single soldiers as well.” He smiled, and his blue eyes twinkled. “I’m here to provide what we term primary welfare and support.”
This could mean anything from marshalling a school bus, which Barrie kept a weather eye out the window for that day as we talked, to arranging panto tickets to the Kings Theatre. But there were, of course, other, more sobering responsibilities.
“The biggest pressure for me is that I’ve been in this battalion for 23 years and I know the majority of the soldiers, I know most of the families, so the biggest pressure for me is making sure we provide the support that’s needed for them. I don’t relish the task,” he said frankly, a crease forming between his brows. “If there are casualties it’s about providing support to their families. It’s a thing I’ll deal with as I go along.”
We both knew what he was talking about. All soldiers know that when they are deployed to a war zone, there is the chance that they might not come home. In 2010, the “green on blue” attacks – in which Afghan National Army members turn against their British mentors and which Barrie so tragically became a victim of – were not as common as they are now, but it had been the deadliest year in the country for British troops so far. When Barrie and I met that day, 103 had already lost their lives.
This was, Barrie hoped, where the White Hackle Fund would come in. A fundraising initiative with wristbands and a website – he was wearing one of the wristbands itself, as well as a blue shirt that, while trying to be casual, also looked as if it had been ironed within an inch of its life – it would provide financial support to families whose loved ones had been injured or killed. Barrie had been trying to master Twitter recently, as the Commanding Officer was keen to try to keep people updated while he was on the frontline, and admitted to me with a wry smile that he had yet to fully get to grips with it. “None of us are exactly IT experts, but we’re trying,” he’d said with a laugh.
During the battalion’s deployment the fund would go on to raise almost £40,000. It was a huge achievement, and one Barrie had been central to.
Towards the end of my interview with Barrie, he confessed to me that it would be difficult for him during that tour, to stay behind. “I’ve always been a soldier, doing a soldier’s job,” he said. “I’ve never been the guy who stayed back.”
If there is sense to be made of such a senseless and wicked death as Barrie’s it is, as his sister Donna said last week, that he died “doing a job he loved”. That he relished the chance to go back to Afghanistan this August was never in doubt.
“You join the Army to be a soldier,” says Stewart. “You want to be out there doing it. That was Walter.”
This time, he was deployed with 1 Scots the Royal Scots Borderers, whom he had moved to last year after 24 years with the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It was a change, but Barrie adapted.
“Wherever Walter went he always met someone,” says Fitzpatrick. “He always made a friend. It didn’t matter if it was a soldier from a different battalion, a different army, a different country. And it was never really about him. It was always about somebody else. He was interested in everybody he met, whoever they were.”
Last Sunday, it was another welfare officer who had to impart the dreadful news about Barrie’s death to his wife Sonia and 15-year-old son Callum. His body was flown back to RAF Brize Norton on Thursday and returned to his family, who will now be receiving the sort of care and support that Barrie had been so good and kind at giving to other families in their terrible situation.
As Barrie’s funeral cortege passed through the Oxfordshire town of Carterton on Thursday afternoon, a single bell tolled. Soldiers and veterans lined the streets to salute their fallen comrade. Many of them wore the distinctive white hackle of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the battalion Barrie joined at just 17 years old, and to whom he dedicated so much of his life.
Of all the soldiers I have met, Barrie understood perhaps better than most the impact on those left at home when soldiers go to war. When I heard about his death last week, something he had said during our interview came back to me.
“It’s difficult,” he had said. “I’ve always been the guy that’s been deployed with the battalion and been on operations. It’s probably made me realise there’s an awful lot of pressure on the people left behind. Especially the emotion of seeing friends go out the front gate.”
When Walter Barrie went out the front gate of his Edinburgh barracks back in August, no-one – not least the many friends, family and colleagues whom he left behind – was in any doubt of his calibre as one of the Royal Regiment of Scotland’s finest.
That he won’t be coming back is a tragedy that for many of those who met him still doesn’t quite feel real. «