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Into the Valley: An Artist's Experiences in Helmand

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 10 February 2014

Jules George discusses his vivid experiences as an artist visiting Helmand Province in February 2010, based primarily with 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards).

Transcript

Jules George:

I've been an artist for 20-odd years and I'm going to tell you a little bit about my experiences going out to Helmand in February 2010 on [Operation] HERRICK 11, primarily based with the Green Howards - 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment.

As an artist I've covered a diversity of subjects, from auction houses to Indian fishermen to the African diaspora in Scotland. However, never in all my years did I consider that one day I would be drawing away in a pitched battle with the smoke, the dust, the blasts, the clatter of machine guns and the sort of sounds going all around me.

It would have been something similar that my father here would have experienced in Aden in the late 1950s, and before him my grandfather in the trenches of the First World War. I knew a few of their letters and photos, but very few of their stories really.

In fact two weeks after my father died, I found a letter written to a good friend of his and obviously later returned. And in this letter it talked about arriving in Aden, the camp, going out on patrol, the reasons he had volunteered for a Bren Gun and even describing using that Bren Gun in action for the first time. Basically all stuff I didn't know. And I resolved, strange as it might sound, to go and experience something very similar. And I thought by doing that it might answer a few questions I was no longer able to ask.

It took me over a year to organise this trip to Afghanistan. A friend of mine in the Royal Navy had found me the relevant contacts details for the MOD [Ministry of Defence] and eventually I was given the green light to go. I spent a weekend doing pre-deployment training, learning basics like getting in a helicopter, how maybe to get out of a minefield, hostage situations and lots of battlefield medical drills of course.

If you can imagine arriving at Brize Norton at three in the morning and for the first time in your life totally in a military world. I met a guy at the Royal British Legion who gave me a good piece of advice. He said, 'Jules, you'll be feeling nervous, you'll be out of your depth. I suggest you get drawing straight away. Before you know it you'll begin to get a few results and relax.' I thought it was a good piece of advice and I took it.

This drawing above here is one of the first relative successes and it was done under the faintest glimmer of light in a Hercules troop carrier. I remember seeing opposite the dark silhouettes of the troops as they nodded off and vaguely able to discern the odd feature. And I made this series of drawings and at the time I wondered what was going through all the individual minds of the guys opposite. Some were seasoned campaigners; they had done it all before. Others were heading off for the first time.

Arriving in Afghanistan 2 YORKS were based in a little camp called Camp Tombstone inside the main Afghan camp, Camp Shorabak, and adjacent to Camp Bastion which you would have all heard of. Their special task was training and leading the Afghan Army on operations - Operational Mentoring Liaison Team.

I spent the first few days around these bases and it gave me a good opportunity to catch up with myself, begin to understand where I was - the atmosphere, the context and things like armoured vehicles and the details of uniforms. I was even told about the rank system by a sergeant major. So it was all a big learning curve.

However, I realised it wasn't just a learning curve for me. One afternoon I went to draw the sentries doing stag duties at the main gate. One sentry - it was his first stag duty, and his first tour to Afghanistan - he was very nervous. And at one point an Afghan vehicle approached the gate and crossed a very strict 'no crossing' line. I remember, terrified, he turned to me and said, 'What do I do?' And it was a good question.

At this time a large operation was launched called Operation MOSHTARAK, meaning 'together', and it involved 15,000 British, American and Afghan troops. I attended the eve of battle speech given by the brigade commander, James Cowan, originally of The Black Watch. He was piped in to give his eve of battle speech and I remember listening to the pipes with the distant blue mountains of Afghanistan, thinking how evocative it was and it was like a strange symbolic echo to the past, and perhaps previous British involvements in Afghanistan.

With this operation launched, inevitably there was a lot of activity down on the flight line, helicopters coming and going. And I spent many hours down there making drawings. This one focuses on a Chinook as a column of troops clambers aboard, as if being swallowed by a strange beast that is then going to take off and disappear beyond the sand and the storm into the blue sky. It held an abstract quality to me because up until then I had only been in the main bases and I wanted to see beyond the wire what was outside.

Eventually I did clamber aboard a helicopter. I was pulled aside just before I clambered aboard and shown an important lesson: how to use and fire the standard British rifle if the worst came to the worst.

Imagine if you can, beyond that wire, the blue skies, the distant blue mountains, the haze in the air and in the middle ground a fertile green valley through which flows a river. And in the foreground a column of troops wends its way up to the patrol base. An officer with an interpreter speaks to a local and there is a fruit seller on a donkey. This stunning setting was what I found heading beyond the wire.

Of course, this is a lithograph done after the artist, James Atkinson, who accompanied the first British expedition to Afghanistan in 1839. Except this is exactly what I found. And if you were to replace the elephant and the camel with an armoured vehicle, or the red tunics with desert fatigues, everything would remain the same.

Now, how did I prepare for my trip to Afghanistan? Beyond reading a couple of books and seeing newspaper articles, there wasn't much preparation I could do, beyond sharpening up my drawing skills. I decided I had never been in a theatre of war before, so it was best not to go with too many preconceived ideas of what I should do. The idea was to try to be objective as possible and, to be honest, I wasn't interested in the rights or wrongs of the war, or the politics. My objective was to experience and document in a series of drawings British troops on operations.

One preparation I did make was to acquire an assault vest that went over my body armour - this green camouflage item. We acquired this with the help of a sergeant from The Royal Anglian Regiment. Inside it had large pockets to put my sketch pads and on the outside, where one would usually have rifle magazines, as you can see, I could put my pens and brushes, pencils, etc. I'd had enough common sense to realise that if I needed to move abruptly, quickly, everything was on me and I could just move. I didn't have to fumble around with a bag at my feet.

It actually came in useful at the end of my trip. I was stuck in Kandahar for three days and to break up the tedium of that base the cookhouse was open three times a day for an hour. Inevitably I was paranoid about losing my drawings at this point, so three times a day - you were not allowed a bag in the cookhouse - I went through the strange ritual of taking my drawings from a bag and putting them inside this assault vest. And in I wandered, this bulked out figure. I received quite a few strange looks as this strange camouflaged Michelin man wandered in.

This is an example of a fairly early drawing and it was done in Forward Operating Base Shawqat, the headquarters of the Grenadier Guards Battle Group. I had just been off my first helicopter ride and a couple of lads told me another one was coming in, if I wanted to get some drawings done.

I readied myself as it dropped out of the sky. But no one had told me about the downdraught and the inevitable wall of dust that would hit you, and the need to turn and duck. Quite literally I was physically picked up and blown around the corner of a compound. My sketch pad flew off in one direction, my pen in another and I ripped my drawing hand badly in the process.

Retrieving my sketch pad - in fact, this drawing was done while the helicopter was on the ground and, although lacking in certain details, I think it captures very much the essence of the difficulties for an artist working in that sort of environment. You can see here the ripped page from where it was blown around the corner and a blood stain up in the right-hand corner. And all across the page is the dust of Afghanistan. So, I think, for me anyway, it captures and is a good working example of the rigours of being in Afghanistan.

As an artist, to get on in Afghanistan you had to join in with the banter of the troops. And I enjoyed that. It worked in two different ways. Often you'll be working away and a couple of British troops would wander up and, bearing in mind the macho world, they'd come and watch you for a while, then one would turn, look you in the eye and say, 'That's rubbish, mate. My three-year-old daughter could do better than that.'

And I realised what was going on here was it didn't really matter whether they liked the drawing or not, they were checking you out, sizing you up, and seeing how precious you were going to be. So, joining in the banter, I would look at them and say, 'You're right, mate. But it's not bad for an amateur,' or 'You finish it off,' or something like that.

To give you an idea of the power of painting and drawing and its ability to transcend barriers, I spent a lot of time at the main gates here, drawing the bazaar opposite and the patrols coming in and out. And they were guarded by the Afghan Army. And unused to the idea of a western artist, they found it miraculous that as if by magic a portrait of their friend would appear on a blank piece of paper.

Although language was limited to 'salaam' [hello] or 'tashakor' [thank you], they would often laugh and watch as I drew and every mark would be accompanied by 'good' or 'no good'. So I enjoyed my time with them.

I moved onto a little patrol base called PB Chilli in the Nad-e-Ali district. It had been decided to head out on a foot patrol a couple of hours later and, having a couple of hours to spare, I climbed up the nearest 'sangar', or watchtower, and made a drawing. It was therapeutic really this drawing because, feeling a bit nervous, it gave me something positive to think about and channel my thoughts to.

In fact, this is a painting made from that original drawing. And it was a stunning landscape. In fact, it was a Biblical scene. It was like being in another time and another age with the shepherd and his flock in the near ground and in the distance the compounds and little flashes of colour as women walked past in their buquras. As an extreme contrast to this was the darkness of the 'sangar' and the silhouette of the 'Gimpy', or the General Purpose Machine Gun, in the near ground with all, of course, its dark and sinister connotations.

Three months earlier five Grenadier Guards and Royal Military Police had been killed by a rogue Afghan at a little base just down the road. Equally, two days before, an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] had been found. So heading out on the foot patrol the danger element was very real. Every precaution was taken really.

I was told to stick with the man in front and whatever happened just to stay with him. And as we headed out on foot patrol it was the first time that I have ever learnt to draw and walk at the same time, let alone closely following his footsteps, only too aware to the possibility of IEDs.

This is an example of one of those drawings done on the move. And, of course, it is very minimal, you could say. However, it is amazing how a drawing like this can convey a lot of information and can be used later on for a painting.

We walked across fields, through compounds, down dusty alleyways. Locals would wander out to watch us by. Children would shout 'salaam' and it was fabulous really to actually be walking in the landscape of Afghanistan - it was like walking in a different age and time - and to feel the dust.

I have put this painting here to show you how this figure is connected to the previous drawing and really to demonstrate how a final composition might include three or four drawings put together. And, of course, back in the studio you have time to mix up colour as you wish, and generally create the composition that befits the dialogue you are trying to communicate.

Helmand at this point was full of extremes. One minute you were waking in this stunning landscape, the next you were at a repatriation ceremony. There was a procedure called Operation MINIMISE which occurred when there was a severe casualty or fatality. This procedure, little signs would go up all around the bases informing you it was on, and all communications with the outside world would cease until the next of kin had been informed. To give you an idea, this was pretty much going on all day every day.

I got on very well with the sergeant major from the 2 YORKS and he showed me a Jackal armoured vehicle that had been blown up by an IED a few days before. Half of it had been found over a compound wall. In fact a very good friend of that sergeant major had been killed in that blast and inevitably he was still very raw. I did a drawing of that sergeant major and strangely he insisted in sitting in a similar Jackal armoured vehicle as a backdrop.

I moved further north up to a place called Musa Qala, it was the headquarters of the Household Cavalry Battle Group and the DC, the District Centre, had been a thriving hotel - I stayed on the second floor for two nights. Except this hotel now was the battered burnt-out remains of a building. Clear plastic was used for the windows and the austere concrete interior was broken up with the odd bunk bed, dust and Taleban graffiti. Up on the roof I spent hours by the observation post and it commanded fantastic views along the wadi and into the mountains and the beginning of the Hindu Kush.

In fact, this is a little watercolour study made up there which looks north across the bazaar and up towards Mount Musa Qala, or 'Mount Doom' as it was called by the troops. And here is the wadi winding its way down south.

You could say these landscapes have analogy to war artists of the past, where artists were required not just to document military endeavour and celebrated victories, but were required in a more practical way to record the topography, the lay of the land, and enemy positions. And this was even required into the First World War where artists such as Paul Maze, where cameras were very bulky and tricky to manoeuvre through the trenches, and he would crawl along and make notations with vital information to head back to HQ.

Now opposite the other side of the wadi was Roshan Tower which was a Russian telecommunications centre. Again it was a stunning landscape and, in fact, this is a 10-foot painting made from a similar watercolour to the previous one.

Now, you could say why didn't I just take some photographs. It would have been a lot easier and I could just done with it. However, in my view, painting and drawing has a certain immediacy and I think we're so inundated and surrounded by photography and moving footage - it's on our mobile phones, laptops, television, magazines, it's everywhere - and I think we're so bombarded by it these days that we almost see this graphic footage and straightaway it has gone, it's forgotten as soon as we've seen it.

And I think painting and drawing really has in innate human quality to it and it has a tangible physicality and expression. I think it is time-honoured and it speaks to us in this timeless and direct manner. And I believe personally - I am biased of course - it provokes a deeper thought process.

I have always been very intrigued by the Afghans themselves. Possibly I romanticise the Mujahideen fighting the Russians as freedom fighters, but nonetheless I'm still fascinated by them. So at every point I had, I would make some studies of them. These were two Pashtuns drawn at the gates to Forward Operating Base Shawqat. And I was very intrigued by them in their turbans and their long robes. And their faces were inscrutable and I remember thinking I couldn't work them out. Were they friend or foe?

Once a week a large market took place in the wadi at Musa Qala. Hundreds of people would wander in from the surrounding villages and compounds, here crossing the wadi to the market in the middle. And they would meet up to trade in textiles, carpets, livestock or even just to meet up. It was a fabulous, colourful spectacle and a vibrant scene and a peaceful respite for everyone, however temporary, from the ravages and consequences of 30 years of war.

As an opposite, on 19 February 2010 Corporal Dransfield put his kit together in a rather unorthodox but nonetheless well-rehearsed manner. Similarly, throughout the base similar preparations were made. It had been decided to head off on an operation at dawn and throughout the base blood groups were taken, rounds counted and an air of anticipation and excitement pervaded.

At dawn I headed off with a Fire Support Group from the Household Cavalry in a column of Mastiff armoured vehicles. We bumped and jolted our way across the terrain to a pre-designated point known affectionately as 'Three Nipple Hill'. We were to await the arrival of a foot patrol further down in the valley and to support them as they cleared compounds which were a well-known Taleban area.

This, in fact, is a little drawing made of the FOO on the vehicle - the Forward Observation Officer making his report with Three Nipple Hill in the distance. As the sun began to rise and the haze cleared, various insurgent activity was spotted and a Javelin missile was set up on the vehicle. And it was always said with a wry smile that the price of one Javelin missile equated to the price of a Porsche 911.

The foot patrol was spotted and as it came over a rise, unbeknown to the insurgents on the other side, effectively it was a catalyst and all hell was let loose. I suddenly found myself in amidst a frenetic battle, which could best be described as a sort of organised chaos. I had to seize the moment and scrawl down as much information as quickly as I could. I didn't have time to consider whether it was any good or not, just to scrawl down a few marks would suffice, in fact resorting to the stick men of my youth.

This is a painting made from that previous drawing and it was actually acquired by the National Army Museum, this one [NAM. 2011-08-35-1]. And very much it is about... as the column of troops race across the open ground with the protection of the smoke, it struck me, and the muted landscape, that it was like an abstract red brush stroke across the landscape.

Equally, it was like a veil or a metaphor for protection, with connotations of blood. And, of course, reflected, as you can see in some of these paintings around the room, the red tunics of uniforms from a different era and different time. Possibly in the 19th century a patrol had headed across that very same spot, conducting a very similar operation.

The battle raged on and sitting on the top of a Mastiff armoured vehicle I had an old-fashioned general's view of the battleground. And having never been in such circumstances, it was a really surreal thing. I thought I was on a film set or watching a Sunday matinee. So frenetic was it all, I didn't have time for any fear. That only kicked in later when I considered all the possibilities.

This is another painting owned by the National Army Museum [NAM. 2011-08-36-1]. Effectively it is made from a few drawings done at the time, and I have tried to keep the simplicity to those drawings. It's not about so much absolute detail as trying to keep the energy and convey the atmosphere of that situation.

I sat on the vehicle with the gunner, the squadron corporal major, Sean Fry, from the Household Cavalry and he was firing at this tree line. In the tree line were the Taleban. And in the middle ground the foot patrol raced from one compound to clear this compound.

In fact, we were actually fired at and I had to duck below, closely followed by the gunner, here. And I remember as he ducked down beside me he had a vast grin on his face. And I remember thinking how bizarre, as if to say what fun he was having.

Equally, I remember looking out through the back doors of the vehicle that were open and in the distance were blue mountains like this and in the near ground a nomadic encampment with camels and goats; a paradise scene and a paradox to the all-encompassing sounds of battle going on all around us.

The battle raged for about three and a quarter hours. Eventually we withdrew. And as we moved away a blast, thought to be an IED, went off beside our vehicle and we were violently pitched to the right. And I remember being strapped in the seat in the back and it was as if all the bones in my body had been jarred and thrown.

News came in directly that another vehicle had hit an IED and it was an open-top vehicle and everyone thought the worst. The world had gone upside down.

We raced off to assist this stricken vehicle. I was thrown out at the patrol base and I remember feeling quite sick at this point, running into the base as troops raced out the other way trying to grab their body armour and rifles, racing out to assist. Feeling very sick and totally out of my depth at this point, I climbed a 'sangar' and did the only thing I knew I could do. And I made this little study.

You see as the vehicle I was in races out to help the stricken vehicle out of picture, the trail of dust, the fine dust in Afghanistan. And I remember thinking while I was doing this drawing some locals wandered past and it struck me how seemingly ambivalent they were to the tragedy that may just have occurred. However, if you have lived in that sort of environment for so many years, maybe you can only be seemingly ambivalent.

News came through there were two casualties, but they weren't too bad, when 'boom' - straight in front of us another IED went off. I was horrified. It would have made a very powerful drawing, but I couldn't do that, I didn't think it was right. I didn't make a drawing, I didn't even take a photograph, so concerned was I for the fate, maybe, of those inside.

In fact, this is a painting made afterwards from memory, a few drawings and a couple of photos. It's like an explosion of paint where the paint drips down the surface and just misses the returning foot patrol, almost an analogy to the pure fortune of it all. There were two casualties and, in the words of the troops, they were 'unlucky but lucky'. On this occasion they weren't too bad.

This is a quick drawing, a study made of the Pedro medevac, the American medical helicopter, with the coloured smoke that is thrown out to mark the landing spot, the Hesco walls of the base, and a watchtower.

The young gunner had been blown up twice that day and it was his 20th birthday. The driver, who strangely I had talked to that morning, and had the adjacent bunk in the camp, they were taken away. And I remember it was quite haunting that night to see this guy's empty bunk and already his kit had been packed, taken and was gone.

The last of the troops came into the base about ten and a half hours after being on the ground and I remember everyone was wired, full of adrenaline. And as the sun began to drop, I climbed this 'sangar' and made a study of the base. The troops all gathered here in the near ground by the cookhouse and smoked cigarettes, drank tea or brews and scoff, and talked over the madness of the day.

Now and again someone would come and join me and see what I was up to. And I began to realise that even though I had only been in Afghanistan, or in this base, for a couple of days and I had arrived with a paintbrush rather than a rifle, really what was going on here was as if... because I had been through a similar experience I had been accepted and to a degree, as much as possible, become one of them.

First thing the next morning news came through that a young captain everyone knew had trodden on an IED a few miles north. He was in a bad way and later died. You could feel the thoughts and the gloom in the base. Equally, as an opposite, to give you a little vignette, I remember watching a Household Cavalry officer smoking a pipe and surveying the distant landscape, again a little flashback to a previous era and different time.

It had been decided to head back to the DC at Musa Qala in a Mastiff armoured vehicle. Travelling in a Mastiff personally I found to be a very intense, hot and claustrophobic experience. You are very removed from the outside world and the only awareness you have of that are fleeting glimpses of maybe roofs of compounds, or often just the sky through the small driver's windows up front. The only other light comes from the gunner's turret above.

We headed off towards the DC and usually this journey would have been quite simple. However, on this occasion we couldn't get through. The driver cursed and reversed and tried another route. Again we couldn't get through. More swearing and the gunner disappeared to see if he could clear the route and again we had to try another route.

By this point, with the news of the morning, everyone in the back was getting very edgy and tense. And it was thought we were gradually being led or tunnelled into Taleban positions or an ambush. Someone shouted out, 'There's a spare rifle for you, George.' And of course my imagination began to work overtime.

I was very grateful to be drawing at the time. In fact, I was making a portrait of this bombardier here. And again it gave me something positive to do and think about. Of course, drawing in that situation with the vehicle bumping and jolting across the terrain was very tricky and it was very much as much about the marks you didn't make as the marks you did.

This painting is owned by the National Army Museum as well [NAM. 2012-11-32-1], and it is presently on show downstairs in the 'Unseen Enemy' exhibition. I was trying to in this painting convey the intensity of being in the back of one of these vehicles. And it very much plays off the story I've just relayed, where everyone is in their own thoughts and having to deal with the nerves of it all on their own.

Equally, it plays off the incident with the IED, hence it's pitched to one side. And I put the light trailing from the gun turret above, almost as a reference to renaissance paintings and the element of spirituality. Almost as if inside this metal box you are resigned to your fate and there's nothing else you can do.

Poignantly, the last piece I made in Afghanistan was made in Kandahar of a staff sergeant attached to the Household Cavalry. Whilst painting him a large blast went off outside, followed by a fire-fight. Abruptly we had to cease working as sirens rang out reminiscent of the Second World War and don our helmets and body armour.

I did return to this study, although briefly, before we had to move and somehow to me it captures something of the reality and tragedy of war. And I was later to learn a British solider had been killed in that blast.

Now, Paul Nash, the renowned First World War artist, describing his experiences following the First World War, wrote of 'the struggles of a war artist without a war'. Again referring to the World War One he wrote, 'It sounds absurd, but life has a greater meaning here and a new zest, and beauty is more poignant.'

Now, in no way would I consider myself or compare myself to Paul Nash, or either his experiences in the trenches of the First World War, but what I did understand here was the sentiments he was writing about, because in Afghanistan I had lived and experienced and lived life with a heightened sense of awareness surrounded by the constant and perpetual dangers. And it had given life a real sense of meaning and purpose for the first time, and it was almost like a spiritual experience for me.

Returning to the UK was a real anticlimax, it was very grey and dull, and I began to understand what it must be like for a solider returning to civilian life after 20 years in the Army. I attended various parades - this is Trooping of the Colour - and a medals ceremony at Windsor for the Household Cavalry. I met up with a lot of the troops that I knew, and got to know them better. I met their wives, their families, their girlfriends and I began to understand military life back in the UK, almost in reverse.

This is one [painting] of the Remembrance ceremony for the brigade and, in fact, the disbanding of the brigade.

I spent many hours painting Sean Fry in his Life Guards attire. I'd wanted to paint someone I had seen in action in Afghanistan in their desert fatigues as an opposite in their ceremonial attire. This portrait was a deliberate play on the grand tradition of the Victorian hero. And, in fact, Sean Fry had been a hero; he had been awarded a Military Cross in 2006 for actions of gallantry in Afghanistan.

Equally, my portrait was a bit subversive. Usually a portrait like this would be of a high-ranking officer; a colonel, a general. Sean Fry when I first met him was a squadron corporal major, or the equivalent of a company sergeant major. I went to his wedding in Windsor and attended his 40th birthday bash at the sergeants' mess, where I learnt to do a bit of hardcore drinking.

All these experiences, of course, I noted all the time in my sketch books, gave me a perspective on my work in Afghanistan. I spent the next year and a half creating a large body of paintings reflecting my vivid experiences. These were exhibited at Bonhams in London and Edinburgh, and through the sale of many works we collected a considerable sum for the charity Combat Stress. Really, in the journey of an artist, I realised that my return from Afghanistan was really just the beginning.

Thank you.

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