A war of words

By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent

20 August 2004


The 14-year-old sister of a teenage soldier killed in Iraq made an impassioned plea yesterday to Tony Blair to withdraw British troops.

Maxine Gentle, whose brother Gordon, aged 19, was killed in June by a roadside bomb in Basra, delivered a letter to Downing Street in which she criticised the Prime Minister for dispatching troops to "a war over oil and money".

Soon after arriving in Downing Street, the teenager and her mother, Rose, stormed out of an impromptu meeting with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, accusing him of "talking rubbish". Mother and daughter said they had made a "forceful" statement to Mr Prescott during the brief meeting.

In her letter, Maxine told the Prime Minister: "My big brother died at the age of 19, and what for? A war over oil and money, that's what I think the war is all about. There was no such thing as weapons of 'mass destruction'.

"I think that you should withdraw all of our soldiers from Iraq. After all, it's not our war, it's America's. So why did we, the British, have to get involved?"

Maxine and her family are the latest in a series of relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq to question the role of troops there. They were furious that a handwritten letter from the Prime Minister expressing sorrow at his death arrived only on Tuesday, seven weeks after his death in June.

Mr Blair, who writes to relatives of all soldiers killed in Iraq, told the family: "You and Mr Gentle are in my thoughts and prayers. I believe what Gordon and his fellow soldiers are doing out in Iraq is vital not just for the change necessary in that country, but vital for the security and stability of this country. It is a heavy responsibility to send young soldiers into war and I can assure you I did not take the decision lightly."

Mrs Gentle handed back the letter in disgust when she led a small delegation of anti-war campaigners to Downing Street. She and her daughter, from Pollok, Glasgow, were invited to speak to Mr Prescott, who is deputising for Mr Blair.

Mr Prescott apologised for the delay in posting Mr Blair's letter, blaming administrative problems.Mrs Gentle said she demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister, but walked out within minutes: "He [Mr Prescott] did not know why I had just received it [the letter]. I then walked out. He was just talking a lot of rubbish."

Opponents of the war seized on the case and repeated their calls for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said: "I feel the tragedy for the family is that a young man has died for a war not of his making. I applaud the Gentle family for being prepared to share their grief.

"Both mother and daughter gave a very forceful presentation to him and told him exactly what they thought. It is a meeting Mr Prescott will not forget.

"Mrs Gentle made it clear that she was certain Gordon was murdered by the political decision of sending troops into war."

The family wore T-shirts printed with a photograph of Gordon in his military uniform as they delivered Maxine's letter.

Maxine told yesterday how she wept when her brother was posted to Iraq. She said: "I said to my pals: 'I don't think he is coming back.' They said: 'Of course he's coming back.'

"Now I can't believe this has happened. I still think he is coming home. I have just lost my big brother, who meant the world to me, and I don't want others to go through that."

The Gentles are angry Gordon was posted to Iraq just a month after he finished training, and have raised concerns about whether his patrol had equipment to jam radio signals that could detonate roadside bombs.

Mrs Gentle, who works as a cleaner, said she had foreseen her son's death when she went to see him off to his posting in Iraq earlier this year. She said: "I told him, 'Keep your head down, son.' He said, 'I'll be OK.' He didn't ring for the first two weeks, but then he was allowed 20-minute phone calls home. He never really spoke about it."


Private Andrew Joseph Kelly, 18, in the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, died 6 May 2003, in southern Iraq

Gunner Duncan Geoffrey Pritchard, 22, in the 16 Squadron RAF Regiment, died 8 May 2003 in hospital in the UK

Corporal David John Shepherd, 34, in the Royal Air Force Police, died 19 May 2003, in Kuwait

Lance-Corporal Thomas Richard Keys, 20, served with the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June 2003, in southern Iraq

Lance-Corporal Benjamin John McGowan Hyde, 23, served with the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June, in southern Iraq

Corporal Simon Miller, 21, served with the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June, in southern Iraq

Corporal Paul Graham Long, 24, in the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June, in southern Iraq

Corporal Russell Aston, 30, in the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June in southern Iraq

Sergeant Simon Alexander Hamilton-Jewell, 41, in the 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 24 June, in southern Iraq

Captain James Linton, 43, in the 40 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, died 18 July 2003, in Az Zubayr

Private Jason Smith, 32, in the 52nd Lowland Regiment, died 13 August 2003, in southern Iraq

Captain David Martyn Jones, 29, in the 1st Battalion, The Queen's Lancashire Regiment, died 14 August 2003, in Basra

Corporal Dewi Pritchard, 35, in the 116 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 23 August 2003 in Basra

Warrant Officer Colin Wall, 34, the Company Sergeant Major of 150 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 23 August in Basra

Major Matthew Titchener, 32, the Officer Commanding 150 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, died 23 August, in Basra

Fusilier Russell Beeston, 26, in the 52nd Lowland Regiment, died 27 August 2003, in Ali As Sharqi

Sergeant John Nightingale, 32, in the 217 Transport Squadron, Royal Logistic Corps, died 23 September 2003, in Basra

Corporal Ian Plank, 31, in the Royal Marines, died 31 October 2003 in Basra

Private Ryan Lloyd Thomas, 18, in the Royal Regiment of Wales, died 6 November 2003, in Basra

Sergeant Norman Patterson, 28, in the Cheshire Regiment, died 1 January 2004 in Baghdad

Major James Stenner, 30, in the Welsh Guards, died 1 January in Baghdad

Lance Corporal Andrew James Craw, 21, in the 1st Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, died 7 January, in Basra

Rifleman Vincent Calvin Windsor, 23, in the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Green Jackets, died 21 January, in Amarah

Sapper Robert Thomson, 22, in the 35 Engineer Regiment, died 31 January, in Basra

Corporal Richard Thomas David Ivell, 29, in the Close Support Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps, died 12 February, in southern Iraq

Fusilier Gordon Campbell Gentle, 19, in the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, died 28 June, in Basra

Flight Lieutenant Kristian Michel Alexander Gover, 30, in the 33 Squadron, died 19 July at Basra airport

Private Christopher Gordon Rayment, 22, in the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment, died 4 August, in Amarah

Private Lee Martin O'Callaghan, 20, in the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment, died 9 August, in Basra

Private Marc Ferns, 21, in the 1st Battalion The Black Watch, died on 12 August in Basra

Lance Corporal Paul David Trevor Thomas, 29, in 2nd Battalion The Light Infantry, died 17 August, in Basra


Christine Morgan, mother of Private Marc Ferns, 21, of The Black Watch "How many more? It is 64 who have died now. I do not want that number to go higher. Get the soldiers home. He loved the life and had brilliant friends in the regiment, it was what he wanted to do and he gave his life for what he wanted to do."

Ann Fury, 20, partner of Private Ferns and mother of his daughter, Amy "I want them to come home. How long is it going to take [politicians] to realise it is not doing any good? It is going to be too late by the time they are all dead and the Government are going to realise it was wrong. They should have them home."

Margaret Evans, 51, aunt of Private Lee O'Callaghan, 20, of the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment "Lee only ever wanted to go into the Army and serve his country - and then he died. It's a useless war. If I had a choice right now I'd pull them all out. We can't guarantee their safety ... My message to Tony Blair is: Why are we in Iraq? Get the rest of the kids out."

Kathleen Southgate, 74, grandmother of Private O'Callaghan "We shouldn't have gone there in the first place - it was nothing to do with us. It's all about the Government wanting to act big - they don't care if boys like Lee die."