Going through my library recently I came across a small, rather battered blue book: the 1943 edition of The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, addressed to my mother, then on Army service as a nursing sister, ‘With love from Dad’.
Dad? My grandfather? I remembered him as a serious, white-haired old gentleman, Sir Frank Gibson, long-time mayor of Fremantle, Member of the Legislative Council, patron, president or committee man of innumerable clubs and societies, Knight of St John. He had made a considerable sacrifice, I later realised, to pay my school fees after my father died, but I had never been sure he approved of me, and I had always vaguely, though I now know quite unjustly, felt that he disapproved of ‘love’, or any other emotion.
Still, those simple words suggested to me that The Last Enemy was something special.
It was. Once very well known, it remains a classic which should not be forgotten, and whose message is as relevant today as when it was written.
Today it remains moving and inspiring. Richard Hillary was an Australian-born Oxford undergraduate, who volunteered for the Royal Air Force on the outbreak of World War II.
He seems to have had no ideals, despised the mass of humanity in a snobbish, undergraduate way, and regarded the war as an interesting chance for personal development. Like many undergraduates he vaguely wanted to be a ‘writer’ but had no subject to write about. He became a Spitfire pilot, in a squadron originally based in Scotland. With the Fall of France it was moved to Hornchurch, east of London on the Thames Estuary. ‘Twenty-four of us flew south that 10th day of August, 1940; of those 24 eight were to fly back.’
Hillary shot down five enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain, qualifying as an ‘ace’, plus two probables and one damaged.
He generally flew without wearing goggles over his eyes, a habit, as he said later, for which he would pay a high price. He was shot down in flames over the English Channel and rescued by a lifeboat just before he drowned.
I was falling. Falling slowly through a dark pit. I was dead. My body, headless, circled in front of me. I saw it with my mind, my mind that was the redness in front of my eyes, the dull scream in the ear, the grinning of the mouth, the skin crawling on the skull. It was death and resurrection. Terror, moving with me, touched my cheek with hers and I felt the flesh wince … I tried to reach up my hand but could not. ‘Is that you, nurse? What have they done to me?’
‘Well, they’ve put something on your face and hands to stop them hurting and you won’t be able to see for a little while. But you mustn’t talk: you’re not strong enough yet.’
Gradually I realised what had happened. My face and hands had been scrubbed and then sprayed with tannic acid. The acid had formed into hard black cement. My eyes alone had received different treatment: they were coated with a thick layer of gentian violet. My arms were propped up in front of me, the fingers extended like witches’ claws, and my body hung loosely on straps just clear of the bed.
Blind for a long time, he heard junior nurses fainting or vomiting when his dressings were changed. In visions he saw his friends die. The vision proved to be accurate.
Eventually the renowned plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe grafted skin to make him new upper and lower eyelids and lips, the latter painted red with mercurochrome.
The civilian population of East Grinstead, where McIndoe’s hospital was located, had been carefully briefed on how to react to his patients. They were proud of the epithet: ‘The town that didn’t stare.’
His mother offered him words of comfort to the effect that he had been too handsome and had been turning into a conceited cad. ‘Now you’ll know who your friends really are.’
A moment of epiphany came to him during an air-raid in London, when he helped, as much as the state of his hands would allow, to rescue a woman buried in a bombed house:
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she said, and took my hand in hers. And then looking up at me again, she said after a pause, ‘I see they got you too.’
… Someone caught me by the arm, I think it was the soldier, and said: ‘You’d better take some of that brandy yourself. You don’t look too good’ but I shook him off. With difficulty I kept my pace to a walk, forcing myself not to run. For I wanted to run, to run anywhere away from that scene, from myself, from the terror that was inside me, the terror of something that was about to happen… I heard myself cursing, the words pouring out, shrill, meaningless… Could she not have died without speaking, without raising those eyes to mine?
Slowly he came to realise what it all meant: a little like the fictional Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited, his armour of selfishness and cynicism had been burnt from him.
His friends, now dead, had been able, without his advantages of intellect and education, to instantly recognise evil and the necessity to fight it. The would-be writer knew now he had a subject and a public: ‘Humanity. Yes, that despised humanity which I had so often scorned and ridiculed…’
He would, he resolved, use his gifts to earn some right to fellowship with the dead, and with those ‘who were still living and who would go on fighting until the ideals for which their comrades had died were stamped forever on the future of civilization.’
Richard Hillary was killed in a flying training accident shortly after finishing The Last Enemy, his only book. Some thought he was still unfit to fly given the state of his hands and fingers but the need for pilots was desperate. His final message, arrived at after so much suffering, of the reality of good and evil, of being a conscious warrior for civilisation, remains.
I wondered what Grandfather, radiating cheerfulness, which, as someone said, he was often far from feeling in his invasion-threatened town, or my mother changing dressings in a bleak army hospital, many of her nursing friends and contemporaries machine-gunned by the Japanese at Banka Beach, had made of those last words, and what we make of the future of civilisation now.