Colin Freeman

Meet the British soldiers fighting in Ukraine

(Photo: Getty)

At his base near the frontlines outside of Kherson, an ex-British soldier named JK shows me a video of what looks like a scene from the world war one film 1917. It shows him and two other volunteer fighters walking through a burning, smoking treeline, having spent two hours pinned down by artillery and sniper fire that killed three Ukrainian comrades. It was a grim, exhausting day – and, as soldiering experiences go, far more rewarding than life in the British army. 

‘When I first signed up for the British army, there was drill and discipline, and if you were punished, your instructor would make you do press ups – that keeps you fit and toughens you up,’ said JK, whose own great-great grandfather won the Victoria Cross in world war one. ‘By the time I left a few years ago, it was like a youth club – the instructors weren’t allowed to be tough any more. If you can’t handle being shouted at, how are you going to handle a battlefield?’ 

Raised on a London council estate, the 29-year-old is part of a unit of foreign volunteers which was helping Ukraine retake Kherson, the Black Sea port city which the Russians were forced to surrender this week. His unit includes former Paras and French Foreign Legionnaires, ex-cops from the USA, and some who have never fired a gun in anger at all. 

For JK, who didn’t get the chance to serve in Afghanistan, the motivation is partly to test his combat skills, and re-embrace a martial culture that Britain no longer seems to value. For every volunteer though, there’s also the romance of following in the footsteps of George Orwell and the International Brigade in Spain – only this time it’s Putin’s fascism rather than Franco’s. 

Orwell would recognise aspects of life here. There’s trenches and fox holes, the sound of artillery fire, and bombed-out villages that have changed hands several times.

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Written by
Colin Freeman

Colin Freeman is former chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and author of ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The mission to rescue the hostages the world forgot.’

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