Marine's war diary inspires choral tribute

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

Image caption, Lt John Thornton was described as a popular and formidable soldier

When Lieutenant John Thornton wrote about "the numbers game" in his diary while serving in Afghanistan, he was expressing his fears about the chances of becoming a victim of a roadside bomb.

Four months later, the Royal Marine was killed by such a device.

Now, that passage from his war diary has provided the inspiration for a choral work that seeks to tell the story of Marines in Afghanistan and the devastation wrought on their families when they do not return.

"I think it is a story that needs telling," says Pete Thornton, Lt Thornton's father.

Eternal Voices, which receives its world premiere on Saturday, has been written by Adam Gorb, the Royal Northern College of Music's head of composition, and librettist Ben Kaye.

Newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald will take part by reading real headlines about Afghan casualties during the performance at Exeter Cathedral.

Kaye spent a year interviewing injured Marines and bereaved families, including Pete Thornton and his wife Linda of Ferndown, Dorset.

Going through the diary with Kaye and reliving the events of spring 2008 was painful, Mr Thornton said, but necessary to tell the story behind the fleeting headlines.

"You're across the newspapers and media for a really short period of time, and yet the grief lives with you forever," he explains.

"I'm doing it not just for us, but all the other bereaved families who feel exactly the same way.

"The piece of music is going to perpetuate the memory of all the guys who are injured and all the guys who have been killed.

"That is well worthwhile doing and well worthwhile all the pain."

Image caption, Sir Trevor McDonald will take part in Saturday's event at Exeter Cathedral

Lt Thornton, 22, and Marine David Marsh, 23, were killed when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province on 30 March 2008.

Described as a popular and formidable soldier by his commanding officer, Lt Thornton had wanted to be a Marine since the age of 13.

"There was nothing else that he wanted to do," his father says. "To see somebody so young have a dream and then achieve it was quite awesome really.

"When you look back, at 22 years, he achieved so much. And he was a lovely son."

Watching the performance, with the line from the diary sung by the 80-strong Exeter Festival Chorus backed by the Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines, will be "very emotional", he says.

"The news headline that Sir Trevor McDonald will be reading will be the one that he read on the day John and Dave were repatriated.

"With that, and the verse that Ben's put together, you remember it so vividly and it brings back the feeling and emotion of that particular day."

Lt Thornton and Marine Marsh are among 344 British forces personnel or Ministry of Defence civilians who have died in Afghanistan since October 2001.

"We hear about casualties, for example in Afghanistan, almost on a daily basis," Mr Kaye explains.

"Because it's this constant drip, drip, drip, the public can almost become inoculated."

The composition is split into five movements, each introduced by Sir Trevor. "He's effectively coming out of retirement to read the news for the last time," Mr Kaye says.

"It tries to take those headlines that so many people hear so often, and that go in one ear and out the other, and explore the wider consequences.

"The headlines appear and then they disappear, and then the families and those terribly injured are left with the consequences for the rest of their lives."

Eternal Voices will raise money for charities to support serving and former Royal Marines and their families.

Interviewing serving and seriously injured Marines at the Army's Hasler Company in Plymouth left Mr Kaye with a feeling of "extraordinary admiration", he says.

"These people don't go into this with their eyes closed," he says. "They are well aware this isn't Boy's Own comic book stuff.

"They know this whole thing about this being a numbers game. They go out, and they may very well not come back."

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