Taff Gillingham – Khaki Chum and history man

SCAN the credits for some of the most notable British war dramas and documentaries and you might well spot the name Taff Gillingham.

Film, television and theatre directors call him in when they want to get things right in depictions of war scenes, particularly the First and Second World War.

What they won’t get from Taff is any nonsense. If they’re getting it wrong, he’s not afraid to say so and it is his attention to accuracy without compromising the artistic side of productions that has made him one of the most sought-after experts in his field.

His knowledge comes partly from books, partly from first-hand accounts but mostly from his experiences with the Khaki Chums, a group of people whose quest is to find out what it was really like for the men who fought in wars in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is not play-acting and Taff rejects the term “historical recreation” because there is no element of performance with the Khaki Chums. What they do, as near as possible, is for real. It’s not for an audience it is – as closely as possible – real and in the moment.

“It’s about learning,” he says.

“In France, stomping the highways and byways… it’s about how did it feel; how, in real life, did the men cope with carrying all their kit?

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“The manual might say how it should be done but contemporary photographs may show something else.” He gives the example of a piece of kit which is not being worn as directed. “So why is that?” Taff asks rhetorically and answers “Ah, of course, because it’s bloody uncomfortable if you wear it like that.” “It’s that kind of thing that you go and learn first hand.”

The constantly inquiring minds of the Khaki Chums go into forensic detail.

“It’s about going to France, Belgium, Holland; living the part for a week or two and coming back and using that experience - lecturing for universities, some of the fellas write books. It’s gaining practical experience.”

People say: ‘You wear the underwear and all that?’ Well yes, because if you don’t, that’s fancy dress. What we do is living history but we tend to dissociate ourselves from the word because it’s been hijacked [by re-enactors].”

Born in Ipswich in 1966, Taff went to Northgate High School. While, looking at his consuming passion, the army might have seemed the obvious career choice, he took another path.

“I’d always had an interest in history,” he says and concedes he considered the army but a visit to a barracks in his early teens put him off: “The place was a bit untidy; the soldiers weren’t particularly smart; there were bits of rubbish about and it just broke the magic.

“It wasn’t the image that I had of the army and I don’t regret that at all now. I can teach people First World War drill, Boer War drill, Second World War drill; I can teach them 50s stuff and give them an understanding of the army of the 20th century and its attitude much better than if I’d spent any time in it.”

His fascination with all things military manifested itself – as it did in so many youngsters in the decades after the 1939-45 war – in collecting.

“I’d been collecting old uniforms and things since I was about six-years-old, on and off. We were a generation where a lot of our dads had been in the services. My dad was called up for the RAF in February 1946, after the war. There were other boys at school whose fathers had fought in the war – certainly their granddads had.

“My dad’s dad had fought in the First World War so the war was around you and influenced you. The most popular toys were action men, model soldiers and Airfix kits. The War had a big influence on kids of my age and there was stuff around. People still had old tin helmets in the shed. The two dustmen we had in our street had both been at Arnhem (in 1944). One was a paratrooper and they spent ages chatting to me and telling me their stories.”

And young Taff – there’s no Welsh connection, his real name is Dave but he was dubbed Taff at primary school for reasons lost in the mists of time – tucked these stories away and remembered them all. He has an incredible memory for names and details plus a remarkable ability to put everyone and everything in context.

As well as a burgeoning fascination with military history Taff was also a talented artist and, at the suggestion of his art teacher at Northgate, he went to Ipswich Art School, his sights set on graphic design.

But Taff was already showing the character that would set him apart from his peers. While they all did work experience locally, he had other ideas. “I wrote to Yorkshire television and said I was very interested in television graphic design, any chance of work experience and they wrote back and said certainly.”

I venture that Taff is not afraid to ask is he wants something.

“Oh no,” he agrees. “When you get the chance to do stuff, you grab it.”

Eventually he ended up on a ground-breaking film and television design course at Suffolk College run by industry professionals. “It was the best two years I ever had. Everyone was very creative, there were great ideas.”

His first job, post-qualification, was with a video production company in East Bergholt and then he was invited to join a design office in the audio-visual department at BT where he stayed until a round of redundancies in the 90s.

At the same time as he was forging himself a successful career in design, Taff was pursuing his all-consuming interest in the military and became involved with the Suffolk Regiment Old Comrades.

“I also joined an organisation that was to become the Khaki Chums – a group of collectors, authors and historians.”

Together they are what the leading military historian Correlli Barnett has described as “an enormous knowledge resource”.

Taff says: “If someone rang me up and said they needed to know what a munitions box looked like in the Boer War I would know exactly which one of the Chums to ring up. Nobody knows everything… it isn’t about knowing everything. Knowing who to ask and where to look for it is the crucial thing.

“If someone asks what the weather was like on the first day of the Somme (July 1, 1916), I say I’m pretty sure it was a sunny day but leave it with me and I’ll get back to you.”

In the hierarchy of the Chums, Taff is head honcho. “I am Chief Chum. It’s not a democracy. It works like the army. The bloke at the top tells you what to do and you do it.”

Taff still lives in Ipswich and has a special affiliation to the Suffolk Regiment.

When the Khaki Chums went to Dunkirk in 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the evacuation, he met a number of Suffolk Regiment veterans. Back home, Taff did a slide show for old soldiers. “They said, ‘You must come by next week’ and so I started going to the meetings and they adopted me, really.”

Their adopted son was soon called upon to carry the standard for the Suffolk Regiment Old Comrades when it got too heavy for the veterans.

Taff is a mine of stories about the Suffolk Regiment soldiers – soldiers such as Ernie Fountain who, after fighting the whole war with valour in the Far East and north-west Europe was in Germany the day after the end of hostilities. Celebrating with comrades, Ernie was leaving a caf� when he bumped against a sentry, knocking the man’s Sten gun from his shoulder. The gun fell and went off, killing Ernie outright and making him, tragically, the last Suffolk Regiment casualty of the Second World War.

“I’ve studied it for so long I’ve got a head full of facts and figures and names.”

After giving a talk in Bury St Edmunds Taff was taking questions and a woman spoke about her grandfather who and been commissioned in the field as a lieutenant in Salonika (1914-18) and had been killed the following day. Immediately Taff was able to identify the fallen officer.

Taff regrets he didn’t have the chance to talk to more First World War veterans. “If only there had been time to interview all of them and store it somewhere but you can’t. You’re talking four years of people’s lives and that’s hours and hours of memories.”

He and his fellow Khaki Chum Mark “Fozzy” Forsdike started an organisation called the Friends of the Suffolk Regiment “for people who have relatives who served in it or people who collect memorabilia because, as the old boys disappear, in order to keep the name alive, we need people to come along.”

To give it its full title, The Khaki Chums, which covers all the services, is the Association for Military Remembrance but the affectionate nickname is less of a mouthful and avoids the inevitable default to initials, Taff explains.

When Taff left BT a friend suggested he should combine his background in design with his passion for military history and start a business. And that’s exactly what he did.

Working freelance, he targeted regimental and military museums and the commissions started to come in. Meanwhile another opportunity presented itself – but it had to pass Taff’s strict vetting first. “An author, William Boyd, turned up and said to me: ‘I’m writing a script for a First World War film and I would very much like you and your chaps (The Khaki Chums) to be in it.’ I said: ‘To be quite honest, we’re very fussy about what we do and if your script involves everyone getting shot for cowardice and all the officers buggering one another, we’re not interested.’

“He laughed and said ‘That’s so unbelievably honest, I’ll send you the script when I’ve finished it.’ “Several months later, it dropped through the front door with a helluva thud and I went through it with a fine tooth comb and I graded it between ‘this is absolute bollocks, you can’t write this’ to ‘well, it isn’t really right but…’”

With Taff’s background in television design he understood the demands of film and TV and the need to allow an element of dramatic licence.

He says William Boyd took on board about 95% of his suggested changes “which is unusual” he grins.

Then, when filming started, Boyd asked Taff act as historical adviser.

And so Taff found himself working on the film that became 1999 war drama The Trench, starring the current James Bond Daniel (Taff calls him ‘Danny’) Craig.

Not all scripts pass his strict criteria.

“Sometimes I’ll read a script and say ‘this is just offensive to the old boys. I’m not going to do it.’ We don’t need to take money to insult the old boys.”

Others are fine after a bit of the Taff treatment.

“When we did All the Kings Men (starring David Jason and based on the myth that a Norfolk Regiment battalion advanced into a mist and disappeared at Gallipoli in August 1915) the script said that when Captain Frank Beck (Jason) surrenders he throws away his revolver on to the ground. I said he would never do that. That’s shamefully casting down your arms in the face of the enemy.

“I said he would have turned it round and surrendered it to them – give them the hilt. And so that’s how they filmed it.”

Taff tells the story of a filmmaker who watched original film footage of the Somme showing soldiers charging a hill position and being beaten back. He rang Taff to ask why, when men were being shot and killed, they were walking rather than running away.

Taff told him he knew exactly why and when he and the Khaki Chums met up with the filmmaker in France at the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Somme in 2001 the man was still trying to work out his conundrum.

“We dressed him in the jacket, with all the equipment - grenades in the pocket - and took him outside where I pointed to a lamppost along the road. I said ‘See that lamppost’ and he said ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘Well, that’s about a third of the distance they were covering in that film. You run to that lamppost and then run back to me…

“He was tearing up the road with all the gear and running back he was almost on his knees. Two blokes picked him up. I saw the light bulb come on. He suddenly understood the adrenaline rush that carried those men up the hill had gone. They hadn’t got anything else to bring them back. Nothing.

“And there and then he understood the value of what the Khaki Chums do. By putting people in the uniform with the right underwear, right food, same kit, the same routine they had, you will understand in a way you wouldn’t in a million years by reading a book or even talking to someone about it.”

Some people might say the Chums can’t really recreate the experiences because they are not in fear for their lives. Taff counters: “Eighty per cent of the time you were bored stiff; 90% of the time you were frozen stiff; 1% of the time you were scared stiff. So 99% of the experience can be recreated and you don’t want to recreate the other 1%.”

“We did a filming job with Blue Peter up in North Yorkshire where they came and lived with us for a week in a trench. The weather was awful. It was one of the worst weeks we’d ever spent anywhere. It was a great honour that afterwards they said it was the worst thing they’d ever done. The same year they’d done a marine commando course and parachute jumps but a week with the Khaki chums was the worse thing ever,” Taff says with considerable pride.

“On the final night, the trench was three-quarters full of water because it was slashing down with rain. We managed to find one bit where we could just get the two presenters out of the water. By four in the morning I had sent most of the blokes back to the farm buildings. The farmer had a whole load of pig-rearing sheds and he put the heaters on so we could dry off a bit. At half past four, I walked over to these pig sheds and you could hear a constant noise of scratching and squealing and when I opened the door, everyone was in the pens curled up in their over-coats, except for one man who was on a chair in the middle of the room. It was as if there was a sea around his feet; this constant moving sea of rats – he was sound asleep. They were everywhere and, as I opened the door they disappeared. Within minutes you could hear them scratching again through the walls. I was so tired I curled up and went to sleep.”

As his reputation for advising on military matters grew, Taff found he was frequently being asked where authentic costumes and props could be acquired and so the company Khaki Devil was set up, hiring out uniforms and equipment to professional and amateur theatrical groups.

One award-winning West End production which credits Taff in the programme is the stunning First World War play War Horse, currently playing at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, and still booking until 2011.

Much of the action is set in France during the Great War and involves British and German soldiers.

Khaki Devil is owned by Taff and fellow Khaki Chum, Kev, who lives in Cambridgeshire plus there is Dickie who Taff describes as “sort of silent partner” who can adapt items to replicate the real thing.

Taff laughs when I ask if it’s made him rich.

Some proposed projects don’t come off. An attempt to make a British Band of Brothers-type drama was one such.

“We spent about four months collecting stuff; stories - funny, touching. It was planned to be the most expensive four-part drama the BBC had ever made.”

But when it was pitched to a BBC executive, the filmmaker was told the problem was that “history’s dead”.

With a roll of his eyes Taff wordlessly conveys his feelings about that statement.

One of the things that most upsets him is prevailing attitudes about the Great War.

“When I do talks for school kids, they’re taught it was senseless; all mindless slaughter.

“If I were to say that everyone in the Second World War died in vain I’d have people throwing things at me. So why do we say that of the First World War?

“Ask people to name the most successful campaign in British military history and they’ll say El Alamein or Waterloo but what they won’t say is the battle of the last 100 days of the Great War.

“They won more battle honours, gained more ground and more equipment than in any other campaign before or since. Only the British would not know their greatest military achievements,” sighs Taff.

Taff is happy to talk about what he does but he has a higher purpose. Everything he accomplishes; every time he advises filmmakers, hires out uniforms, talks to schoolchildren or joins up with The Khaki Chums at a battle site it is a mark of respect for the men and women who have fought for their country. His fierce attention to detail and accuracy is for them; a tribute to their resilience, courage, humour and sacrifice across more than a century of bloody warfare.

No one messes with those memories, not while Taff is around.

n For more information about the Suffolk Regiment visit www.suffolkregiment.org. Tomorrow (Easter Sunday) is Daffodil Sunday at The Suffolk Regiment Museum, Gibraltar Barracks, Newmarket Road, Bury St Edmunds, The Museum is open 9.30am until 3.30pm.