OLDSOLDIERAND WAR ONPOVERTY
Where do you look for new challenges after a 41-year military career thats seen you in
action around the world and commanding the British forces in the Gulf War? FARM-Africa,
thats where, says Sir Peter de la Billière, talking to Tim Relf in the fifth of an occasional
series profiling well-known people with close ties to the land
YOU get the eyes first: the stern, piercing eyes. You remember them as the steely-blue eyes that, nightly when the Gulf War was raging, burned out at you through your TV set fronting progress briefings.
Then the face: the honey-coloured, chiselled 65-year-old face of the man who, not so long ago, led 40,000 British troops in one of historys most high-tech wars.
Sir Peters sitting in the central London offices of FARM-Africa. Hes served 18 months as chairman – but his links with this charity working in deprived rural Africa dates back to 1992.
"I wanted something fresh," he explains. "I didnt want to become an Arms salesman round the Gulf for which there were plenty of offers at that time. I wanted to make a complete break from the service way of life."
He wanted to support a charity, had been involved in various UK farming projects over the years – albeit from a distance when abroad – and was familiar with the areas in which Farm worked. So, when its founder David Campbell asked him to join, the answer was only ever going to be one thing. "I jumped at it."
Its a charity thats grown quickly since its inception 14 years ago, spending nearly £3m in 1998. "I grew up with it," Sir Peter says. But lifes very different on civvy street; a culture shock after the Army. "In civilian life, you find that people dont necessarily do what you tell them to if they dont want to."
The rank-based career path of military life, based largely on years of service, doesnt exist. "You can well find yourself working for someone half your age and youve got to learn to come to terms with that. Some people can; some people cant."
Sir Peter obviously did – but he admits it took time and wasnt easy. "It really took me two years before I used to wake up in the morning and leap out of bed ready to tackle the days challenges – as I was accustomed to – without a fear or trepidation of whether I was capable or confident to do it."
Its odd, hearing that from a man like this. The man whose four-decade military odyssey saw him fighting in some of the worlds most dangerous war spots. The man who once commanded the SAS.
"Your self-confidence in the services is protected by the disciplinary structure and the rank structure. This is what disappears – because you get into civilian life and there is no disciplinary structure and no rank structure.
"All your supports have been cut away from you and you have to re-dress yourself in a new set of clothes."
That said, many service assignments provided a sounder grounding for overseas charity work than you might think. Both demand a strong political nous, organisational skills, discretion and determination. Both require a feel for the way things work abroad.
"Youre dealing with the same sort of people – senior government officials. You have to understand it is their country, they run it – and you are the guest."
* Sound farm practices
So what else did he bring? "I brought an understanding of how poverty in rural areas can be so inexpensively and successfully and dramatically reduced by the application of sound agricultural practices. Its not a case of throwing money at them – but by helping them do what they already do, but better."
FARM-Africa, he says, is a very forward-looking charity. "But its forward thinking is developed by the people in the field on the farm in the countries we are working – not by the head office in London."
This means, like other board members, he travels abroad – the most recent trip to Kenya. He also works at Robert Fleming bank and is involved in a museum appeal for the Durham Light Infantry – the regiment he went to war with in Korea. He plans, meanwhile, to keep "dabbling" in agriculture. Maybe buy or rent some ground. Get some cattle. "That will keep me getting up in the morning."
Sir Peter, married with three children, has also somewhere found time to write two books: Storm Command, an account of the Gulf War and the autobiographical Looking for Trouble.
Storm Command, he says proudly, took less than six months to get from conception to the bookshops. It beat American Gulf War leader General Norman Schwarzkopfs book to the shops. "By days", he adds smiling.
That competitiveness is probably a habit left over from those Army days. And Sir Peter, though physically a smaller man than you might expect, still has his powerful military bearing. A liking, you feel, for people to do what he tells them. Its not an arrogance, you understand – just the way things worked in the services.
* Sought adventure
But he doesnt like talking too much about those days. Hell tell you that it was a spectrum of experiences. That it was a challenge and an adventure through life. That, through it, he found the travel and adventure he was seeking.
But its also in the past. He wants to talk about the future. About FARM-Africa. About the Grow A Tonne and Set Aside appeals aimed at raising cash from British farmers.
"We see ourselves contributing in a small way to the future prosperity of Africa – and a prosperous Africa will be of benefit to the rest of the world," he says.
Lots of work has been done. Lots more remains. When it comes to tackling Third World poverty the war has only really just begun.
Just as well this old soldiers got a lot of fight left in him.
Want to know more about how to help FARM-Africa or make a donation?
Then call the
0171 430 0440.