London shirtmaker acts to comfort Afghan wounded

LONDON (Reuters) - Emma Willis runs a fashionable men’s shirtmaking business in the West End of London. She is also deeply impressed by the bravery and sacrifice of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

Bespoke shirtmaker Emma Willis poses for a photograph in her shop in Jermyn Street in central London March 23, 2012. REUTERS/Toby Melville

While the war garners grim headlines in the West and public doubts about the long and inconclusive campaign grow, there is no shortage of goodwill at home for the soldiers themselves.

After hearing about the rehabilitation centre where amputees and other victims of the conflict receive therapy, Willis worked out a way of combining her business with support for wounded soldiers - she makes them bespoke, luxury shirts.

“It gives me the opportunity to say this is a token of gratitude for what you do for us and our security,” Willis said.

The shirts are made out of what she describes as “caressing cottons”. She says that for many of the wounded, young soldiers at the Headley Court rehab centre she visits, being measured up for a shirt is the first time they have been touched “in a non-medical way” since being evacuated from the front line.

Willis’s regular customers include members of the British royal family, several dukes as well as bankers and pop stars. U.S. President Barack Obama owns one of her shirts.

Wealthy men ready to pay up to 390 pounds ($620) for a made-to-measure shirt are keen to support her “Shirts for Soldiers” venture, Willis told Reuters in an interview in a cafe opposite her Jermyn Street store near to Fortnum and Mason and The Ritz.

She said she has no difficulties in funding the shirt scheme. “My well-off customers feel so strongly as well. I just send a text and the cheques roll in,” Willis said.

She has provided several hundred soldiers with high-end cotton shirts - monogrammed, gift-wrapped and with a photograph of the women who make them in Willis’s factory in Gloucester, southwest England.

In another venture, Willis is providing custom-made walking sticks for wounded soldiers to replace the crutches handed out by hospitals. Made by John Faulkner, a craftsman in the west of England, the sticks are furnished with a handle made of buffalo horn and the recipient’s regimental badge engraved in silver.

While the admiration felt by many Britons for each soldier is not in doubt, public attitudes towards the decade-long war as a whole are markedly cooler, with many having reached the conclusion that it is time to bring the mission to a close.


In Britain, which provides the second-biggest contingent after the United States to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, service charities are well supported and many turn out to watch the return of soldiers killed in the fighting.

But while the war in Iraq drew hundreds of thousands to protest in the streets, the Afghan campaign is not really inflaming passions among the British despite an inexorably rising death toll, which this month passed 400.

The death of six soldiers when their infantry fighting vehicle hit a roadside bomb this month was Britain’s largest single loss of life in Afghanistan since 2006.

An increase in “green on blue” killings, in which Afghan security personnel have turned their guns on foreign soldiers, has raised awkward questions for the British public ahead of the 2014 date for the withdrawal of most Western combat troops.

In the United States, 69 percent of those surveyed thought their country should not be at war in Afghanistan compared with 53 percent four months ago, according to a New York Times/CBS News opinion poll published this week.

France responded in January to the killing of four of its troops at the hands of a rogue Afghan soldier by suspending training and support operations, effectively bringing to an end its frontline military operations in Afghanistan.

A Comres/ITV News opinion poll this month showed that three-quarters of Britons felt that the Afghan war is unwinnable, up from 60 percent last year, and more than half of those surveyed felt that Britain should withdraw its troops now.

“I think that there is a general sense that we are done in Afghanistan, but have to leave properly,” said a serving senior British military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Patrick Bury, a former British Army captain and Afghanistan veteran now working as a security consultant, said the British deployment was never really thought through.

“Within two weeks of arriving there as a platoon commander, I knew we couldn’t win,” he said in an interview.

“The reality is that the country is a mess. The Afghan National Army loses about three percent of its strength every month which means it’s losing about a third every year. That’s completely unsustainable.”

And with British troops now fighting in Afghanistan for the third consecutive century, something of a gallows sense of humor looks to have taken root.

“The Pashtuns have a saying,” said one official with considerable experience in a country whose inhabitants have long taken pride in calling it “the graveyard of invaders”.

“They say ‘First one British comes to hunt, then two come to make a map, then they come with an army. Better to kill the first’” he said.

For Adam Cocks, a reservist with the London-based Honourable Artillery Company, the oldest regiment in the British Army, January 20, 2008 was what he calls a “bad day at the office”.

He was blown up twice within the space of 20 minutes by two separate landmines. He fractured his knee, his nose sort of “got blown off” and he suffered shrapnel injuries.

“I just remember waking up in hospital,” said the 28-year-old, who now works for an investment consultancy, P-Solve Meridian, in London.

He is wearing one of Willis’s Swiss cotton shirts, in smart blue and white stripes, and is convinced that they provide a morale boost for wounded soldiers. “It’s definitely a conversation starter,” he said.

Additional reporting by Peter Apps