Human shield Godfrey Meynell laments 'unnecessary war' 20 years after Iraq protest

On February 15, 2003, millions marched against imminent war in Iraq. Two decades later, The National examines the legacy they left through the reflections of the organisers and some who mobilised against coming conflict

Twenty years ago, at the age of 68, Godfrey Meynell acted as a human shield in the hope of averting an invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition. Getty
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Twenty years on, it is the smell of fear that Godfrey Meynell remembers most vividly, his own and that of the people around him as they lay at the dead of night inside a power plant in Baghdad.

At the end of January in 2003, as mass opposition was mounting against another conflict being waged in the Middle East region, Meynell boarded one of three London double-decker buses for a 20-day, 3,000-mile journey to Iraq.

Meynell, then a 68-year-old grandfather, was heading off to act as a human shield with other anti-war protesters from around the world in the hope of preventing the city from being bombed by a US-led coalition.

“I wanted to do something heroic,” Meynell told The National this week of his mission that was, he says, motivated by a sense of righteous indignation and a streak of conceit.

"But I am afraid to say it did not work out that way.

"I am a very vain man and there was a lot of showing off about it. My wife, who was much more level-headed, was against the whole thing."

The organisers' ambition was to inspire a crusade for peace that would stop America and her allies, including Britain, from going to war. In the event, it fizzled out.

Godfrey Meynell, now 88, in Meynell Langley, the ancestral seat in Derbyshire that has been in the family since Norman times. Mark Souster for The National

He spent two weeks in the capital moving to various key installations before being gripped by "cold fear" and deciding to get out. "From having felt very heroic earlier on, I became anxious about getting hit by the bombs," Meynell says.

“One night, when we were in our designated place to discourage the Americans from bombing us, I remember thinking: 'It's happening'. But the noise turned out only to be a spectacular thunderstorm."

Meynell took a bus to Damascus and flew back to London on March 3 much to the relief of his family who had feared the worst. His son, also named Godfrey, had been so concerned that he had telephoned the Pentagon to plead with authorities not to launch an attack.

Sitting in an armchair in Meynell Langley, the family home since Norman times, the now 88-year-old does not have the air of a rebel with several causes.

The masterpiece 'A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, with the Figure of Julia, Banished from Rome', by 18th-century artist Joseph Wright, went under the hammer for £665,000 in 2014. Meynell donated the proceeds to help refugees arriving from Syria in Greece. Getty

As he speaks of the events of two decades ago, his lasting feeling is one of shame for not staying the distance; he was back home by the time the "shock and awe" campaign began. There are, though, no regrets.

"It was an unnecessary war if ever there was one. I actually have got time for Tony Blair. I think it was an honest mistake joining up with the Americans, but the war has had terrible consequences."

The human shield convoy left from the Tower of London on January 25, and Meynell had been accompanied to the departure point by his son. "People really were scared," Godfrey Jnr says. "They sensed that perhaps they might not be coming back. I remember saying to the driver: 'Look after my father'."

The bus carrying Meynell arrived in Baghdad on February 15, the day that Godfrey Jnr returned to London to take part in the Stop the War march, the biggest ever seen in the capital.

After joining the colonial service in 1959, Meynell, pictured above, with his wife Honor, was awarded an MBE for gallant action in the protectorate of West Aden, now Yemen, for tackling a local who had stabbed another British official. Photo: Shutterstock

Meynell himself has long been driven by a sense of injustice underpinned by a firm Christian faith shared by his wife Honor, one of the first Church of England female priests, until her death last year.

After school at Eton and history at Cambridge University, he joined the colonial service in 1959. Sent to what was then the British protectorate of Aden, now Yemen, Meynell became fluent in Arabic, wholeheartedly embracing the culture and the people.

"It was the happiest time of my life," he says.

Meynell resigned abruptly in 1966, the year before the final British withdrawal, but pulled some political strings to help get Sa’iid Mohammed, who had been his chef in Aden, to Britain where he settled in South Shields in north-east England.

Godfrey Meynell with his son, Godfrey, and a portrait and the bravery medals of his father, also Godfrey. Mark Souster / The National

“He is like a brother to my father and a second father to me,” says Godfrey Jnr.

Meynell's post-government life was taken up with causes and public works. He set up an organic farm in the 1970s and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent Green candidate in the 1997 general election.

The lifelong royalist, who represented the Queen at a local level as High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1982, reserves particularly staunch support for King Charles given his stance on the climate crisis.

Age has not dimmed Meynell's campaigning zeal. He is currently walking an average of about a mile and a half a day to Norwich, on a charity fundraising drive. It is no mean feat for an octogenarian, even one as remarkable as Meynell.

Looking back on his time spent protecting sites such as the South Baghdad Power Plant, above, in 2003, Meynell isn't sure he and the other human shields achieved much 'apart from creating some goodwill, I think'. Photo: Shutterstock

But it is typical of an eventful life in which he has never been afraid to do his "bit" — chiefly for the anti-war movement, the environment, and the Arab world - and give what he can.

In 2014, he was so moved by the plight of refugees from Syria arriving in Greece that he donated the proceeds of the sale of a masterpiece by the 18th-century artist Joseph Wright to a church charity. Valued before auction at £150,000, A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, with the Figure of Julia, Banished from Rome went under the hammer for £665,000.

When asked to look back and consider whether his escapade to Baghdad had been worth it, Meynell concedes with hindsight “probably not".

"Maybe it was a bit naive," he says. "It didn’t achieve much apart from creating some goodwill, I think. Now, at the age of 88, I am wiser — and I certainly would not be rushing back there. But you have to do what you feel is right at the time.”

Updated: February 15, 2023, 8:41 AM