On Bloody Sunday by Julieann Campbell review – first-hand stories of a shameful day | History books

British soldiers on William Street minutes before paratroopers opened fire

“As children,” Julieann Campbell writes in her introduction to this intricately woven oral history of Bloody Sunday and its long aftermath, “we were told stories about my uncle, Jackie Duddy – a teenage boxing champion – who went on a civil rights march and was shot by British soldiers.”

Jackie Duddy, aged 17, was the first fatality on the afternoon of 30 January 1972. A photograph of his limp body being carried by local men, while a priest walks uncertainly ahead of them waving a white handkerchief, has since become the single most memorable image of the day’s horror. For his close family, it is also a constant and painful reminder of the casual brutality of his passing. “We knew Jackie’s face from family photographs, book covers and the Bogside mural,” she elaborates, describing the discomfort she felt as a child “seeing mum subjected to her brother’s dying moments again and again” each time footage of Bloody Sunday aired on the news.

For Campbell, then, this book is a deeply personal, as well as meticulously journalistic, undertaking. (Her previous book, Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial prize.) Drawing on new and historical interviews with around 110 people, mainly survivors, relatives and eyewitnesses, On Bloody Sunday possesses a veracity and cumulative power that sets it apart from previous accounts. “As a relative,” writes Campbell, “I felt the need to keep asking and keep recording these accounts, knowing just how precious they were.”

On the page, one testimony inexorably following another, it is the sense of utter disbelief felt by those caught up in the terror that is most palpable. It is Father Daly, the priest with the white handkerchief, who would later become Bishop of Derry, who captures it most vividly in his description of the frantic moments that followed the first killing. “The paras were still firing, and we decided to make a dash for it to try and get young Jackie away. We were terrified. This seemed like it was in our imagination, like this was film we were seeing. It was hard to believe it was reality.”

Fifty years on, that remains the case. Though Campbell provides much-needed context for the massacre, and reprises the families’ long campaign for justice, it is the details of the day that resonate. One local man mistook the sound of the bullets cutting through the air around him for the buzzing of wasps and remembers thinking, “How could there be wasps in January?” A woman who was badly injured by a bullet in the leg remembers looking into the face of the soldier who shot her from just 20 feet away.

More chilling is the testimony of a local doctor, Raymond McClean, who came upon two young boys trying to resuscitate a man who was lying on the steps of a square. He was 35-year-old Gerard McKinney, who was already dead. Dr McClean was immediately called to a house nearby, where he found 17-year-old Michael Kelly lying next to Jim Wray, aged 22. “Michael was already dead when I examined him,” he states matter-of-factly. “Jim was also dead… I told the young first-aiders to continue their efforts at resuscitation. I did this mainly to keep them occupied and in the hope that if they were kept busy, they would be less likely to panic.”

On the streets nearby, panic spread as people fled the scenes or crouched behind walls, while others lay dead or injured. Seventeen-year-old Hugh Gilmour was shot while running towards his home in Rossville Flats. He died below the window of his parents’ flat. Alexander Nash saw his son William lying by a makeshift rubble barricade on Rossville Street alongside two others, and ran frantically to the spot with his hand raised “to signal that the shooting should stop”. He was hit twice, falling beside the bodies. “I put my hand on my son’s back and said: ‘Willie!’ His eyes were wide open, but I knew straight away that he was dead and that the other two men were dead too.” Amid all this, people risked their lives to tend to the fallen, often crawling to where they lay.

British soldiers on William Street minutes before paratroopers opened fire
British soldiers on William Street minutes before paratroopers opened fire. Photograph: William L Rukeyser/Getty Images

For those who witnessed the carnage, and for the families and friends of those killed, the trauma of Bloody Sunday was exacerbated by all that followed: the portrayal of the victims as gunmen and nail bombers by the British army and an acquiescent rightwing media, an initial inquiry-cum-whitewash that exonerated the guilty, and the long cover-up by the military and political establishment. In 2010, a heroically dogged justice campaign by the families culminated with the publication of the 12-year-long Saville inquiry, which found that soldiers from Britain’s 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment fired on marchers, none of whom were armed or posed a threat, and that many of the soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.

Why the regiment was deployed in the first place, being spectacularly unsuited to the task of controlling civilian protest during such a tense and tumultuous time, is a question that also resounds through this book. Campbell devotes a chapter to the Ballymurphy massacre that happened five months before Bloody Sunday, the paras shooting dead 10 unarmed civilians, including a priest and a mother of eight, in nationalist Ballymurphy in Belfast over three nights. She also includes a memo, written in the wake of that horror, and just weeks before the killings in Derry, by General Ford, commander of land forces for the British army, whose decision it was to deploy the Paras. It reads: “I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ring leaders amongst the DYH (Derry young hooligans), after clear warnings have been issued.” Before the terror was unleashed, it was normalised from on high.

The findings of the Saville inquiry led to an apology – “on behalf of the government, indeed on behalf of the country” – from prime minister David Cameron. Last year, the director of public prosecutions made the decision to discontinue the case against the single ex-paratrooper, known as Soldier F, who was set to face trial for the murder of two of the victims and the attempted murder of four others. The families have appealed against the decision and their long campaign persists.

For the families of those killed, the survivors and the nationalist population of Derry, the events of Bloody Sunday, which shaped the course of the Troubles like no other single incident, remain, as Campbell puts it, “present, debated and unresolved”. Reading her intricately structured account of the day and its long shadow, it is not hard to see why.

On Bloody Sunday: A New History of the Day and Its Aftermath By the People Who Were There by Julieann Campbell is published by Octopus (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply