On a brisk morning in eastern Ukraine, Luke Templeton scans the field ahead of him. Bare and barren, a rare break in the crack of missile fire from above allows him to hear the crunch of fallen leaves beneath his feet. It’s almost an idyllic scene, until he notices a metallic lump poking through the foliage.
He stops dead in his tracks. The field he’s been pacing across for the past five minutes is scattered with similar lumps coming out of the ground all around him.
Mr Templeton looks over at his colleague. “It’s a minefield,” he shouts. “What the f**k are we doing here?”
The 32-year-old from Torquay in Devon, who previously spent 14 years in the British Army, undertaking three tours of Afghanistan, felt an urge to join the fight against Russia the moment he saw its troops invading Ukraine in February.
Mr Templeton saw a group of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians had gone to Ukraine to teach the military how to defuse bombs, mines and improvised explosives and he wanted to join the cause.
By May he was there, but even with his extensive military experience, he was caught off guard by the brutality of the war.
“There is no training any soldier can do to prepare themselves for war in Ukraine,” he told i. “I have never seen anything like this in my life.”
The former British soldier is detailing for the first time his experience of the front line, the evidence of war crimes he has uncovered and Russia’s indiscriminate barrage against the Ukrainian people.
Speaking to i from the East of Ukraine, near Donetsk, he won’t reveal his exact location for fear of kidnapping or being targeted in an attack.
An estimated 8,000 British volunteer soldiers have stepped forward to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukrainian troops, with many joining the Foreign Legion – a foreign military unit of the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine. But Mr Templeton thought his skills in disarming explosives were a much better asset to the military.
Along with a band of self-proclaimed “delinquents” from Sweden, Australia, the US and the UK began paving the way for Ukrainian forces, retaking villages Russian troops had claimed.
With every step, these early archaeologists of war – digging up mines on their hands and knees and clearing a path for troops to take back the land they once called home – are finding a litany of explosives, and the first pieces of evidence behind Russia’s war crimes against humanity.
For the past two months, Mr Templeton and his unit of EOD technicians have been following in the footsteps of retreating troops belonging to the Russian private military company the Wagner Group.
British military intelligence says 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries are deployed in Ukraine, with many of the group’s troops conscripted from prisons in the promise of freedom in return for their efforts. Many are told they will be working alongside experienced soldiers with high-grade equipment. But the reality has been far from the truth.
The group, which is linked to the Russian Government, has been accused of committing human rights atrocities including mass executions, arbitrary detention, torture during interrogation and the forced displacement of the civilian population.
Three Wagner Group mercenaries are alleged by Ukrainian prosecutors to have committed war crimes – including murder and torture – in the village of Motyzhyn near Kyiv in April, alongside regular Russian troops.
Earlier this month, a legal case was brought against the Wagner Group in the UK accusing the group and its founder Yegveny Prigozhin of “intentionally causing harm and suffering” to the people of Ukraine and causing “an illegal war through terrorism”.
The group and Prigozhin face accusations of terrorism, political assassinations, and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Templeton says the Russian troops “don’t actually want to fight” and are easy to suppress. He admitted he almost feels sorry for the conscripts who he claimed are told to fight or face being shot themselves.
“We just pray they surrender,” he said. “They do not want to be there at all.”
The problem is that as they retreat, Wagner forces are littering the ground with mines and booby traps and “every step forward has to be covered with a fine tooth comb” meaning progress is slow.
Just this week, Mr Templeton’s unit entered a village outside of Donetsk which had just been liberated to find a woman in her 70s had 14 mines outside her front door.
“The whole village was flat apart from this one house,” he said. “They’ve got a minefield right outside their front garden, they have a missile in the back garden and they’ve got shrapnel all through their house.
“We spent half a day clearing the mines out and when we told her that we’d cleared the area she just broke down in tears,” he said.
On another day, the Foreign Legion came across a grenade in a tree connected to a tripwire. “It’s got no specific target, it’s just going to take out anyone who trips on it, ” Templeton said. “The Russians just put them anywhere and everywhere.”
According to government estimates, Ukrainian sappers dispose of 4000-5000 explosive devices every day. The Ukrainian authorities have involved foreign specialists, like Mr Templeton, and have already started work on establishing the International Demining Centre.
Explosives experts have found mined children’s toys, washing machines, bags of potatoes, and playgrounds. In addition, the Russian aggressors did not neglect to mine the corpses of people and animals.
Mr Templeton’s unit works in teams of two, one technician scans the ground for hidden trip wires or explosives while the other faces the sky ready to give warning of down pouring missiles that Mr Templeton says are being “watered” down on the region indiscriminately.
“It’s not good when you’re focused on the ground and you’re being showered in artillery and mortars,” Templeton said.
“You can hear them whistling through the ground, everyone gets down until they hear an explosion,” he says. “Then you get back up and start scanning the ground and it happens again. It’s non stop.”
The British soldier claims to have seen the Russian military use white phosphorous bombs at least three times while in Kramatorsk – to the north of Donetsk. Restricted but not illegal under international law, the alleged use of white phosphorus bombs marks a disturbing dimension to Russia’s war on its neighbour.
While they can be used on battlefields, they cannot be used in civilian areas. But Templeton claims they are being used “willy-nilly” against anyone – civilian or not.
“You look up at the sky and it looks like it’s just raining fire,” he said. “They put it over a village and just burn everyone’s houses down, civilians’ houses. You haven’t got a chance if you see that.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded over 16,000 civilian casualties including 6,474 deaths between the start of the war on 24 February and 23 October.
On Monday, Templeton was given a stark reminder of the risks involved in his expedition in Ukraine after the death of Simon Lingard, a former paratrooper killed while fighting to defend Bakhmut from Russian attacks. He is believed to be the third British national who has died in Ukraine.
Britons fighting in Ukraine marked Remembrance Sunday in their own way on Sunday, taking the opportunity to remember soldiers like Lingard.
“We will definitely do something in our own way,” Templeton said. “Everyone knows everyone around here so when you hear a Brit died it’s devastating.”
Mr Templeton’s work in Ukraine hasn’t been cheap and while donations through Paypal were helping at the beginning of the invasion, they have since all but disappeared. Templeton says he spent his life savings – up to £7,000 – on basic amenities such as fuel, food and accommodation.
“We have no money coming in, I am living in my overdraft at the moment. I have spent all my savings, and I’m still paying for my house back in the UK.”
But his work, he says, must continue. On Friday, the first and only Ukrainian city claimed by the Russians was liberated by Ukrainian forces. National flags were flown and citizens embraced soldiers in the southern city of Kherson, while others cheered in the streets.
But Mr Templeton is wary. “I think it is a trap,” he said. “It just seems too good to be true.”
Despite his concerns, the man from Torquay says he has a duty to go to Kherson, which will be littered with booby traps that need defusing.
“I’ll be there,” he says. “I have to be there.”