Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 26 December 2021. © Richard Kemp
Even during military operations that catch the media spotlight – such as the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq – at Christmas time too few people think of the men and women of the Armed Forces, risking their lives away from their families. This year, however, many will not even be aware that about 4,000 British troops are deployed across the world defending our interests, from the Falkland Islands to the Persian Gulf, from Mali to Estonia. That’s on top of the thousands on standby in Britain to, for example, support the fight against Covid.
My own battalion – 1st Royal Anglians – is on operations in Cyprus. That might sound like an idyllic place to spend Christmas, but most of these men and women will have been carrying out round-the-clock security duties. Others, confined to barracks or the immediate area, will have been on high readiness to react to crises across the Middle East and North Africa.
Christmas in the Armed Forces is the best of times and the worst of times. Troops on active operations are surrounded by their mates, in high spirits and often carrying out the dangerous duties they signed up for. Under the ethos ‘Serve to Lead’, commanders do everything possible to help them celebrate – unless a battle is underway. Traditionally the troops have been brought ‘gunfire’ in bed by their officers. This is an aptly named cocktail of tea and rum that has always had mixed reviews, even in the trenches at the Somme.
By ancient custom, lunch is served to the troops by the officers, warrant officers and sergeants. I suspect the food fights that ensued in the past are frowned on these days. Aboard some Royal Navy warships an ordinary seaman becomes captain for the day, issuing orders to his shipmates.
My brigade commander in the Saudi desert on the eve of the 1991 invasion of Iraq ordered that no soldier stand guard duty or fatigues on Christmas Day, with all such tedious tasks taken over by the officers. I was handed the job of burning the contents of the camp latrines. The Christmas services at the desert altar set up by our padre were vastly better attended than usual, a common experience for men and women contemplating their mortality in the battle ahead.
Especially during high-profile operations, presents from family are often heavily outnumbered by those from well-wishers across the country, including school classes. It means a lot to a teenage soldier in his foxhole or sentry post on Christmas night to know that people he has never met care enough about him to buy, wrap and post off a gift. Cards and letters from family and friends are read and read again, and brief calls home longingly awaited. Home is where most soldiers’ hearts dwell at this time of year. Intense feelings of solitude hit married men and women and young soldiers the hardest.
We witnessed a Christmas miracle one year when an 18-year-old soldier from my platoon became so distraught that he ran across the United Nations buffer zone in Cyprus and through a minefield. Somehow he survived and was held at gunpoint by Turkish soldiers. His release a day or so later had to be negotiated through UN headquarters in New York.
These young people pay a price for what we ask of them, even when the bullets aren’t flying. We should not take them for granted. Perhaps if we gave them the same unstinting support that they willingly give us, our political leaders would be less ready to forsake them. Their sacrifice was betrayed by our ignominious flight from Afghanistan this year. Soldiers who put their lives on the line for our country there and in Iraq have been shamefully hounded through the courts, hostage to successive governments desperate to signal their fake virtue.
Many veterans who served in Northern Ireland half a century ago still face a relentless witch hunt, tolerated to appease Sinn Fein politicians, who are intent on turning history on its head by painting IRA mass murderers as freedom fighters and our soldiers as ruthless killers.
Starved of cash, the Army is being cut to its bare bones despite rising threats everywhere, and many loyal soldiers will be without a job in Christmases to come. All because defence today is not seen as an election issue. As Christmas fades and the new year approaches, let us resolve to make it one from now on.