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Opinion: Armed Forces Day – It Was Not About Jingoism

Published on: 27 Jun, 2015
Updated on: 30 Jun, 2015

By Martin Giles

I must declare an interest; for ten years of my life I was a soldier.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the Armed Forces Day, held in Guildford on Saturday (June 27) was a huge success. All of those involved in its organisation, a large number from Guildford Borough Council, did a great job.

Opinion Logo 2Thousands of people, many of them visitors to the town, came to celebrate the contribution our armed forces have made and continue to make to our country, most importantly by ensuring our freedom and security.

There is also no doubt that war is a horrible business. Most fighting men and women who have experienced any conflict would agree. But there are evil people in the world from whom we all need protecting and our armed forces do that 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, all-year-round while we might be asleep, or doing the shopping, or making a cup of tea.

Like so many things we take it for granted, not conscious of those watching a computer screen for signs of danger, those on guard duty keeping an essential installation secure or those ready to move at short notice prepared and put themselves in harms way, between danger and us, or those they are charged to protect.

In his poem Tommy, Kipling, describing the perennial criticism of soldiery until there is danger and trouble, writes:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you…

Of course it is true. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are like us, they are not all heroes, even those we might describe as such might be loathe to use that word about themselves. But the one thing that is heroic is their preparedness to risk their necks for us.

They don’t do it for great monetary reward, many bankers probably make more in a week than many service personnel can expect to earn in a year. But they are contented nonetheless; for them and for most of us there are greater rewards in life than money.

One of the common misconceptions about our armed services is that they are populated by unthinking, dim automatons who march around obeying orders, without morals and without conscience. Anyone thinking that after watching some of the displays yesterday was simply not paying attention.

I spoke to and watched several soldiers, private soldiers and junior NCOs mainly, who were explaining and demonstrating their work and equipment patiently and clearly to children, adults and veterans adjusting their delivery accordingly. As a veteran myself I could not help but feel some pride by association as well as renewed admiration.

But the day was not just about displays of military hardware. This was not an arms fair nor a jingoistic rally. Perhaps due to the weather, perhaps due to the space that Stoke Park allowed, the event had a primarily relaxed and sociable atmosphere. This was more of a thank you than a glorification.

Earlier, I had been struck by the lack of obvious security at the march past in the High Street. Only hours after a spate of terrorist attacks we were at an event with a concentration of high profile targets, but I did not spot one visible weapon. Of course they were there, but it was right that they were kept discrete.

For me the sociable aspect was particularly to the fore when I entered the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment’s tent. I wondered if I would see anyone I knew from the days when it was still The Queen’s Regiment.

2 Queens

That’s me top right with other old soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Regiment. Our waistlines, most of them, indicate that we are not exactly fading away just yet!

Within minutes I was sitting at a table with half a dozen old comrades, all of us older, and most of us balder and fatter, but just the same characters. They are still the salt of the earth chaps I remember, blokes you could trust to watch your back in tight spots. Come to think of it some of them had.

Within minutes the years had melted away and we were doing what all old soldiers do, swapping stories and memories, some we had no doubt swapped before, many times, but we still enjoyed them, still laughed as if they were new, the pleasure enhanced by the sharing with those who had been there.

They were stories civilians might find incredible but they were true; service life can expose you to experiences that are not commonplace, especially heightened fear, fatigue and discipline. The bonds of friendship made in these circumstances are, it is well known, tight.

It was good to be in their company again but frightening to think how many years had passed and how quickly. Some were grandfathers.

Sergeant Johnson Beharry patiently posing for yet another photo with former MP Canon Michael Bruinvels who assisted with the organisation of the event.

Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC patiently posing for yet another photo with former MP Canon Peter Bruinvels who assisted with the organisation of the event.

Also in the tent was Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC. I introduced myself and was struck by his graciousness, he must have had to shake hundreds of hands and pose for as many photos, all of us wanting to be close to a real hero. His bearing, patience and good manners were exemplary.

The Patriot Girls. A lively routine well received.

The Patriot Girls. A lively routine well received.

Confirming the lack of militarism, the day ended with music concert. It is true that a set from the Patriot Girls was very well received but it was the final act, From The Jam, including The Jam’s original bass player Bruce Foxton that, unsurprisingly, got the best reception.

The Jam Tribute Band - on the big screen.

The Jam Tribute Band – on the big screen.

Many in the crowd aged 50-60 sang along happily to the Eton Rifles and their finale Going Underground. The the lyrics of either are hardly gung-ho but the audience was simply having fun. When they do consider such things I am sure they realise that balancing the needs of, say, the NHS and adequate defence will always be a challenge.

The crowd happily sang along with lyrics you might not expect at an Armed Forces event.

The crowd happily sang along with lyrics you might not expect at an Armed Forces event.

Of course Armed Forces Day will never attract those for whom the whole business of conflict, even self defence, is beyond the pale and they are perfectly entitled to their opinion. Our right to free speech means that all of us, including them, has the right to say what we like, within the law. But whether we can have it without being prepared to defend ourselves seems, to me, unlikely.

Morality is a complicated business. How can you choose between paying for an extra soldier or an extra nurse? But, believe me, imminent danger focuses the mind. What would those holidaymakers in Tunisia have given for a few soldiers to have protected them and prevented the tragic loss of life?

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Responses to Opinion: Armed Forces Day – It Was Not About Jingoism

  1. Stuart Barnes Reply

    July 2, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Good article. Regarding the last paragraph, perhaps we could afford both an extra nurse or two and an extra soldier or two if we cut back on the highly unpopular payment of our tax money by “call me Dave’s” so called “aid” to countries and dictators who despise us.

  2. Les Duffield Reply

    January 25, 2016 at 3:02 am

    A great article, I served with Martin many years ago. Would it be possible to pass on my email address to Martin please.

    Thank you

  3. Martin Elliott Reply

    January 25, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    I have a few queries.

    Armed Forces Day at various counties, areas, etc have existed for several years. Guildford has never organised one.

    One even a year, by tender, is designated a National Armed Forces Day.

    Without ever running a trial local event, Guildford applied for and won a National Day.

    One wonders if a risk assessment included this in their application.

    I have no objection to the the concept of the Armed Forces Day, only the risks and scales of the event to GBC given some of these unknowns.

    I’ve seen requests for the ‘costs’ of the event to GBC, and indeed the basic data of the event.

    For example attendance has been quoted from 30,000 to 60,000!

    And, whether is considered current or not, the councils ethics policy had been in place for several years, and clearly prohibited the organisation of the event.

    Nobody has made clear who recognised this and who had planned to cancel or suspend the policy.

    Indeed has the policy been reinstated or like the rest of this strange manipulation kept as quiet as possible?

    Obvious this is not corruption and manipulation on the scale of the past couple of years, but is interesting given what was meant to be an apolitical event

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