Armed Forces Day is a relatively recent event, dating back to 2006, and for the first three years known as Veterans’ Day. But it has become firmly established in the nation’s calendar and provides an opportunity to acknowledge the debt we owe to the current men and women who serve in the Navy, Army, and Air Force, complementing the respects we pay on Remembrance Day to those have lost their lives.
Armed Forces Day is held on the last Saturday in June, but often it spills over into the next day and for us, at least, the week leading up to it had a distinctly military flavour. It began on Monday morning, with the raising of a flag over the Civic Centre in Chelmsford: a simple ceremony, led by the mayor, Councillor Bob Massey, and his chaplain, the Revd Carol Ball, attended also by Steve Bennett DL and the Hon. Recorder of Chelmsford, His Honour Judge Gratwicke. The Drum Corps from King Edward VI Grammar School and the Royal British Legion were on parade. Similar events were held in Colchester and elsewhere in the county.
On Tuesday we went to an open evening at the Warley Army Reserve Centre organised by 124 (Essex) Transport Squadron, whose reservists provide support to the Royal Logistic Corps as part of the UK Reaction Force. As such these part-timers, who come from all walks of civilian life, can find themselves deployed anywhere in the world, including in recent years Afghanistan and Iraq. Reservists we talked to included a builder, the manager of a job centre, and a clerk from the Family Court, the last of these never happier than when driving her MAN Logistic Support Vehicle (a 6-tonne truck) off road. After a presentation of claps to three long-serving reservists by Dennis Rensch DL we were able to look round various displays and demonstrations, including nuclear and chemical contamination suits of the type familiar from the clean-up after the Salisbury novichok attack, and weapons – two of the men there were in top 50 of reservist marksmen. Supper followed, including a fine sausage casserole cooked by the Regimental Catering Team, and the chance to talk to reservists and their families who, like all service families, have a lot to put up with in terms of disruption to their lives and anxiety.
Friday afternoon saw us close to home at Little Totham, where the Lord-Lieutenant was unveiling the village’s first war memorial, in the shape of three ‘Tommy’ silhouettes made specially in steel. Among the guests was the Tommies’ designer, Martin Barraud. In the evening we went up to Carver Barracks, Wimbish, for a cocktail party and Beating Retreat with the officers of 35 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal & Search). Goodness, but the Army do these things well (including but not just the cocktails) and are unfailingly hospitable and welcoming. There was something timeless about the Beating Retreat ceremony, which was performed by the Band of Parachute Regiment. Along one side of the parade ground was a large tent for guests, and in front of it a row of sofas for senior officers and VIPs, including Mick Biegel DL who took the salute. There was a smaller tent to one side for other officers, who kept a low profile until the moment came to sing the Corps song, ‘Hurrah for the C.R.E.’, which originated during the South African War and is in a mixture of English and Zulu. Before that, the moment when the flag is lowered and Sunset Hymn is played never fails to be spine-tingling.
The big day, and the hottest of the year so far, was Saturday. The morning took us to Canvey Island, where they lay on a very fine parade, service, and displays. The parade, headed by the Sutherland Pipes and Drums and including serving men and women as well as veterans (one Chelsea Pensioner), the Royal British Legion, and the Canvey Air Cadets’ Band, as well as Army cadets and the full range of scouts, sea scouts, guides, etc, took us though the centre of town to the war memorial in front of the Paddocks Community Centre, where chairs had been set out on the grass for the open-air service, mostly in the shade. When that was over we turned down the offer of refreshments to get to Colchester in time for the second half of the Garrison Show, where we were guests of the Garrison Commander, Lt-Col Steve Caldwell, and the new Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier John Clark. The main afternoon event was the Essex and Veterans and Cadet Armed Forces Day parade, led by our old friends the Band of the Parachute Regiment. Owing to the heat, we were encouraged to spend less time inspecting the cadets than would normally be the case; even so, by the time they marched off there were fourteen fewer in the ranks than at the beginning, that number having fainted or been pulled out as they showed signs of being about to. The Veterans all survived to parade another day – one we talked to had been at Little Totham yesterday and was going to be at Maldon on Sunday.
All these events, in their different ways, allowed us civilians to show our appreciation of what the Armed Forces do on behalf of us all, to make their work better known and understood, and to strengthen their links with the communities in which they are based. Their service to Queen and Country means service to us all, for which they deserve our respect and gratitude.