The night before the big day

Captain James Hulme of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment sums up the mood in barracks on the eve of the Royal Wedding.

Final rehearsals

Final rehearsals

Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge, London
Thursday 28 April 2011, 2100hrs 

100 minutes of the hardest imaginable work, that’s pretty much what is left. Well, I never thought it would actually arrive. The Royal Wedding is finally around the corner for the Household Cavalry. I have to be careful not to breathe the sigh of relief yet, the main event is of course yet to take place. But the rehearsals are behind us, the kit is ready, and the horses are getting their final feed before getting some rest. Some lie down, other simply narrow their eyes and slumber.

The atmosphere at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment tonight is electric. Street parties are heard over the perimeter walls of our barracks, whilst inside you can cut the air with a sword. Anxiousness, excitement, tiredness, relief (prematurely perhaps)… just some of the emotions and feelings that we all now share. And the real challenge is yet to come. The business that we’re in is quite strange I suppose; being soldiers, veterans, trying to tame animals to ride geometrically, whilst wearing some cumbersome kit. It’s not an easy job.

So today started at 0600hrs, the Regimental Watering Order went out to exercise the horses that little bit harder and further. 1hr 30mins of walk and trot around the streets of London. I even took my Troop past the entrance to Westminster Abbey, where tomorrow we shall be parked up, ready to Escort the carriages. I like to think we had that extra bit of swagger today in light of our up-and-coming role

At 1100hrs, I had William, my trusty charger for the last six months, tacked up and ready for his final assessment. Was he ready to ride on the big day? An OK was given by the Regimental Veterinary Officer and an OK also from the Riding Master. I don’t want to ‘set myself up for a fall’, and have done everything possible to ensure he is OK to ride. You might think it is barmy for me to take out a horse that has been rested for the last two weeks, but I think he’ll know what is expected from him.

Well I am glad to say that yes, William will now be wearing the smart shabraque and beard, just two of the accoutrements that mark out an officer’s charger. He will be riding through the world’s cameras tomorrow, I think he’ll do just fine. As for soldiers, they will be as smart and professional as they always are. I went around the kit cleaning rooms tonight. That little bit of extra care is going into their uniforms tonight. Jackboots were the shiniest that I’ve ever seen them, cuirasses and helmets like mirrors. Self-pride has really set in.

Media have been frantically trying to get their final scoops, and my phone’s battery lasted barely an hour with the call overload. I think the final ones that can be accommodated, have now been done and dusted. Now we just have to cope with live footage of the event itself, and only fate will decide the outcome of that one. 2 billion people will be watching apparently.

Hopefully I will be able to get online and tell you all how it went. In the British Army, we love after-action-reviews. Who knows, we might need points for when we do our next Royal Wedding, hopefully in the not too distant future.

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Captain James Hulme

No-one said it would be easy

A moving and very powerful final post from Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) as he concludes his 6-month tour of Afghanistan.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

And so I come to my last blog entry. So much has happened over the last six and a half months and as I sit, now at Camp Bastion and try to sum things up it is difficult to know where to start or what to include. As a Chaplain my role is to as best as I can, see, observe, witness, understand, value and retell, story. The story of individual soldiers and officers and what they have achieved, the story of the communities they have sought to serve, the story of a nation in transition, and the story of God and how His presence, sometimes obvious, sometimes clouded, sometimes seemingly absent threads its way through things.

I am trying to piece it together, but at the moment, in the brightness and rawness of events that have yet to settle into a single narrative, I think it is best that I simply state what I have seen, what I have heard, what I have felt, what I have known.

I have seen the effect that security can make to a community, and the tentative steps that people dare take when less threatened. Village elders feeling empowered enough to confront the insurgent leadership, parents wanting to send their children to new schools and farmers pointing out to ISAF troops where IEDs that endanger the whole community are laid. And it is upon these building blocks that I think I have seen a genuine peace starting to establish itself. The security has not been the answer, it has just given the people the chance to ask the question.

I have heard young men in a foreign land speak tenderly of loved ones they miss, and of battles they have won, of people they have helped and of friends they have lost. I shall never forget the sound of rain-sodden sleeves forcing a final salute as the coffin of a friend is carried shoulder high through silent ranks to return home. And I have heard the crash and silence of the closing cargo door of the plane as we hold a solemn moment before returning to duty, to the job we have been tasked to do, to the freedom the fallen sought to gift. It is what they would have wanted. It is what they would have done, and we will never forget Jack and Tom, Lewis and Conrad.

And yet the strange counterpoint to this has been the sound of children’s laughter getting louder and freer and gunfire becoming more distant as those who would intimidate are forced from the centre, to the sidelines of life in Nad Ali North. And I have heard  exasperation and hope in equal measure as democracy is learned within the imperfections that freedom demands; but no-one said it would be easy, and the cost has been high, in every sense.

I have felt the ache of missing my family, my friends and the freedoms of life at home; but I’ve known also the warmth of fraternity, of being part a group so close, so committed to one another that the improbable seems all at once, possible; and the lurking fear of being alone that tracks so many lives within western culture is kept far, far away from eight in a tent in Helmand. I’ve felt great pride and optimism when I have seen young people given something to do, a reason to do it, and the sense they are about a higher purpose, shine like the sun and dedicate themselves to the task with enthusiasm, assurance, professionalism and the knowledge that there is hope, even if cynics would rather scoff from afar.

I have known tiredness, and I’ve known good sleep, sadness and hilarity, disappointment and gratefulness but in all and through all I’ve known the presence of God, the hope of faith and the power of prayer. Yes, I have seen man’s inhumanity towards man and I’ve heard it sold in religious, philosophical and intellectual terms; but I know impious hate will use any means to twist the minds of those it seeks to control. For I have known in far greater measure the selfless actions of people of different faiths and of none, I have heard words of understanding and grace when I’ve met and eaten with mullahs and soldiers and farmers and police. And though there have been many things on which there are differences of opinion and ideology, I have felt and I have seen in concrete terms, that away from insipid romanticism and tabloid headlines, the truth that states, the hope that underscores, the trust that believes, and my faith proclaims; that in the end, when all is said and done, and all of history is revealed, selfless love and the giving of ones all for another, wins, full stop.

Cornet is so comfortable!

Captain Anton Lin of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment blogs once more about preparations for the Royal Tattoo.

Captain Anton Lin, and Cornet

Captain Anton Lin, and Cornet

20 April 2011

Under yesterday’s very warm sun was the Major General’s Inspection, which went well.  My division was at the back and I did notice a few fallen helmets from the forward divisions vanish under our horses as we trotted round.  That often happens with so many men and horses operating together and it didn’t mar a very successful parade; sometimes it is people on the floor and that can spoil the layout more.

The trip to France was very useful and has allowed me and the Riding Master to start working on the routine.  Selections for men and horses continue, though with the notable obstacle of Royal Wedding preparations to work around.

Thankfully whilst in ParisI was informed by the French Officers that they have ceremonial commitments right up until they deploy toEngland.  It is reassuring to know they are experiencing a similar routine to us.  Indeed this period of the year, up until the Garter Service in June, is referred to by the men as ‘Silly Season’ for how busy it can become.  Maybe the French soldiers have their own word for it?

Rehearsals for the Royal Wedding are picking up, and instead of being done at Troop or Squadron level we are now practising as a Regiment.  The number of riders required for the day means that we can afford very few horses going lame between now and then, so everyone is taking a lot of care when they ride.

The wedding will provide a good opportunity to see how Cornet, my charger, responds to the loud noises of crowds and bands; if he’s good I might be able to convince the riding Master that he’ll be suitable for the Musical Ride.  It’s not that I mind riding another horse – but Cornet is so comfortable!

25 days to go

Captain James Hulme
Captain James Hulme

The Life Guards and Blues & Royals of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR) will be playing an important role in the wedding of HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton on 29 April. They will form a Sovereign’s Escort for Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and a Captain’s Escort for the Bride and Groom as the wedding party travel to Buckingham Palace from Westminster Abbey. This will involve almost 200 horses and soldiers on the day to escort and protect their carriages.

Captain James Hulme, Troop Leader and Unit Press Officer for HCMR will be blogging over the next few weeks as the Regiment prepares and rehearses for the big day.

I generally don’t like Mondays, and for this one, the worry was justified. An 0530hrs wake-up is never fun, and today it was particularly unwelcome – Officers had refresher training with the Riding Master, Captain Mark Avison, in the outdoor school. Riding for civilians can be very pleasant, but with the Household Cavalry at times, it requires intense concentration, discomfort and being shouted at… even when you’re a Captain.

This morning we were wearing ‘Military Review Order’, the order of dress that includes the ‘Albert Pattern’ helmets and plumes, the metal breastplate ‘cuirasses’, and the infamous jackboots. Yes it is uncomfortable, yes it is hard to ride in, yes it is difficult to get looking shiny. Please don’t underestimate the amount of time that goes into getting this kit ready, the boots might take 4 hours alone, each time you wear them! Brasso and black polish; we get through them by the bucket load. My horse William, elegant but extremely tricky to make behave, was being really bolshy. It was definitely a Monday morning for him too. Some people may have ‘dismounted’ earlier than they should have!

The rest of the Regiment exercised their horses (the cav blacks) around the streets of West London on what we call the daily ‘Watering Order’ – if you’re a Londoner you will probably have either seen or heard us early in the morning (even on Saturdays). I must admit that when I chose my Regiment at Sandhurst, I didn’t quite realise that it was an 0530hrs start kind of Regiment. Well, it’s the price you pay for the satisfaction of working with the horses, but also, in my opinion the best soldiers I’ve encountered in my five years working in the Army.

International media interest has also been intense recently, so I am definitely feeling the strain as the Unit Press Officer. At 1015hrs today, German camera crews from ARD turned up at Horse Guards to prepare their footage of the day, Germany always holding a big interest in our Army and the Royal Family. Americans are also fascinated, so I am trying to give NBC what they require too. It is quite a task getting the outside world to understand such a complex unit that has so many peculiar traditions that might not be understood. Some people don’t even realise that we’re Army, a particular bugbear of mine.

So preparations have already been arduous for the Royal Wedding, and will continue to be for the next 24 days. At the moment we practice pretty much every day, points that will be pertinent to this important event. Control of your horse, riding straight and dressed-off with your neighbour, precise and yet elegant sword drill, ‘carrying’ your plume, projecting your words of command… there is so much that goes into such a spectacle – it has all the drama of an opera. And before the Royal Wedding we have another parade to complete, the Major General’s Review, just to check all is in order – he shall not be disappointed!

I will take the opportunity to say a warm hello to the Household Cavalry Regiment soldiers and officers now serving in Afghanistan. D Squadron (Prince William’s old Squadron) are currently on patrol in Helmand Province, and doing a fine job in their Scimitars and Jackals. It has only been a year since I was there myself. Last year I was dusty and being shot at, now I’m on a horse, and hopefully very shiny. Such a role reversal is part of life in the dual-role Household Cavalry. With another long but colourful day completed, the countdown to the Royal Wedding gets ever shorter.

Aidan

Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3 PARA in Afghanistan, blogs once more.

I have spoken a great deal over the past months about the changes I’ve seen in and around Nad Ali North, but there have been other changes too, more personal, closer to home for us. Some we make light of and hope that time back in England will temper. Super-sensitive vigilance in every step, normal here, perhaps over-cautious at home. We don’t tend to have many crowds here either, and queues are orderly affairs with time to chat. Our default setting is to look out for others, and after six months this becomes social-habitual – its how everyone thinks. And yes, there are also those things that we see, that we experience, that we work through, that we’re less keen to talk about with those who weren’t here. But it is to be expected, it is part of the package; and it is why upon our return the occasional brew, the chance to sit and chew the fat with others who have been through whatever it is too, the shared experience, it helps a great deal.

For me, faith is also central, it is vital to things, because I know at the deepest level, God is, and has been, with me in all things. And of course in the darker corners of life on tour, where the memories paint pictures we would rather discard, the cross to which we journey at Easter points Christians to a God who has known humanity’s worst laid upon His Son, but Who extinguished all the power of pain and hate and hurt in the resurrection.

And so yes, we are changed by our time away, but this does not make us victims, and change is not always a bad thing. Much of what we experience, that becomes part of our story, is phenomenally positive and leaves us far better people because of it. Many have said of our youngest soldiers, that they deploy boys and return men. And this foundational change can be an amazing privilege to behold.

Yesterday, late afternoon, a youngster came to see me because of an issue going on at home. Such problems are always difficult, but when you are thousands of miles away and needing life-death concentration every time you patrol, it is worse. But often in the quiet of a mug of tea, and sometimes a wiped tear or two, the anxiety subsides.

‘The lads are great Padre, but it’s all Army out there. Nice just to talk things through.’
‘How have you been finding the tour?’
‘Amazing and I only just got to the unit when we deployed.’
‘And how are the lads?’
‘Our lance-jack’s mega. He got me in, made sure I was squared away, always got his eye out for me. I look up to him. It’s how I’d like to be. And the rest of the lads are top too.’

The young Lance Corporal he was talking about is Aidan, a slight man with kind eyes and a quiet but granite air about him. He has the confidence to speak openly with anyone, but without arrogance, and is instantly likable. When he talks about his girlfriend he does so with a humbling devotion and on issues of faith and life and the future his wisdom and insight has been formed and informed by seeing life through the lens of a great deal of active service. There is no pretence, no mask; what you see is what you get. And what you get is second to none. When one of his lads was badly injured early in the tour all these qualities and more had Aidan running through a hail of bullets to reach his comrade and render life-saving first aid. With rounds so close he could feel their impact in the wall nearby, he did that which lays beyond training and which sets the very best apart.

And Aidan has been there watching out for, encouraging, helping a young lad grow into the battalion and with a mentor like him, and with the dedication, commitment and willingness to learn of the young man with whom I was speaking, the man coming home will be an asset to any situation he finds himself in.

After a half hour or so, my young visitor knows that unit will do all it can to help out with the issue at home, but he’s also had the chance to have a fresh look at all he’s been achieving, all he’s becoming, of whom he is a part and I think, I hope he feels good about himself – he should, he really should.

The fruits (and vegetables) of progress

As Operation HERRICK 13 draws to a close, so does 3 PARA’s time in Afghanistan. In this blog, Padre Robin Richardson – attached to 3 PARA – reflects on what he has seen to change over the last 6 months.

The Battlegroup is drawing towards the end of its tour now. Time has flown by and there is still much to achieve, but I have had mind this week to look back and reflect a little on what has changed over the last 6 months. Lives have changed – for all those injured, and for the families of Jack Howard, Colin Beckett, Lewis Hendry and Conrad Lewis within our battlegroup and for all the others across theatre who have lost loved ones, life will never be the same again because of the sacrifices our bravest and best have made. But the lives of those whom we are seeking to serve have changed too, and in most cases significantly for the better. On 10 March I saw what some would consider a strange monument to the astonishing work the lads have been doing. A vegetable stall. Skipping around the front of its rickety frame a wide-eyed little boy waving and laughing without a care in the world. Beside it the weathered face and greying beard of a man whose years, accelerated by others’ ideologies, have tired him, but who was resting a while in the warm spring afternoon. Business was good and that day life’s fleeting hopes appeared to be lingering.

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

That it was a vegetable stall is important, and I wish that sometimes journalists would pay them a bit more attention. Allow me to explain. On a hot street in unrefrigerated boxes, fruit and vegetables go off quickly. The man selling them only had on display what he knew he could sell within a day or two. That this stall was full was a sign of the level of both footfall and general business. Maybe it’s the building work that A Company helped to organize with the traders, contractors and the stabilisation team. It has enclosed the market area and with a number of solar-powered street lights the opportunity for trade hours stretching into the cool evening and for the night watch to protect the businesses after hours better has become a reality. The soft-leaved greens, the cucumbers and many of the other fruits and vegetables have been grown reasonably locally which points to planned, sustained, diverse and successful farming, which in an area historically rife with poppy growth is another positive pointer. Bananas, oranges and some of the other products need to be regularly resupplied and for high bulk, lowish-cost items, it needs to be worthwhile for the trader to get them in. Any taxation along the road or too much associated risk and it wouldn’t be worthwhile. So oranges point to safer roads and better lines of communication. Lastly, that this was not the only vegetable stall in the market shows that this agricultural community is enjoying the fruits of a growing agricultural economy. Now these are only my musings – my own reading of the situation – but I passed down the same street just a few months ago at the start of the tour and it wasn’t the same then. And now there’s a doctor too and the school is planned and soon to be built and with check points manned by the Afghan Police and ISAF at the entry and exit everyone is known, and people feel safer and change appears to be cementing itself into the lives of the population.

And yet there is still so much work to be done. Just a couple of kilometres away a joint patrol between our troops and the Afghan Army was attacked by insurgents. A British soldier, an Afghan soldier and an insurgent were injured. It was a humbling thing that evening to stand and talk with a Sergeant Major who, when the battle was won, ran forward to give first aid to the injured insurgent. Who carried him to a helicopter and who would do the same again in an instant. ‘It’s about being the best people we can be,’ Danny said, ‘even when its tough, especially when its tough.’

Mind over matter

2Lt Sam Westlake

2Lt Sam Westlake

P Company is all over for Second Lieutenant Westlake. Did he pass?

The final day of P Company – and I had a proper limp on.  The 20-miler dispelled any doubts as to whether I was injured or not and walking was a struggle.  Gradually my legs warmed up a bit and with copius amounts of ibuprofen and co-codamol I was ready for the Stretcher Race.  The course was sized off in to 2 teams of 13 that would carry 80kg stretchers over 4.5 miles.  Again this is a hard event, but by this point in the course it was easy to summon the determination to stick with it.  The hardest point is the drive up Stretcher Hill, a steep, long, muddy hill that has to be climbed after running through water ditches.  After this hill however, you’re on the home straight.  Some find the log harder than the stretcher and vice versa.  Personally I found today the biggest test and I had a great sense of achievement when we finished.  Though pretty crippled, knowing it was the final day of All-Arms was enough motivation to run through any pain; as with many events it was a case of mind over matter.

The beret parade followed.  One by one our numbers were called followed by either “pass” or “fail”.  Those of us who passed were given the maroon lids we have worked so hard for and a handshake from the OC and CSM.  We had 4 fails out of the 26 of us who made it this far.  The 22 of us who passed were in the bar a few hours later with the staff watching a video of our course.  It is a very good feeling to have passed this course, especially as it was a challenge I set for myself on deciding to join The Parachute Regiment about 2 years ago.  It is a very good course and there are some enjoyable days but it is definitely a course to do once.

I for one will definitely return to Catterick for the Paras’ 10 Race (www.paras10.com) and am looking forward to tackling the training area again in September.