Saturday, May 2, 2009

The bonds of war from Gallipoli to Helmand - Times

On Gallipoli day the historic traditions of the British Army are played out in the heat and isolation of a patrol base in Helmand

The historic traditions of the British Army are never more poignant than when they are remembered and celebrated in an isolated warzone outpost thousands of miles from home.

The 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers took over the running of Patrol Base (PB) Woqab, a two-hour march north of Musa Qala in the northern end of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan from the 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles on “Gallipoli day”, which commemorates the Gallipoli landings in the First World War where the two regiments fought alongside each other.

On April 25, 1915, the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula were stormed by an allied force in a bold operation to defeat the Turks. The landings and subsequent fighting led to an appalling toll of killed and wounded — and an exceptionally high number of awards of the Victoria Cross.

The ceremony was a time of memories and expectations; the Gurkhas about to go home after a six-month tour and the Fusiliers bedding in for a long hot summer and unknown challenges. PB Woqab is a remote outpost, the soldiers live in primitive conditions and the heat is overpowering. Even in the tents, the atmosphere is so oppressive that it is difficult to find relief from the temperatures that are 35C but may rise to 50C in the height of summer.

The Gallipoli story brought them together, forging that sense of comradeship and shared history that plays such a vital part in the British regimental system.

Sergeant-Major Ramkumar Rai, the outgoing Gurkha company sergeant-major at Woqab, called the men together at 7am, before venturing off on a company patrol north towards the Taleban front line. Major Ross Daines, officer commanding B Company 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, began to read out the narrative of the dramatic campaign that was launched 94 years ago.

“The first Gurkha unit to land was the 1/6th, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel The Honourable Charles Bruce who, after the war, was to win renown as the leader of two Everest expeditions. The battalion’s landing near Cape Helles went relatively smoothly but in the space of the first nine days, even before anyone in the battalion had a chance to fire a single shot in anger, the 1/6th lost one Gurkha rifleman killed and 21 all ranks wounded.”

For the Gurkhas, a heavy price was paid in the campaign with 25 British officers killed and 730 Gurkha officers and men killed on the peninsula.

Major Jeremy “Jez” Lamb, officer commanding B Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, took up the story from the standpoint of the Fusiliers. The 2nd Battalion The Royal Fusiliers and 1st Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers were among the first ashore at Gallipoli, landing at “W” Beach. Their casualty toll was even higher: 88 officers and 1,728 other ranks were killed.

Once the ceremony was over, it was back to the hard graft of patrolling out from PB Woqab, returning five hours later for the formal handover. It was a simple occasion, with both companies assembled around a makeshift flagpost. To lower the Gurkha flag and raise the Fusilier one, soldiers were required to untie the flagpost from its mooring and lay it on the ground to effect the changeover. The officers and men cheered as the new flag of B Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers started fluttering in the light breeze.

For the Taleban, the British soldiers with their ceremonies are infidels. While their role here at Woqab is small-scale when compared with the vast canvas of a world war, the courage of their regimental comrades from the past will encourage the new generation of Fusiliers to face up to the challenging insurgency war confronting them in this tiny outpost.

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