Raise a glass to barmy Army days

MOST Army Christmases abroad aren’t very military at all. My most memorable began with a lobbed orange disintegrating into a whirling ceiling fan. Standing beneath was our startled Commanding Officer about to address a thousand troops in full festive spirit.

T’was Christmas day at the cookhouse in 1975 and the wild scenes were at Gun Club Barracks, Hong Kong. The sun shone and the men were beaming.

Things hadn’t started well when hundreds of men, all full of drink, had charged into the hall, nearly taking the doors off their hinges.

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The long tables creaked under pyramids of beer cans. Australian and US troops, our guests, had been so taken aback by the bedlam they had hesitated to enter.

A regimental pop group burst loudly into Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody as a colleague began to strip off on my table.

"Get ’em down, you Zulu warrior!" we bawled, as the officers, our waiters for the day, threatened to put him on a charge.

It would shock me to hear that similar scenes were not being re-enacted by British soldiers somewhere on the planet over this festive period.

We have troops in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Germany and Belize, to name just a few places, and the unit turkey dinner is the big event.

Several centuries of tradition would be overturned were it not still so. Even in the First World War trenches, the men had a celebratory meal.

So important was this that in 1914, one general’s wife personally paid for the plum duff for every man in her husband’s 30,000-strong division.

Most military units in Britain are now on leave, their barracks empty for the Christmas period, but not those serving abroad. And for those on active service especially, the regiment comes together like no family you’ll ever forget.

CHRISTMAS overseas, of course, isn’t all feasting and drinking. Anyone who has submitted themselves to a regimental Christmas show will know that bad taste begins (but doesn’t end) there. A puzzled officer did his Bob Newhart monologue into a dead mike, while curtains mysteriously opened and shut.

A group of sergeants’ wives did a dance number to hoots and cat calls while the adjutant threatened from the flies to jail the entire audience.

A voice announced: "And now Private Scouse Hamilton from A Company will pay tribute to Liverpool FC." We stopped and gasped as he appeared on stage, threw back his head and howled his way through You’ll Never Walk Alone.

We never dreamed that Scouse could sing, and we knew now...he couldn’t. The sheer unabashed effrontery had us in the cheap seats weeping with hysteria while the officers grasped their shaking armchairs, trying not to laugh. There was no council to ban filming of such events, unfortunately.

The Royal Scots are currently based in the snows of Kosovo. Given that Scottish soldiers are always berating their pals’ teams, it would be inconceivable if their Christmas show didn’t feature an over-the-top pledge of loyalty to one of the Scottish Premierleague sides. Unthinkable. In other words, the show still goes on.

The highlight was our biggest soldier with our smallest sitting on his knee performing "a ventriloquist’s act".

The idea was that the "dummy" would joke about the officers - stopping just short of outright insubordination - and all would be thrilled.

It was a hilarious sight, too, but alas, our boy went too far and began drawing the audience’s attention to the blackheads on the "ventriloquist’s" nose.

The act ended with the wee lad being tossed into his trunk and the lid crashing down on his outstretched leg. The noise of grief within, involving references to his partner’s size and parent’s marriage, transported us all back to dear old Blighty.

Brought the house down, my dears, because that’s another feature of a Christmas abroad in uniform - the sudden longing for home that hits you unaware.

Fifty Scots, mostly Territorials, are serving in Afghanistan as you read this and I’m sure the same emotions will ambush them. A sense of dislocation and distance will hit them when they’re least expecting it.

THERE are thousands of Scottish servicemen on duty in Northern Ireland too, and there will be a moment when they wish they were home with their families.

There is, too, surprisingly, a counter emotion which confirms that adversity is part of life, and what you are doing is right and proper.

There will be some Jock standing on guard right now, his face grim but determined. Although hard done by, he knows he’s pulling his weight. It’s a difficult concept to communicate, but it exists among our armed forces and is what makes the British Army so committed to the many tasks in hand.

Single men are honour-bound to volunteer for guard duty over the period and Boxing Day, 1975, saw me on the front gate, full of the normal teenage sense of injustice with the world.

Not only did married soldiers get better pay and regular sex but they skived off over Christmas too.

The world is tough when you’re in the Army, especially at Christmas, though you’d never swap a moment.

I salute all of you servicemen and servicewomen that are posted abroad this year and are working far from your families.

But take heart, the celebrations will be your most memorable ever. Whether you’re in the icy air of Kabul or the snow-swept Balkans, you will not forget Christmas 2002.

I have no doubt that little has changed since my day, and the basics will remain for years to come. It could be worse, you could have Scouse Hamilton entertaining you!

Neil Griffiths is press officer for the Royal British Legion in Scotland.