Christmas on the front line

For our forces, families are often a distant dream. We present some of the soldiers' letters home and, here, Raymond Whitaker reports on Christmas at war, 2006
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The Independent Online

Today, somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least one Christmas dinner is likely to be held. It will be a curious mixture of khaki camouflage and silly hats, bits of tinsel and no-nonsense weaponry.

British forces on operational duties have to celebrate Christmas when they can, and for some, that will not be on Christmas Day. Even for those who do not have to go on patrol or guard duty, or form part of the rapid-reaction force, which is on standby to deal with emergencies, tomorrow will not be a day of leisure.

This morning, troops will be able to hear a special Christmas message from the Queen, in which she tells them: "Your courage and loyalty are not lightly taken... and I know that yours is a job which often calls for great personal risk. This year men and women from across the armed forces have lost their lives in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan."

Troops in both theatres will be hoping to hear from their families, who get an extra 30 free minutes in phone calls at Christmas, courtesy of what is called the "operations welfare package". Their loved ones in uniform will probably have a parcel from home to open - for six weeks before Christmas, families can send packages weighing up to 2.2kg without charge. At this time of year, the Postal Courier Squadron in southern Iraq deals with 1,000 bags of parcels a night.

All of Britain's 25,000 troops abroad, wherever they are, will also benefit from a tradition which has its origins in 1914. Two years ago the tradition was revived, and tomorrow each soldier, sailor, airman or woman overseas will receive a red decorated box with £35-worth of goodies inside. The contents are secret, but last year the box had some novelties, snacks and toiletries, and this year, according to Captain Gary Hedges, a military spokesman in Basra, it is "bigger and better".

Also aiming to achieve a surprise will be the cooks in places like Helmand's Camp Bastion and Basra province's Shaibah logistics base. They will be up as early as 3am tomorrow to prepare something special for the day, the nature of which is always a closely guarded secret. At one base in Helmand this Christmas, they received a surprise of their own: celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay flew in to join them in cooking a turkey dinner with all the trimmings for 800 troops. In some of the more out-of-the-way of dangerous bases, the catering staff will have to improvise with whatever they get their hands on locally. But they will all endeavour to produce something as close as possible to a traditional Christmas feast.

"Every cookhouse has a Christmas tree," said Capt Hedges. This is something of a surprise to anyone who has been to Helmand or Basra province, since there is scarcely a stick of vegetation in either region. "Oh no, they're not real," he continued. "They are made of wire and plastic. They come as part of the welfare package."

Much effort is expended to make the day a little bit different: there will be concerts, talent shows and pantomimes, at which the humour will be far from subtle, if not scurrilous; sports matches, or, as in Basra last year, a fun run in fancy dress. Many of the runners wore khaki camouflage Santa hats. There will be a church service for those who want it. Near Basra a year ago, Geordie fusiliers worshipped in a tent they christened "St James's Church". But the nature of operations usually prevents all the members of a unit assembling at the same time: at Basra Air Station, for example, there will be two sittings for Christmas dinner, to accommodate those on duty.

In some regiments there is a tradition of officers and senior NCOs waiting on the men on Christmas Day - "and having Brussels sprouts chucked at them", according to one soldier. But in forward operating bases all ranks eat in the same cookhouse, or canteen - the Royal Marines insist on calling it the "galley", even though in Helmand they are hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean - standing in the same queue to get their food from a self-service counter. And tomorrow, like every other day, they will have to keep their weapons to hand while they eat.

One element that most would consider essential to the festivities will be missing: with few exceptions, the troops in conflict zones will have to wash down Christmas dinner with nothing stronger than orange squash. No alcohol at all is available at the bases in Helmand province, where Britain deployed a force of some 4,000 earlier this year, and the rules have recently been tightened in southern Iraq, where around 7,200 troops are stationed. Under some previous commanders, off-duty troops were permitted a maximum of two cans of beer a day, while officers at Basra Air Station could patronise the popular "Buzz Bar", where it was possible to order a glass of Australian cabernet sauvignon. No more, however: the bar has closed, and it will be a lucky British soldier anywhere in Iraq who gets even a sniff of lager. "We are a dry brigade and division," Capt Hedges explained. "Battle group commanders can request a two-can rule, but it is very much an exception, only for Christmas." Few appear to have sought such an concession. The truth is, on the front line, it is pretty much business as usual on Christmas Day.

"Where local commanders can make the day special, they will," said Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson of the Ministry of Defence. But everything, religious services included, is subordinate to operational requirements, and in Iraq or Afghanistan there is no chance of any First World War-style truce for Christmas. Many soldiers welcome the routine in any case, because it keeps homesickness at bay. "This is my first Christmas away from home, and I feel pretty bad about it," one young private told me in Basra last year. "On Christmas Day I'll do anything to keep busy, just to take my mind away from not being with my family." Flight-Lieutenant Jacqueline Hackett of the RAF said: "In my experience, it's not too gloomy. Everyone's in the same boat. Of course you'd want to be with your family, but it's not bad being with your mates."

Most of the troops in forward operating bases will wake up in camp beds in unheated plastic tents, and at this time of year, early-morning temperatures in Helmand or Basra province are little different from those in Britain. Many will be sleeping fully clad in fleeces and combat trousers, even putting one sleeping bag inside another.

In cramped Helmand bases like Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, the fitness-obsessed Marines - a member of another service described their arrival in autumn as "like having 2,000 PT instructors turn up" - will repair to the well-equipped gyms, also under plastic, to work off the extra calories from Christmas dinner. In surroundings where privacy is at a premium, pounding away on a treadmill is one way to lose yourself.

These days every ordinary soldier or Marine has his own iPod or MP3 player. Personal DVD players are also standard, with war movies curiously popular. The bases are copiously supplied with free red-top tabloids, lad's mags and periodicals devoted to cars and gadgets; I did not see much evidence of more demanding reading matter, but it is pointless to expect too much reflectiveness in an environment where sudden death can be a moment away.

LETTERS FROM THE FRONT LINE

Hello little lad...

How are you? Daddy would love to get on a plane and come home, but I've got a very important job to do, so I will be here a little longer than expected. But don't worry: I think of you all the time and what you are getting up to with Mummy. I hope you are still looking after Mummy. Remember, she is carrying your little brother or sister. So at times Mummy will be tired and a little grumpy. That's only because she is carrying baby. Not to worry, Xmas will be here soon and you will be with Nanny and Grandad, so that will be fun. What about the weather you have had? Mummy says that all your toys have been blown on to the next door's garden. Sorry I haven't wrote for a while but Daddy has been busy getting things put into nets and then watching them up to helicopters. It's a little scary because the bottom of the helicopter is just above your head, about the length of your arm and a little more. I'm not too busy at the moment. I'm just looking for work to do. I have a little to do today then I will go for a run. There is a big sand dune all around camp so I run around that listening to music. Anyway, I'm going to dream you and picture you. Love you

Colour Sgt Jason Longmate

Age: 32

Rank: Quarter Master Green Jacket, 2 Battalion light infantry

Base: Edinburgh.

Serving in Afghanistan

CS Longmate had been planning to spend Christmas at his home in Edinburgh with his two-year-old son, Austin, and his wife, Ellen, who is pregnant. But at the beginning of November he was told he would be spending Christmas with troops in Afghanistan. They had arranged for all the family to stay but instead Ellen and Austin have travelled down to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, to stay with Ellen's parents and sister. Ellen said: "We weren't expecting to be without Jason. You are always half expecting it, but it makes it harder that it is over Christmas. I came to my Mum's, so that I didn't have to think about it so much."

Ellen is a co-ordinator for the Army Families Federation and has been married to Jason for nine years. "Jason will be working on Christmas Day. I think they will have Christmas dinner but probably not much more. He is a bit down about being away from us, and he knew some of those that have died, so it brings it all home to him. I know he isn't on the front line, but he is at risk when he is re-supplying helicopters."

Dear Mum, Dad, Hannah and Grandad Burns...

Just a little note to let you all know that I am thinking of you all so much. Christmas won't be the same without you. Thank you all so much for my early Christmas Day back in November. I am still telling everybody about it now. Still working hard over here. The company are keeping me occupied as usual. The busier I am though the faster the days seem to go. Thank you all for my gifts. I will make sure I open them on Christmas morning. I have been good and not even sneaked a peek at them, which probably surprises you. Also thank you for all my warm winter socks and PJs. Can't believe it gets so cold in Iraq. I even wear the pink bobble hat in the office. My thoughts are always with you alland the whole family and friends.

Massive hugs and kisses

Love Ali

L/cpl Ali Burns, 'A' Company, 2nd Battalion, The Light Infantry, Basra, Iraq

Hi there...

I hope you are well. I am really going to miss you this Christmas!

I will miss the family getting together and celebrating together. It will be work as normal for me.

It's the weekends I hate the most as I like to go and socialise with my mates down the pub and play football for my local team, Steelers FC (all the best for the rest of the season, lads).

Most of all I will miss the smiles on the faces of my niece and nephew when they open their presents on Christmas morning.

Sadly, this year I will have to put up with sand rather than snow, but I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

25065498 Cpl Michael Young, 19, Light Brigade, Basra, Iraq

To Mum, Lisa, darling Verity and my family...

It's strange to be here at Christmas. I'm not normally one for excessive celebrations at this time of year, but listening to the standard anthems being trotted out does threaten to heighten the sense of dislocation from normal life that we get while we're here. In one sense, it's just another day on operations; but then, you catch sight of the little pile of presents in your locker that I'm looking forward to opening. Morale is uniformly good. We're learning new skills daily, and it's great to be seeing the positive effect our efforts are having. The officers and SNCOs will be performing duties over Christmas in order to give the lads a few hours of down time. We really are fine here. I hope you have a lovely time - I'll try to phone at some point during Christmas Day - and I'll see you in a few months. Verity, you looked so sweet dancing in your first Christmas play at nursery; I really enjoyed the video.

Lots of love

Paul/Daddy xxx

Cpt Whillis OC Tigris Troop, 19 Light Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron (209), Basra, Iraq

Hi there Nina...

Usually at this time of year it is hard to keep up with all the parties and festiveness that surrounds us. Not this year.

I hate the fact that I am going to miss or have already missed these parties. I am really going to miss being at home and seeing your faces when you get a present you didn't really want but are still pleased to receive anyway.

I look forward to coming home next year and spending some time with you and the family, and playing rugby with my mates, and having more than a few beers in the bar afterwards!

I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year.

25078207 Cpl Michael Jones, Hq 19 Light Brigade, Basra, Iraq

Hey, darlin' how's things?

You been in work again tonight?

It was brilliant speakin' to u last night - well worth stopping up for! even tho I got called out two hours after gettin' in to bed! It's got to be feelin' mega Christmasie at home now!! Miss the atmosphere around people this time of year!! Just gonna try and make the most of it out here so, knowin' the lads, we will have a laugh either way!!

I will be thinkin' of ya on the day and u will have to wait for your prezzie!!

write you 2morrow!

lv ben xxxxxx

Spr Ben Punter, 28 Eng Reg Op Herick in Afghanistan

Dear Eleanor...

How's my darling daughter? I have been hard at work as usual and spent all morning in the local town. We saw a lot of small children who were very interested in what we were doing.

They should probably have been at school rather than talking to soldiers.

Now I have some time to write you a letter to tell you a little but about where we are living. It isn't like Baghdad, where Daddy lived in a house. Instead, there are a series of boxes called Portakabins. Over the top of each group of boxes there is a roof shaped like a tortoise shell, which keeps the sun off. I have a little cabin to myself, a bit like a rabbit hutch, with a bed, a table and a wardrobe. It is quite comfortable, but it is a little cold in the mornings before I put the heater on. I was surprised by how cold it is in the night-time, although not as cold as Catterick!

It's always very noisy, with vehicles moving around outside and the constant noise of generators or, when it is a bit warmer, air-conditioning units. Sometimes we can hear helicopters coming in to land nearby.

I hope you are looking after Mummy and playing nicely with your brothers. Mummy told me that you are also enjoying riding your bicyle - make sure you don't fall off! I think about you often and before I go to sleep I pretend that I am giving you a cuddle and kissing you goodnight, just like at home.

With lots of love,

Daddy.

Lt Col Andrew T Jackson, Commanding Officer, The Yorkshire Regiment, 1st Battalion, The Prince Of Wales's Own, Iraq Sunday 26 November

Hey, Mother...

Sorry I haven't written you for a long time. I have been extremely busy here. I will tell you all about it in six days, I am sooo looking forward to coming home.

I really need a big hug. I have got some stories for you, and I got some good pictures on a disk for you, nothing bad tho'. I can't wait to see the family again. I've had soo many close calls in the past three weeks, it's getting sporty now. Anyway I am on guard now so I will have to go. Give my love to the family. I love you. Take care and I will see you in six days.

Phillip xxxxxx

Private Phillip Hewett, 21, 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment

Private Hewett never made it home. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, along with Leon Spicer and Richard Shearer

A letter no one ever wanted to open...

Private Leon Spicer, 26, was with 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment. He and two colleagues were killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in a convoy of Land Rovers in Al Amarah, in southern Iraq, on 16 July 2005. He joined the army in 2003. His commanding officer said after his death that Pte Spicer had overcome an earlier leg injury and regained his fitness, showing "tremendous grit and determination". Pte Spicer, of Tamworth, wrote to his parents, Bridie and Christopher, a letter which was to be opened in the event of his death. Mrs Spicer, 62, said: "It was so sad, but at the same time such a comfort. It was lovely to know there was so much love there." He was buried with full military honours at Wilnecote Cemetery.

Pte Leon Spicer, 1st Battalion, Staffordshire Regiment

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