If you’re one of those people lucky enough to sit down to a sumptuous Christmas dinner this year, surrounded by friends and family and savouring the tempting aroma of the delicious turkey and/or nut loaf that you’re about to tuck into, a nagging voice in your head will probably be telling you to spare a thought for those less fortunate. Many people, for one reason or another, find themselves far from home and away from loved ones at Christmas, and the members of British Armed Forces are probably among those most deserving of a few thoughts on the day itself.
This Christmas, the men and women of the British Armed Forces will be deployed in all corners of the globe, undertaking a variety of different roles, many dangerous and unpleasant, and all taking them miles away from partners, children, siblings, parents and friends they would love to be sharing the festive season with. UK troops are currently deployed in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the South Atlantic Islands. As well as the activities which frequently make the headlines, such as combatting terrorism in the Middle East, they are hard at work training peacekeepers in East Africa, sweeping for mines and keeping shipping lanes open in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and supporting land and sea efforts from the sky in all those parts of the world in which the UK has a strategic interest or is simply lending a helping hand.
For troops such as these, particularly those in combat zones, Christmas day will, in some ways, be a day like any other. Vigilance will have to be maintained and patrols mounted. In between the work and duty, however, an effort is always made to mark the special nature of the day and, in particular, to remind the troops of the people back home – friends and strangers alike – who are thinking of them.
A major part of forging this link with home lies in the delivery of gifts. Although families can send items to individual troops, systems are in place to make sure that nobody is left out, with gift boxes, – affectionately known as ‘square stockings’- collected by a range of charities and sent out to make sure that every troop has something special to open. The boxes contain a mix of treats and reminders of home, ranging from gadgets such as headphones and mini torches, practical items like travel kits and digital alarm clocks and goodies including fresh coffee, chocolate bars and even a festive Santa hat. In 2012, for example, Camp Bastion, in Helmand, Afghanistan, received over 130 tons of Christmas post in the week leading up to the big day.
Having opened their boxes, troops will then be able to sit down to a traditional turkey lunch, albeit washed down with cups of tea rather than glasses of port. Even those posted in more remote parts of any deployment will be treated to a freshly cooked meal and, at the larger bases, as is traditional, the officers will serve the soldiers. Throw in party poppers, paper hats and mince pies and you have as traditional a Christmas meal as it is possible to arrange, albeit one which always be tinged with the sadness of being shared with colleagues rather than family members.
Perhaps one of the most touching military Christmas celebrations took place in 2014, at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul. On December 24th, British and German troops came together to sing carols and then play a game of football organised to commemorate the famous match which took place amidst the trenches of the first world war a century earlier. Although a much more organised event that the original match it was a reminder that Christmas may come and go every year, but that members of the Armed Forces will always be serving somewhere, doing their best to make this one day just a little bit special.