To Stratford to see the men and women of G Company 7 Rifles receive the Freedom of the Borough of Newham this morning.
The Rifles are the largest and newest infantry regiment of the British Army. They were formed in 2007 when the Royal Green Jackets (a rifle regiment formed in 1966 when various historic rifle regiments were merged) were merged with the Light Infantry (another regiment formed from previous mergers of historic names) and two others the Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry. The Rifles continue the traditions of the preceding Rifle Regiments with their green uniform (in contrast to the red coats of the line infantry), green being an early means of camouflage, appropriate for men who were skirmishers and sharpshooters. For the same reason the regiments do not carry colours, holding the regimental honours on their cap and belt badges. They also retain the faster march pace - 140 a minute.
Unlike the Royal Anglian Regiment who were presented with the freedom of LB Barking and Dagenham in 2010 the Rifles are nationally based, not regional; the Royal Anglians, as the name suggests, are strongly connected to the east of England. There are seven battalions, 5 regular and 2 territorial. 7 Rifles is one of the territorial battalions based across London and the South East and G Company is based in West Ham. They were awarded the freedom of the borough last year but it could not be presented until the company returned from Afghanistan where they and other companies of 7 Rifles served with Regular Army units on front line operations in Helmand.
The company formed up in West Ham Park as the Regiment’s Waterloo Band played a selection for us, including the evocative tune Highland Cathedral.
Then they marched to Stratford Old Town Hall where they were inspected by the Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales and Councillors, then the Freedom was presented. I couldn’t spot either of the boroughs MPs who had been invited. Stephen Timms has a reputation for not missing his civic duties and being always approachable. That willingness to engage with his constituents nearly proved fatal two years ago when the jihadi Roshanara Choudry tried to murder him during his regular surgery. If he was there I didn’t spot him.
Some veterans of my own age held a standard of the Royal Green Jackets and a flag of the Royal British Legion could also be seen.
Speeches were made. The Senior officer of The Rifles in attendance spoke well in a clear commanding voice. He reminded us that this is a young regiment, barely 5 years old, but in those 5 years they have lost 60 men on active service. But that to know, when they face trials and adversity, that we the public are on their side, is an enormous help to them. Whether those trials are the Government with defence cuts imposed on an already overstretched armed forces, the Ministry of Defence civilians who cannot procure quality equipment and have never served themselves, or the Taliban I will leave you to ponder.
Prayers were said by a local Vicar. She prayed that the hearts and minds of those causing conflict around the world be softened and inclined towards peace. And she blessed the company before her. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you . . . in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.
Led by the band the company marched into Stratford Broadway round in a loop and back again (Stratford is much changed these last 4 years with the Olympic site nearby) around St Johns church and past the front of the Old Town Hall where the Major and council were waiting to take the salute from the balcony. I noticed friends from EDL and Casuals present in their individual capacity, and I heard a voice I recognised lead the crowd at this point in ‘Three Cheers for our troops’. The company then fell out and most of them returned to the town hall, I hope for a well-deserved reception.
Unlike Barking in 2010 and Luton in 2009 all the crowd were very supportive and good humoured. A small child sitting on the wall next to me in the park held a union flag – her mother spoke to her in English, her grandmother in Polish. Elderly Sikhs handed union flags to their grandchildren. Most of the crowd were traditional cockneys, their accent my own.
As a TA unit these are local men and women with ordinary jobs who give up so many weeks a year and evenings and weekends to train and serve. Originally the TA was expected to defend the country in need while regular troops were serving abroad. More and more they are having to serve in theatres overseas. I hope they realise how much the public appreciate their efforts.
Photographs E Weatherwax and S Sto Helit June 2012