I was brought up near Warminster in Wiltshire, and love this quiet, unassuming country town. Its proximity to the Salisbury plain has ensured it the role of local garrison, a position viewed with at best mixed emotions by the locals. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Royal Irish Rangers, unable to serve back home, incessantly returned to Warminster. The Irish Rangers, since disbanded, were brave men and fine soldiers, but they instilled a reign of terror in the local pubs and nightspots that is remembered with a shudder to this day.
Now Warminster plays host to one of the British army’s most famous regiments, the Black Watch, or to be precise their families, for most of the men have been serving in southern Iraq. Over the past month or so a trickle of Black Watch soldiers has started to return to Warminster, preparing for the end of their tour of duty, their second since the start of the conflict. Then last week, with no warning, this Black Watch advance guard was ordered back to Iraq, and told they would be expected to stay beyond Christmas.
Army families are accustomed to constant disruption, tearful partings, the loneliness and isolation of barracks life. These families are often rooted in a regimental tradition dating back generations, and possess a stoicism and honourable resilience quite incomprehensible to civilians. But the casual callousness with which this regiment, which faces extinction thanks to the latest defence review, has been treated defies belief. Against all precedent, some of the Black Watch families are starting to protest publicly, though there is no doubt that the regiment, led by Lt Col. James Cowan, will serve with valour and high morale wherever it is sent.
Geoff Hoon, a wretched Defence Secretary even by the degraded standards of the Blair administration, denied on Monday that any decision had been made about the redeployment of British troops in answer to a request for reinforcements from the US.