Free Spirits – in step! By Patrick Burgess MBE, High Sheriff of West Sussex
Some of the more stirring occasions in a Sheriff’s year are those very moving times when a local Regiment or Unit exercises the Freedoms bestowed on them at various times over the long years of their history in one or other of our several municipalities.
For our armed forces, war is a complex mix of emotions and reactions – and it probably is for most of us too, perhaps particularly those of us who have had members of our family involved.
When they parade in our streets, rank on rank, they stand so tall, their bearing so proud. And our crowds who turn out in considerable numbers to see them always respond in kind.
As I walk among them, I think what lively and independent spirits are bound into those uniformed lines.
And we know only too well that behind each taut soldier is an anxious family, children fretting for their parent, the too vivid memories of friends lost by their side in the melee of the fight, or in the sudden eruption of a pipe bomb out of the apparent calm of a deserted sandy plain……
Equally stirring – and perhaps even more moving – are the parades and services for old comrades associations across our County – the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Italy Star Association, the Royal British Legion on Armed Forces Day.
“When they sing #Sussex by the Sea’” a senior cleric confided in me, “I always have tears in my eyes”: in 1914/18, countless battalions of the Royal Sussex marched to fight in different theatres of war. In step, they streamed out of our County and into the battlefields of Picardy and Flanders! In the Second World War, four battalions of the Royal Sussex fought in North Africa with the 4th Battalion virtually ceasing to exist. The 5th Battalion then took on the name of the 4th/5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion so that the memory should not be lost, and, with the 2nd Battalion, fought in Persia and Iraq. Later, units from the Royal Sussex fought through the Italian campaign and in Burma.
Our current soldier heroes now serve in the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (an amalgam of a number of southern regiments) and have been much in action in the last few years.
Over this last summer, as they paraded in their serried ranks through Chichester and Arundel and our other towns, they looked bronzed and lean and tough. Battle has hardened them yet sensitivised them: standing into danger, while working to improve the lives of the communities and villages they are serving in far away lands, they have developed nerve endings and reactions – and compassion - which we cannot emulate, maybe not even understand.
And do you recall how fine and sparky the Royal Marines looked when one of their once secret, and still specialist, units came to receive the Freedom of Littlehampton, their wartime base?
In the Armed Forces Day Parades, we can also see the reservists of all three services, clearly proud and pleased to form part of the great tradition of volunteering in our country.
And so the year brings us round to Remembrance Sunday. Among the (happily) increasing crowds who gather round our memorials, standing with the ranks of reservists and cadets and serving regulars, we concentrate all our thoughts and memories into a short, still silence.
Of course, not everyone standing there will have the same view about war, or about the tangled politics which, on occasion, seem to pitch nations inexorably towards the battlefields. But everyone can recognise courage, duty, and sacrifice, all freely given.
And in public, we can celebrate to the beat of the drums courage and comradeship and duty done. The banners fly and dip in salute, bands in full dress flavour the day with colour and with history: their music is enough to stir even the most sceptic of hearts.
But while November is a time set aside for remembering, we should not forget that Christmas brings memories too.
It is good for us and for our community that we are all caught up in recollection and solemn remembrance; it is not for glory, but for our security and for the freedom of others that they fought and still fight.
Among our soldiers, sailors, and airmen, some have given their lives, some were more than prepared to do so, and some, returning, will have battles still to fight to regain their health or family happiness: all in the midst of a society which seems less sure of its values than it used to be. For all that, as we pack up after the parades to go safely to our homes, it seems quite natural – especially at Christmastide - to say “Bless them, everyone.”