Yeoman Service: Royal Wessex Yeomanry
Nick Churchill catches up with the Royal Wessex Yeomanry on a live-fire exercise and finds that the regiment, which can trace its origins back to 1794, is more relevant than ever to the UK's defence needs
Published in October ’12
Nothing quite prepares the uninitiated for the roar and blast of precision tank fire that is felt as much as seen and heard, obliterating the morning calm of Lulworth Ranges’ 7500 acres of largely unspoiled heathland. For those in the know it’s a day of real excitement as the officers and troopers of Dorset’s volunteer reservists relish ‘getting a few rounds off’ on their first live-firing exercise for nearly five years.
With army numbers to be cut by 20,000 under the Strategic Defence and Security Review, shrinking the army to its smallest since the Crimean War of 1853, an expanded role for the reserve is assured. But with quintessential military stoicism, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, a Territorial Army regiment with its headquarters at Bovington Camp, is focused only on the known challenge before it.
‘The army has always striven to work efficiently, but now more than ever. There’s a whole force concept so while there is some pride that the country has faith in the volunteer reserve to carry out tasks previously done by the regular army and our role may well change, for now we must continue to fulfill the role we are mandated to,’ says Lt Col Dickie Trant, until August the regiment’s full-time commanding officer.
That means the Royal Wessex Yeomanry will continue to support the regular army by training Challenger 2 main battle tank crew and providing skilled personnel to assist operations in a range of other roles at home and overseas. Meanwhile, regulars and reservists alike await the outcome of Army 2020, the on-going review of the structure of the British Army.
‘Rightly and properly the army has always served political masters – basically we do what we’re told rather than what we like,’ says Lt Col Trant. ‘However, we are first and foremost the Queen’s forces. Our wonderful sovereign is our leader, not the politicians.’
Some 30 members of the Yeomanry recently returned from tours of Afghanistan where they deployed in a variety of duties from infantry soldier on the ground to clerks in HQ and patrolling in recce units. They also helped train Afghan National Army troops and worked with Afghan farmers to encourage them to grow food crops rather than opium poppies.
‘The reserves offer up a very broad range of experience and the Yeomanry is no exception,’ says Major Julian Speers, officer commanding A Squadron, The Dorset Yeomanry, one of the four regimental squadrons.
‘The guys do all kinds of jobs – I’m a tenant farmer in North Dorset although I’d previously done ten years in the Blues and Royals, the Household Cavalry. We’ve also got carpenters, doctors, police officers, a social worker, mechanics, an accountant. It means there is a very broad spectrum of non-military skills that we bring with us and that has enormous practical applications in the field.’
Reasons for joining are as myriad as the jobs they do on Civvy Street, but few can be under any illusion that active service means just that. Somewhere in the world a British soldier has been on active operational duty every day since the end of World War 2.
‘I was in the regular army but came out in 2008,’ says Trooper Marcus Seaton, 29, a gunner-driver and gunner-mechanic from Swanage. ‘I’d done three tours in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and with the UN in Cyprus, but I lost five of my best mates on my last tour and thought it was getting too close to me. I’d just had my daughter then, it was time for a break.
‘But I missed the regulars so joined the TA. It’s different from the regular army, but I love it. My family is all army. I joined the regular army when I was 16 years and nine months, my nan and my mum signed the papers, it’s like the family business.
‘My dad was in the first Gulf War and was devastated when I came out, but he understood. He’s really proud I’m in the Yeomanry and I can’t wait to go back on ops now that my kids are older. The employers all struggle when they realise you’re going to be gone for a year.’ In the TA, it is a moot point whether one is seen to have been mobilised or to have volunteered.
Reserve training is shorter and more intensive than with the regular army. Tank training courses that last six weeks in the regulars have to be completed in just two and there’s more synthetic training with simulators so there was a palpable sense of excitement on Lulworth Ranges.
‘With the regulars you train for a reason, to do something, here you just train for the training, but it’s good because skill-fade sets in otherwise,’ says Trooper Seaton, who was driving one of the six four-man crews for the day.
‘There is nothing like the thrill you get putting your training into practice,’ adds Major Speers, ‘but then nothing you’ve done ever prepares you for the first time you see death. War is ugly, it’s dirty and you never get used to seeing people dying. So, yes, there are those who join for the thrills – it’s like nothing else you’ll ever experience – but it has to be more than that.’
Tank crews enjoy a special camaraderie. Even in the highly sophisticated Challenger 2 there’s very little space to accommodate four grown men. One wrong move and limbs are smashed into unforgiving armour, six inches thick in places. Skills become second nature by constant drilling and every role is minutely defined – the ammunition loader is known as ‘mother’ because he has the most space and food supplies are stowed alongside his position so he prepares all meals and drinks.
I’m told centurion was a rank not a tank when the Quartermaster, Captain Tony Rickard, from Wool, signed up. He served 22 years in the regulars before joining the Yeomanry 21 years ago and to him the pounding of the Challenger’s L7 gun is an integral part of the soundtrack of his life.
‘This life gets in the blood,’ he says. ‘I’ve known some come away from it and forget it, but not many, that’s why this is a natural home for a lot of old soldiers.
‘They talk about whether the tank has had its day, but then we find ourselves fighting a war in the desert and the tank is exactly what we need and the Challenger 2 is an awesome piece of kit.’
Whether on parade night at the barracks or amid the ferocious dust and dry heat of the firing range soldiers’ banter flows fast, but steer the conversation to more serious matters and all ranks share a common sense of the greater good.
‘I’m a sword orderly and was honoured to be on ceremonial duty for the Queen’s visit to Sherborne,’ says David Clifford, 40, a financial controller from Weymouth.
‘I’ve been in accounts since the age of 17 so this is my chance to do something completely different. I want to really contribute and I’d love to take a posting, but I’ve got a girlfriend who doesn’t want me to go and three children, the youngest is only five, so I’ve decided to wait.
‘The TA teaches you to shut your mouth and open your ears and you learn a bit of respect, which is something a lot of youngsters could do with.’
First formed in 1794 to patrol our shores during the Napoleonic Wars, the Dorsetshire Regiment of Volunteer Yeomanry Cavalry gained royal association in 1833 as The Princess Victoria’s Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry and again a decade later as the Queen’s Own Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry.
In the Boer War it provided troops for the Imperial Yeomanry, the forerunner of the Territorial Army, which was formed in 1901. During the Great War, the Dorset Yeomanry supplied three regiments and saw action, most notably in the Dardanelles and the Middle East, including the regiment’s main battle honour, at Aqqaqia, on 26 February 1916, recorded as the British Army’s last cavalry charge when 184 yeomen charged with sabres drawn against 500 Senussi tribesmen across 1200 yards of open desert. Half their horses were gunned down and about a third of their men.
With cavalry largely obsolete after World War 1, the Dorset Yeomanry was reformed in 1920 as an artillery brigade and mobilised again in November 1939 although it remained at home until June 1944 when it was attached to the Guards Armoured Division and dispatched to France. After the War the regiment remained in Germany until being reformed in 1947, but ceased to exist in 1967 with the reduction of the TA.
The Wessex Yeomanry was formed in 1971 and given its royal title in 1979. In the 1980s it was designated a reconnaissance regiment and in 1999 merged with the Dorset Yeomanry, which had been reformed in 1992 and reduced in number to 88, the level it maintains today.
‘We also have a home role in crisis management, reacting to the unexpected, as with the flooding in Gloucestershire three years ago,’ says Major Speers.
‘We had fifty soldiers on operations supporting security at the Olympics and nine per cent of our strength is mobilised every 24 months to serve in Afghanistan. Your job and your family always come first, then the TA. It has to be that way, but career discrimination can be a problem and it’s a lot to ask of employers at a difficult time for the economy, but what some of them don’t always see is that they let their employee go and what they get back is a more broadened individual.’
From nervous enthusiasm to detached professionalism, the soldiers of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry are doing a job – and loving every moment of it. Outsiders will doubtless struggle to reconcile their zeal with the realities of what doing their duty may entail, but as the red flags fly to indicate live firing and the public is denied access to the stunning Range walks, necessitating a lengthy diversion, consider the longer and altogether more challenging journey that could face the men and women making all the racket.
The Yeomanry and Bournemouth
Without a Dorset Yeomanry there may not have been a Bournemouth. From 1796 to 1802, Lewis Tregonwell, squire of Cranborne Lodge and a captain in the Dorset Yeomanry, led cliff patrols in the area of Bourne Heath up to the Liberty of Westover. Much taken with the cliff tops, chines and beaches, when he retired from the service in 1810 he built a house on the edge of the heath and bought eight-and-a-half acres of Westover – now Bournemouth town centre – for just £179 11s. The house survives as part of the Royal Exeter Hotel and Tregonwell is remembered as the founder of modern Bournemouth.