Thursday, 02 April 2015

My Charge With The Light Cavalry

Two hundred years after they helped win Waterloo, The Light Dragoons take Matt Warren for a spin around Salisbury Plain... All aboard!

Written by Matt Warren
Two hundred years ago next week, regiments of Dragoons – and their dashing horses – arrived in the strategic port of Ostende on Belgium’s wind-whipped North Sea Coast. It was 1815 and war with the new French Republic and Napoleon had already been raging for two bloody decades. The terrible and spectacular denouement, however, still lay ahead of them. For just two months later, on the 18th June, these courageous cavalrymen would find themselves fighting for their lives, their country and the freedom of Europe at the Battle of Waterloo.

Three regiments of Light Dragoons helped to defeat Napoleon that historic day – and now, two centuries on, I am with their successors, making a very 21st-century cavalry charge across Salisbury Plain.

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It’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds. March it may be, but the biting north wind feels as if it could skin a rabbit. Nor are there any horses, despite this being a light cavalry regiment. Instead, we are thundering across the plain in a British-built Jackal 2, a highly mobile, opentopped armoured-vehicle, which zips the modern-day Light Dragoons – formed in 1992 when the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars amalgamated – around the battlefield in their role as specialist reconnaissance troops.

Today, there are four of us in the Jackal. At the wheel is 19-year-old Trooper Alderton, from Durham. He is the driver and has the dubious honour of sleeping in the foot well when out on patrol. Next to him is the vehicle’s commander, Corporal Grant, aged 27. He is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan (twice) and confesses that duty has forced him to miss five Valentine’s days – his wife, Jess, is very understanding, apparently.

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And in the back with me – the dead weight – is 25-year-old Lance Corporal Batty, from Hull. He has been in the regiment for five years, is the father of a five-year-old daughter and is getting married in May. He is in charge of the main weapon system – in our case a Grenade Machine Gun, which can fire 32 rounds a minute – and, just as importantly in this weather, making the ‘brews’ (aka the tea) and Pot Noodles (Chicken & Mushroom, preferably).

The 400-strong regiment has come to Westdown Camp on Salisbury Plain from its base in Swanton Morley, Norfolk, for a major training exercise, but we have slipped away – with the express permission of the regiment’s rather dashing commanding officer, Lt Col James Senior, of course – to take the Jackal through its paces in a quieter, but no less muddy, location.

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Jackals are big and fast, the medieval destriers of today. They weigh seven tonnes and can reach 55mph on rough terrain – but as we bounce around the plain in a fug of exhaust, it’s hard to see how they manage to do anything sneakily. If subtlety’s their thing, surely the regiment should have stuck with horses.

Corporal Grant, however, insists that Jackals are perfect for the regiment’s reconnaissance role. And he is the believable sort. They look rather more lumpen, prosaic than the Napoleonic cavalryman’s mount, but they have an optics system that can identify an individual from 4km away, plenty of firepower and are probably easier to operate than a skittish war horse, too.

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‘And they’re actually quiet. You can easily sneak up on people,’ adds Corporal Grant. ‘Believe it or not.’

On his last tour of Afghanistan, Corporal Grant’s unit managed to catch out the enemy and uncover seven Doushka heavy Russian machine guns, 3,700 anti-aircraft rounds – and £7.7m-worth of marijuana.

So what happened to all those drugs? ‘We blew it all up,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘We basically stacked it all up, set the charges and blew it up in one go. It was quite a fireball… and an expensive one.’

In fact, the Jackal’s only weakness seems to be the British weather. ‘On tour, I never broke down in them,’ adds Corporal Grant. ‘But since we’ve come back to the UK, the wet weather… they’re designed for the desert.’

While they are relatively easy to operate, however, the Jackal, much like a horse, can still catch the novice unawares. In the wrong hands, all sorts of things could go wrong. Thankfully, Corporal Grant clearly is the right pair of hands.

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The Jackals operate in four vehicle troops: three Jackals and a six-wheel Coyote variant, which moves at the back of the troop and has more room for casualty evacuation and stores. But while some of the vehicles are awarded women’s names by their crews, the fighting parts of the regiment remain a male-only domain.

Not that this won’t change. Corporal Grant has no objection to sharing the frontline with women. ‘If they can pass the fitness test, keep up and carry the weight – sometimes we carry upwards of 70kg on our back – then fair enough,’ he says. Given the sheer number of the snacks stored in the back of this vehicle, they will also need to have a penchant for Pot Noodles.

But with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over, where do the men expect to be sent next? Russia? ‘No, I wouldn’t say Russia,’ says Corporal Grant. ‘Yes, with the Ukraine, I’d say it’s all kicked off. More than anything, maybe the likes of Islamic State, maybe getting involved with that would be quite nice. It’s the same with everything, squaddies get bored and now we’re in the transition phase.’

As we trundle through the mud, the cold clawing at our cheeks, there certainly seems to be an eagerness among the troops, albeit it one tempered by a profound sense of professionalism. ‘You hear them [the, veteran troopers] telling stories about Afghanistan and none of the junior lads have got any stories like that,’ says the driver, Trooper Alderton, who has yet to be deployed on active duty. ‘All our stories are about training and exercises. It’s a big difference. But for me it’s a good career. My dad was in the same regiment, so it’s like walking in his footsteps.’

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In one form or another, light dragoons have been around for 300 years. Originally, they were small mobile cavalry units that could move fast and spot enemy movements. Soon, however, whole regiments were formed. They fought with Wellington against Napoleon, and during the Crimean War (1854-6) the 13th Light Dragoons took part in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Four regiments fought in the First World War, and in the Second World War, the 13th/18th Hussars – by then mechanised – drove the first Allied tanks into France. They were amalgamated into the modern Light Dragoons, which had the Princess of Wales as their first colonel in chief, in 1992.

You can imagine Lieutenant Colonel James Senior at Waterloo. The commanding officer of The Light Dragoons since January 2014, he has the poise of a storybook cavalry officer. Married to Victoria with three young boys, he has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan – and enjoys marathon running and carrot cake. He speaks like a true leader, but is also reassuringly down to earth.

‘While I am a Lieutenant Colonel, I am not the best soldier in the battle group,’ he admits, as we meet back at Westdown Camp to discuss the war games taking place just over the horizon. ‘There are better soldiers who I would look to for their speciality and expertise… And if that talent is in a sergeant, or a corporal or a trooper, then that’s where I’m going.’

Today, the Light Dragoons are taking part in a large-scale exercise pitching the fictional Southern Protectorate against the hostile Northern Democratic Forces. So far, things are going well. But given recent cutbacks, does the Army remain a credible force in the real world? His answer is unequivocal.

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‘Given the training we are doing, given the kit, the resources and the people – and they are the significant difference between winning and losing wars – I am absolutely confident that wherever we go next we are capable of doing what we need to do.’

But if the regular forces are shrinking, isn’t fighting ability being compromised, too? And can the expanded Reserves really take up the slack?

‘You’ll have to ask the current government about the current government’s policy,’ he continues. ‘But what do I see at regimental level? Well, since we have added further emphasis to the Reserves, that has had a direct and tangible benefit to my organisation. Specifically, today, there is a full squadron from the Reserves, not 20km from here, who are part of my battle group. As a direct consequence of the policies we have heard so much about, I have a mobilised squadron of Reservists under my command. That is genuine fighting power that has been generated.

‘I am seeing a significant increase in military capability as a consequence of what we have chosen to do, which is contrary to some of the mantra that appears in the press.’

How does he feel about women fulfilling combat roles in the military, something currently they are barred from? ‘We already have women attached to the regiment, including clerical staff, medical staff, chefs, engineers and a female artillery officer. What we’ve learnt over the last 20 years is that when conflict comes those people have played the most extraordinary role and there are multiple examples of women receiving gallantry medals in those roles. It’s for others to decide how we take this forward, but the last decade or so has proven the potential that’s out there.

‘I have to trust the enormous amount of research that’s going on to come to the right conclusion. In my career, we’ve had lots of changes. When I joined, homosexuality was a bar to service in the military. That changed at the beginning of the millennium and I think that was a hugely positive thing.’

Later in the year, The Light Dragoons will be undergoing a change of their own as they up sticks from Norfolk and return to Catterick, North Yorkshire, in the heart of their traditional northeast recruiting ground.

Not that Lieutenant Colonel Senior is fazed. ‘My garden is pretty rosy,’ he says. ‘Being commanding officer of a regiment that has fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the First and Second World Wars, charged down the Valley of Death at the Battle of Balaclava and then Waterloo, one feels the sense of custodianship. Not many people get to look after an organisation like that.’ Well, quite. 



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