Gazette reporter James Willoughby joined the Army on a memorial competition in Scotland, which was the first major exercise between Edinburgh-based 3rd Battalion The Rifles (3 Rifles) and the Fifth Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (5 RRF), which has TA centres across the North East of England, including in Alnwick.
Minus five degrees, decked out in camouflage and sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere in a remote part of southwestern Scotland.
Welcome to the Army, I thought, as I laid on my military-style camping bed having just eaten a meal from my very first ration pack.
I felt as far removed from so-called normality as I could possibly be.
This, after all, was a far cry from anything that I have ever experienced before.
Not really the outdoors type, my kit was a mix of borrowed items, from waterproofs to walking boots, camouflage to a torch.
I didn’t even know how my ration pack worked.
All of a sudden, I was involved in a military exercise, wading through boggy ground to get the best footage I could, eating tubed chocolate spread and sharing a tent with brave individuals who had served their country overseas.
Yes, my initial few hours with the Army were very much a baptism of fire. But the two-and-a-bit days that I spent over the Border for The Brownson Trophy at the end of November proved eye-opening and inspiring.
Make no mistake, I have always respected members of the Armed Forces for their incredible bravery, self-sacrifice and service.
But having experienced the commitment, dedication and the mental and physical strength on show during this particular exercise – named in honour of 3 Rifles’ Corporal Lee Brownson, from Bishop Auckland, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 – my admiration has gone up even further.
Yes, it was all a bit overwhelming at first, but at least I was sleeping in a tent at night and was driven around in an Army jeep – another first for me I might add – to get to the various parts of the exercise.
The soldiers in this competition could only dream of such luxuries.
Here they were, troops of all ages and experiences, sleeping outdoors under a poncho in freezing conditions, hiking for miles on end for numerous days over some tough terrain in Galloway and tackling various challenges, from launching an assault on enemy defences to honing their armed combat skills at Kirkcudbright.
And for a lot of this time, the hardy troops were carrying around six stones of kit. That’s nearly as heavy as me! I actually tried on an equipment-filled bag and almost collapsed.
But what this inspiring inter-platoon patrols competition demonstrated was an overwhelming sense of character and desire to be the best.
Take 21-year-old Rifleman William Campbell, from North Shields, for example.
While he admitted that the exercise – his first of this nature – was tough, his enthusiasm to learn and develop as a soldier never wavered, even after a number of days in to the gruelling competition. He said: “It has been challenging and a lot harder than I thought, especially the terrain, because you’ll be walking one minute and then you’ll be up to the waist in a bog.
“But it has been interesting and really good and I have learnt a lot of new skills.”
It’s a mentality which oozes through the ranks.
As Major Nathan Teale, of 3 Rifles, explained: “We use this exercise in tribute to Cpl Brownson to make sure that through the duration of the competition, while it is arduous, it makes us better at what we do.
“It tests, under the spirit of competition and in his memory, our ability to make us better and stronger.”
The competition, designed to test and develop core dismounted infantry skills, included a Reserve element from 5 RRF and formed the first major exercise between them and the Regular soldiers from 3 Rifles.
It represents a changing tide. As from 2020, the British Army, for the first time, will fully integrate Regulars and Reserves within a whole force, in response to the strategic challenges it is likely to face in the future.
Consequently, over the next few years, the role of the Army Reserve will be expanded and they will work even more closely with the rest of the Army.
This means that there will be more opportunities for people who want to enjoy the challenges that come with being a Reservist.
For Maj Teale, The Brownson Trophy was an important aspect of the integration.
He said: “Under the future Army structure, Army 2020, which is an excellent idea, the relationship between the Regulars, such as 3 Rifles, and the Reserves, such as 5 RRF, is absolutely critical.
“We, the 3 Rifles, stand shoulder to shoulder with 5 RRF. They are our partner unit.
“We will be required to work together in all operations we deploy on in the future.
“Because we need to work together, i.e, integrate really closely, this is the first major exercise conducted to allow us to do that, to strengthen the relationship between the two units, work together, cross-pollinate knowledge and learn to soldier, so when the time comes we are good to go.”
Future exercises are planned, including one in Kenya next year, which should feature elements from both units.
The integration seems to be leaving a positive stamp on the troops.
Corporal Chris Yorke, of Chester-le-Street and part of 5 RRF, worked with 3 Rifles’ mortar platoon to carry out live firing during the exercise.
He enjoyed the experience of working with the Regulars and believes the integration is a good thing.
He said: “Although it is only the first steps of the integration, it is going well.
“The non-commissioned officers from 3 Rifles have come to our TA Centre and have been conducting training with us so we can conduct training with them.
“I think the Reserves can learn from the Regular Army, because the Regulars have got a lot of experience, which we can lean on.
“I think we can help the Regular Army too. While they might look at things from an Army perspective, we might look at things from a civilian perspective.”