From post round to the front line

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IT’S Tuesday evening in Alnwick and there’s a machine gun on the table.

Capable of firing more than 600 rounds per minute, it also has an under-slung explosive grenade launcher for added effect.

Gathered around it are a number of smartly-dressed young men – one is a postman, another a self-employed joiner – who listen intently as its workings are expertly explained to them, should they ever have to resort to shooting it at another human being.

But there’s nothing sinister going on here tonight – this is only one part of what being a volunteer soldier in today’s Territorial Army involves, says Captain Chris Hall.

The men are all members of Z Company, part of the Fifth Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which meets at the TA Centre on Lisburn Street every week, as well as having a detachment in Ashington.

Theirs is a regiment which has a long and proud history and tradition, dating back to the time of King James II in 1685 when he ordered Lord Dartmouth to form an Ordnance Regiment to guard the artillery.

The Fusiliers we know today were formed from the amalgamation of the Royal Northumberland (Fifth of Foot) and the Royal Warwickshire (Sixth of Foot) to become the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in 1968 – otherwise know as England’s Finest.

While the First and Second Battalions are full-time soldiers, the Fifth is comprised of volunteers drawn from all walks of life – as is evidently visible on a training night like tonight.

And there is now a drive by Z Company’s commanding officers to spread the word about the TA’s evolving role, not only as part of the UK’s dynamic military force, but also within the local community.

Capt Hall said: “There is such a strong connection here in north Northumberland between the Fusiliers and the community, which dates back a very long time.

“We’re extremely keen to become more actively involved in local life, while offering the kinds of opportunities for personal development and experience that the TA can provide.

“The strength of the company in Alnwick has waned in recent times, but we’re hoping to revive its fortunes.

“With the facilities available at the centre, we have been able to provide a base not only for Army and Air Cadets, but also for the likes of the Scouts and a St John’s Ambulance group which teaches skills to children.

“We’ve certainly embraced the idea of ‘Big Society’ because it helps benefit all concerned.

“Everyone who uses the centre is being taught values and standards entirely by volunteers and making a positive contribution to the community. All that from a single building in Alnwick.”

On a military footing, however, the role of TA soldiers is becoming increasingly important to Britain’s commitments both at home and abroad.

Directives by the Ministry of Defence have stated that at least one in 10 servicemen on operations must be from a volunteer unit and some of the soldiers from Z Company will soon be joining their regular Army comrades in Afghanistan.

Training for that dangerous role is already well under way, not only in the centre but also on gruelling field exercises which will test their tactical awareness, patrolling skills and endurance to the limit.

Of course, being volunteers, serving in a war-zone is not compulsory, but the mission has been enthusiastically embraced nonetheless.

On home ground, meanwhile, interest is also growing in the Alnwick detachment, with a steady flow of inquiries.

Capt Hall says: “For many young people, given the current economic climate and the difficulty in securing employment, the TA can offer great opportunities to develop valuable skills and, of course, discipline and self-confidence.

“We’ve seen a rise in the numbers of inquiries and, as part of the local community, we’re glad to help in any way we can.”

If you’re interested in what the Territorial Army has to offer, call 0845 600 80 80.