Five things I learnt about the British Army after joining Yorkshire soldiers on a NATO exercise

Heading to foreign climes as a regional journalist tends to mean a cushy press trip is in the offing so it is fair to say being woken at 2.30am from an army cot bed in a shared tent by a soldier in a field in Lithuania was a good indication of being on a rather different type of assignment, writes Yorkshire Post assistant features editor Chris Burn.

Last month, myself and Yorkshire Post photographer Tony Johnson were fortunate enough to spend four days embedded with a company from 3 Rifles Battalion as they came towards the end of their involvement in a three-week NATO exercise alongside 4,000 other soldiers from various international allies.

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We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon following a three-hour flight from London and a two hour drive from Vilnius airport to what was at that point a largely-deserted temporary camp at the site of a former school and overlooked by some dilapidated apartment blocks that one Lithuanian officer later joked reminded him of Chernobyl.

Chris Burn joined 3 Rifles as they took part in a NATO exercise in Lithuania last month.Chris Burn joined 3 Rifles as they took part in a NATO exercise in Lithuania last month.
Chris Burn joined 3 Rifles as they took part in a NATO exercise in Lithuania last month.

Members of 3 Rifles were sharing the camp with Lithuanian, Polish and Danish soldiers but with the vast majority out preparing for a major exercise the following day involving a mock tank attack on a pretend village, so after leaving our bags we got straight back into the army minibus and headed to the main training area in Padrabe, around an hour’s drive back on ourselves towards Vilnius.

The training area covers almost 100km2, much of it dense forest, so after arriving at the main entrance, we were transferred into the back of a military truck - and given military helmets and flak jackets to wear that initially seemed unnecessary but whose purpose quickly became clear on the incredibly bumpy 40-minute ride to 3 Rifles’ position in the woods.

Yorkshire Post photographer Tony Johnson in Lithuania.Yorkshire Post photographer Tony Johnson in Lithuania.
Yorkshire Post photographer Tony Johnson in Lithuania.

The soldiers of 3 Rifles - a battalion based in Edinburgh but who draw many of their recruits from Yorkshire and are due to be based at Catterick from 2021 - were in the process of preparing for an exercise where they were playing a defensive role, meaning camping out overnight ahead of an anticipated tank attack by ‘enemy’ forces rolling through the following morning.

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After speaking to some of our local soldiers - and learning that the planned attack was due to begin at 5am the following day - we headed back to camp for a few hours’ sleep before being awoken bleary-eyed at 2.30am to get back to the training area in time for the start of the assault.

Although the assault was staged with blank ammunition, it was part of a wider exercise designed to serve the very real purpose of reassuring nervous Lithuanians concerned about the prospect of a Russian invasion of their nation, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1990.

Worries about such a scenario - which have been dismissed by Russia - have heightened since the annexation of The Crimea in Russia in 2014 to the extent that Lithuania has hugely increased its defence spending and reintroduced compulsory national service in the military for its citizens.

Men from 3 Rifles out on exercise.Men from 3 Rifles out on exercise.
Men from 3 Rifles out on exercise.

But for a country with a population of just 2.8 million people - half the number that live in Yorkshire - the need for international military backing is vital, particularly when one of the reasons Russia felt able to annex Crimea was that Ukraine could not rely on such support as it not part of NATO.

So what did I learn from my experience with 3 Rifles?

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1. The huge international respect there is - with good reason - for the British military.

Lithuanian battalion commander Eugenijus Lastauskas described how he had “huge expectations” of 3 Rifles because of the reputation of the British Army as having the best light infantry in the world. The Lieutenant Colonel said at the end of the exercise that they had matched his hopes - while other NATO allies from Germany and elsewhere were hugely impressed by an ambush 3 Rifles were able to carry out on an enemy headquarters by traversing through swamp land for six hours which others had thought impassable.

Soldiers enjoy some downtime in camp. Picture: Tony JohnsonSoldiers enjoy some downtime in camp. Picture: Tony Johnson
Soldiers enjoy some downtime in camp. Picture: Tony Johnson

2. The accuracy of the military saying ‘Hurry up and wait’

Military life is a strange combination of intense activity and hours countering boredom. Our privileged position as media visitors meant we were spared much of the hanging around that can be part of a soldier’s daily life. But we got an insight into what they can face with their preparations for a ‘Distinguished Visitors’ Day’ at the end of the exercise which involved a prompt departure from camp, followed by hours of waiting around at the training area before being driven to their intended location on the day itself - a position where nobody would actually be able to see them. This was followed by hours’ more waiting around before the powers-that-be eventually decided not all of the platoon would be required after all the following day.

3. Army life offers a chance of escape and adventure - but it is not for everyone

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The soldiers we talked to often spoke of how joining the military allowed them to leave behind the call centres and shops they had worked in as teenagers and their friends were still employed at for a working life involving foreign travel, being in the outdoors and physical fitness far removed from the office grind.

But equally, others talked about the stress being in the Army and away from home for long periods of time can put on personal relationships - as well as the emotional toll that comes with seeing friends and colleagues die in action in places like Afghanistan.

4. Everyone can learn from the military attitude to life

I wouldn’t have the patience and discipline required to be in the military, let alone the physical fitness or practical skills.

But I came away from the four days in Lithuania hugely impressed with the military attitude to life which I think everyone could take something from.

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From the ‘can do’ attitude to dealing with problems and logistical challenges, to the importance of taking personal pride in your appearance and looking after your belongings, through to the shared sense of unity and camaraderie of people from very different walks of life but willing to do all they could for each other, there is much to appreciate.

As one soldier told me, being in the Army has made him a more loyal friend.

5. Don’t fall asleep in sweltering midday heat on a camp bed without making sure you have removed the bottle of mosquito repellent you’d left there earlier.

It will make a mess.