'You just have to support them': The patriotic small businesses releasing valued employees for service in the TA

The repatriation this week of the six dead of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment – 3YORKS in abbreviated military language – killed in their Warrior by a single Taliban mine (the serjeant was on secondment from the successors of my first regiment, the Duke of Lancaster’s), gave me cause to recall the dogged spirit of that battalion when I visited them a fortnight ago on Salisbury Plain.

3YORKS remain, to many, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, “the Dukes”, the name they bore for a hundred and fifty years until amalgamation in 2006, but which is now relegated to brackets.

I was attending the “Media Day” for the 12th Mechanized Brigade, who are now taking over from 20th Armoured Brigade in Helmand. Some had already deployed, and it was men of the advance parties who had been killed.

Tragedy: The six men killed in a blast in Helmand two weeks ago

Tragedy: The six men killed in a blast in Helmand two weeks ago

The Media Day was at a place built during the Cold War to look like a German village. Over the years it has had various coats of paint and carpentry jobs to make it look like the Balkans, or Iraq, and now Afghanistan.

By the evidence of this village alone, the sun has not set on the British Army at peace in its barracks for twenty years.

And for more than twenty before that it did not sleep peacefully – with Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf War.

And, indeed, save for 1968, all the way back to… Well, I think Queen Victoria was on the throne.

I wrote about the Media Day in my last blog, but one of the things I didn’t mention about the half dozen men of 3YORKS who were having a smoke behind a building was that one of them was TA – or “The Reserves”, as they are now to be called.

Private Elliot Brown was from the regiment’s TA battalion – 4YORKS – the Keighley detachment (very much the old Dukes’ country). I asked him how his employers felt about releasing him for the best part of a year to train and go to Afghanistan.

They’d been brilliant, he said: British Hardwoods, also from Keighley. Next day I rang their director, Mark Rushworth, and was surprised to learn they are a small firm, just thirteen employees, and that they’d taken on Elliot Brown a few years back as an apprentice. It couldn’t be easy to lose one of them for so long, I said.

“No, it isn’t,” agreed Mr Rushworth, and more than a little ruefully; “but you just have to support them.”

What an answer!

Does anybody know how much we’ve relied on employers like British Hardwoods these past ten years and more? The whole medical effort in Helmand would fall apart without TA medics, for example.

Crucial: Some of the 112 territorials from the 51st Highland make final preparations before departure for a six-month operational tour of duty in Iraq

Crucial: Some of the 112 territorials from the 51st Highland make final preparations before departure for a six-month operational tour of duty in Iraq

Yes, the NHS gets an awful lot back by way of experience, but the gaps have to be filled, even in a big organization. In an SME like British Hardwoods it’s not nearly as easy

Yes, those they release to serve will come back better for the experience in so many ways – though there is the risk, of course, that they will not come back at all, or may do so with wounds both physical and psychological – but it takes considerable patriotism on the firm’s part to carry the absence.

The plans for the future army envisage its manpower being cut by some 30,000 regulars, and these replaced by Reserves.

Frontline: Private Thomas Peebles and seven other British troops in the Yakhchal area of Helmand Province on operation 'Now Roz' to search compounds for suspected IED factories and evidence of insurgent activity in Afghanistan

Not over: There is growing evidence of increased insurgent activity in Afghanistan and we are still reliant on our troops

The big questions, which no one can answer with certainty, only with hope, are:

Can we recruit 30,000?

Can we train them?

Will employers release them?

We’ve recruited a big TA in the past, but that was largely in formed units spread about the country. Now it won’t be nearly as easy, with the jam spread so thinly.

Training them is something the regular army will be able to manage if it’s given the resources, though no one should underestimate the challenge.

The real unknown is the attitude of employers.

Yes, the MoD is working on incentives, but it’s early days. Meanwhile, we could at least recognize publicly the straightforward patriotism of firms such as British Hardwoods in Keighley. It would be good to see them given some sort of cypher to display, like the “By Appointment” signs that used to grace Harrods.

Not just another logo – “Proud to support our Heroes” or such like – but something substantial, like the largely unsung contribution they're making.