In the absence of any primary school children at Camp Shorabak, the Afghan National Army base they call home, the Irish Guards hammed up their weekly Church Parade, with Officers and Guardsmen playing all the major parts of the Nativity.
The Padre, Captain Alexander Battey, adapted the play, more commonly seen performed by soldiers’ children than the troops themselves, to include intelligence briefs, roadside bomb detection, Shepherd callsigns, patrol skills, and Wise Men following the ‘ISTAR’ - that’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance.
Keeping some traditions, the hilarious play retained favourite carols, albeit sung by dusty voices on a cold Helmand morning.
And in true primary school style, the light-hearted play brought out many individually designed costumes, with unexpected professionalism tempered more by enthusiasm than skill, as well as bellyaching overacting.
The production was kept a secret by the ‘actors’ until curtain-up, and the opening narration had a few wry smiles when it announced in pure military Jargon:
Intelligence Brief: 1 BC, The Roman Army is conducting an ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in Judea in support of local forces and the undemocratically non-elected government, headed by Herod.
In a town called Nazareth here live two local nationals, a young woman called Mary and a Judean male of fighting age, known locally as Joseph. Mary is expecting a baby.
A teenage Mary was played by a Company Quartermaster, with more hair on his chest than on top, and it was downhill from there.
An almighty cheer went up upon the birth, assisted by the Innkeeper who, in his real job is the Battalion Doctor.
Baby Jesus was Paddy McBear, the Irish Guard’s Welfare Mascot, who travels around Helmand posing for photos with the dads in the Irish Guards and writes letters back to their children in the Home Front.
Lieutenant Jonathan Boardman, who played the Imperial Roman Messenger, said:
The play was a humorous break for the Irish Guards and members of the other units attached to us from our usual work training up the Afghan National Army. We spend most of our time taking our jobs extremely seriously so a bit of light relief was very welcome.
I think this surreal take on celebrating the second-most holy event in the Christian calendar demonstrated our reputation for charm in the face of adversity - as well as always having a good dose of humour ready to keep everyone’s spirits up! We were all aching with laughter by the end of the play.
Captain Alexander Battey, Padre with 1st Battalion The Irish Guards, as well as the narrator and playwright, said:
After a little gentle coaxing the lads very quickly got into the roles - it’s good to see the Christmas message get a round of applause. Life can get be pretty stressful here and it’s good to find fun opportunities to let off steam.
The role of the Irish Guards is that of Helmand’s Brigade Advisory Group, training and mentoring 3/215 Brigade Afghan National Army into a professional fighting force, capable of defending Afghanistan’s national security, eventually without the support of British and other NATO troops.
Padre Alex has a unique role within the Brigade Advisory Group of giving pastoral and spiritual care to its troops, some on base and others deployed throughout central Helmand.
His role ranges from taking services to offering a listening ear for the Guardsmen. Also advising the Commanding Officer and dealing with the welfare of soldiers in-theatre and their families back home, his job varies day-to-day.
Ever on the lookout for someone needing a chat, Padre Alex fills his day with prayer, correspondence, and has even been known to give Paddy McBear a hand with his letters.
The Padre added:
The closeness you feel for the other troops and the friendship with them are two of the best aspects of the tour. The tour has been demanding in various ways but I have kept busy getting around and most importantly staying with the troops on the ground.