Tags: Britain | weather | flood | military

From 'Sandpit' to Sandbags: British Troops Help Flood Victims

From 'Sandpit' to Sandbags: British Troops Help Flood Victims
Soldiers transport people along a flooded street in Egham on Feb. 12.

Thursday, 13 February 2014 12:44 AM EST

A few months ago they were trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Now British soldiers are doing the same thing in a flooded village on the banks of the Thames.

Rescuing residents from submerged homes, shifting sandbags, and helping volunteers, the young men in camouflage make the flood zone of Wraysbury on the outskirts of London look more like a war zone.

Prime Minister David Cameron deployed 100 troops to Wraysbury on Tuesday after an angry flood warden berated Defense Minister Philip Hammond on live TV for the "abysmal" government response.

"We are very late to the party," Major Jim Skelton, the commanding officer of the contingent of soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, told AFP at a makeshift emergency center in the village school.

"From my perspective it is all about supporting the fantastic effort underway here by the community."

As he spoke, his men in their distinctive berets with feather hackles rushed about the center as the military coordinated with residents, police and the government's heavily criticized Environment Agency.

In the village, some soldiers in huge green all-terrain lorries were transporting sandbags to houses identified as being at risk from the rising waters.

Others were helping police man roadblocks to ease residents' fears that evacuated homes — just a few miles from Queen Elizabeth II's Windsor Castle — will be looted.

The military says 1,600 soldiers are now helping across Britain after the wettest January in nearly 250 years, with a number already deployed in the flood-hit southwestern county of Somerset.

The troops in Wraysbury have each had between two and two-and-a-half hours rest in the 36 hours since they were deployed, said Lieutenant Chris West.

"It is not something we train for, but it is something we prepare for, to work when you are tired and in stressful conditions," he said.

It is all a far cry from fighting Taliban militants in Afghanistan's Helmand province — dubbed "The Sandpit" in military slang.

Many of the soldiers from the regiment's Zulu Company returned from a tough six-month deployment in Afghanistan in September.

"It was a lot hotter and drier," joked Skelton.

He added: "I suppose the parallel is that people ultimately want to make their lives better — you can see from the way people are trying to make their village better here, you can see that too in Afghanistan."

With all British and other western combat forces due to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the relief work for the floods could be a taste of things to come for Britain's armed forces.

In Wraysbury, people said they were glad to have the troops on the streets — even if they wished the government had sent them earlier.

Residents were giving the soldiers very British cups of tea, as well as fresh food to supplement their ration packs.

"The soldiers have been absolutely marvelous, it's wonderful to have them here," said 83-year-old Jennie Francis, whose house has been flooded.

Her friend Olga Cheeseman, a Wraysbury resident for six decades, agreed.

"They're wonderful. They haven't stopped working," she said.

But there are some things the army can't do — even in this patriotic island nation that is proud of its military history.

Walking along a flooded street with rubber waders up to their chests, Jaz Gill, 49, and her son Ryan Gill, 19, were heading to check the home they had been forced to abandon for their safety.

"The soldiers have definitely helped," said Jaz. "All credit to them, they've got vehicles, they bring extra manpower for sandbags, that would have taken us days to do.

"But until they got here we were really left to our own devices."

But the anger at the government among residents did not appear to affect their views of the troops.

Major Skelton downplayed media reports quoting supposedly furious residents as saying that the soldiers were unable to get to work on Tuesday because they did not have wellington boots.

"We don't wear wellington boots in the army," he said.

© AFP 2024

A few months ago they were trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Now British soldiers are doing the same thing in a flooded village on the banks of the Thames.
Thursday, 13 February 2014 12:44 AM
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