The Forgotten Regiment from the Heart of Kent
By Samuel Watson Monday 15th March 2021
Image Courtesy of Private Brian Mitchell
The past year has seen the world forced into isolation. With not much else to do, being stuck indoors has made me curious into the history of Kent, in particular the history of the Buffs Regiment. Since I was young, I could remember the badge of a mighty dragon from my great grandfather who fought with the Royal East Kent Regiment (Buffs).
Moving to Canterbury brought me closer to my great-grandfather’s history joining the army during the Second World War. The regiment was the oldest in the British army but was amalgamated in 1961 to form the Queens Own Buffs, now known as Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. The regiment holds many ties with Kent, including an important heritage with Canterbury and the Cathedral.
I wanted more insight into the Buffs and its legacy so contacted the Buffs association which gave me the opportunity to meet a veteran. I met with Private Brian Mitchell who served with the Buffs in the late 1950s. I remember walking into the M&S cafe to be greeted by a man wearing a buttoned-up blazer embroidered with the Buffs Dragon. From first impressions I could tell that he wore that badge with great honour, to which I later found out that earlier that morning he took part in a long-lasting tradition held by the Buffs in Canterbury Cathedral.
Brian was enlisted through National service at the age of 19, where he was taken to Howe Barracks in Canterbury for training. He spent his early life as a motor mechanic in Ramsgate and had only seen Kent. He told me that joining had ‘changed my life completely’. From only experiencing life in Kent, Brian was suddenly stationed ‘right out in the middle of nowhere’. Private Mitchell first served in the rural region of Dhala Aden in Asia, where he spent 8 long months on a Peace Keeping mission.
National Service in the UK was bought to an end in 1960, meaning Brian is from the last generation of the National Service. The idea of being conscripted into the army at such a young age made me wonder whether such a thing would work today. I posed this question to Brian in which he responded that the ‘modern youth would not be able to survive, they don’t have the discipline or passion.’ The tough life of serving in the army is clearly not for everyone, yet during the interview Brian showed a huge amount of gratitude and respect for today’s generation of young people.
‘There is so much more pressure for the youth today.’ He informed me of his grandsons’ examinations and remained certain that young people today have been raised in a completely different society that puts much more pressure on the youths.
What stood out to me was Brian’s comment ‘Education is not the key’. Brian learned many key life lessons when serving for the Buffs, nothing that could possibly be taught in a classroom. To Brian, being in the army was a ‘practical education’, himself and many others were put through serious training and tasks which taught him many key life skills.
Society now drives for educational success, placing an enormous amount of pressure on young people based on an education held behind desks. National service gave Brian a chance as a young man to travel the world and undergo intense training, he said that the ‘youth are missing out’ but was adamant that a National Service today would not work.
When I met with Brian, he had just returned from a regular visit to Canterbury Cathedral. In the Church lays a book inscribing all the names of Buff’s soldiers who have passed away, each Day a member of the Church or Buffs association turns one page of the book as a daily remembrance of those who have fallen, a ceremonial event simply named ‘turning of the page.’ On that day, it was Brian’s role to turn the page, ‘I never thought I would be so proud to turn a page.’ It may seem like a simple task, but every member of the Buff’s regards it with great care and importance. If you get the chance, I highly recommend viewing the book in the Cathedral.
Since the closure of the Buffs regiment, veterans and family members have taken it upon themselves to run the Buff’s association. This is a group for Buff Veterans and family members based in London and Kent. The association runs events all year including a ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral and in the Chapel of St Peter AD Vincula in the Tower of London. My family’s connections to the association have meant I have had the opportunity to attend these events and witness the celebrations of true heroes.
Unfortunately, the Buff’s association are halting its work, due to a smaller membership and lack of funding. In addition to this, COVID-19 has caused a cancellation of the association’s plans for its final year including a trip to World War One sites across Europe. To lifelong members like Brian the closure has meant the end of social gatherings for veterans and families and an end to a great support bubble. COVID-19 has forced many Buff’s members into difficult situations and has even sadly taken the lives of some members.
I asked Brian if the support by the government has done enough for himself or other veterans, but he claims that the country has not given enough support to people like him. I was appalled to hear this coming from someone who has served for this nation. More is needed to be done nationally to support veterans of war and their families.
My time with Brian was coming to an end, he had told me many fascinating stories about his life in the army and his time afterwards with the Buffs association. One of his stories from his time made me rethink my understanding of war and humanity. After serving in Dhala for 8 months, Brian took part in a year-long peace keeping mission in Germany.
Initially, Brian told me that he and his fellow battalion members were anxious about it due to the recent Second World War. But his fears were soon squashed, he spoke very highly of the local Germans who apparently were ‘lovely and very welcoming’. He told me stories of how British soldiers alone at Christmas were invited to join in the celebration with local German families. ‘We are all human’.
These words resonated with me; he was at first fearful of serving in Germany but understood that we are all human, we all experience love, pain and death. This part of the interview stood out to me the most, whatever side of the war you are fighting on, you are human. It can be easy to be distracted from this truth especially in times of war.
Speaking with Brian was an amazing opportunity for myself, he told me many amazing stories of his time in the army and gave me a great outlook on life. Being a young man aged 19 and sent off to foreign nations to serve in the army was a radical change to Brian’s life, but despite all the hardships and loss he ‘enjoyed every moment.’
Since the interview I have found it difficult not to reflect on life today, with so many dramatic changes to society it can be easy to lose focus of what we are, human. Life is special and we should be thankful for this great gift. Digging up the history of Canterbury and Kent has been a thrilling adventure, a rabbit hole which I would recommend many to dive into. Private Brian Mitchell and the Buff’s story should be a reminder to everyone that there is lots of things to do in this world and so much to learn. My conversation with Brian made me rethink my attitudes to life and made me gain much more respect for those who fought to protect our freedom, and I hope readers of this article will feel the same way.