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The Province of Durham, located in the North East of England has a rich historical connection to the armed forces. Throughout history, the region has played a significant role in various military activities and conflicts. This dates back to the 11th century when Durham Castle was originally built as a stronghold to defend against the Scottish raids and served as a strategic position during periods of regional conflicts. Additionally, the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) has deep roots in the province. The DLI was an infantry regiment with a history spanning some 200 years and its origins can be traced back to the 18th century. The DLI fought with distinction in numerous conflicts including both World War I and World War II and the connection with the County continues today through the Light Infantry. The Armed Forces continues to recruit heavily for all three services from across the County and the Province of Durham has a large number of freemasons who continue to serve or are veterans of the armed forces, within its ranks.

Recognising this the Provincial Grand Master set up an Armed Forces Committee (AFC) to look at ways of fostering this relationship. The AFC developed a strategic framework with specific aims and an initial plan to enable this.

Armed Forces Committee Strategic Aims and Objectives.

During the first year the Province of Durham renewed its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant and set about engaging with local business forums to encourage other organisations to sign up to the Covenant. In addition, it supported many local events such as Remembrance Parades and fund raisers for various Armed Forces Charities. The AFC has built ties with several Breakfast Clubs and has worked with Poppy Appeal Coordinators across the Province.

Phase two sees the setting up of an Armed Forces Network (AFN) from across the Province of Durham initially focussed on serving and veteran freemasons but likely to expand to include freemasons with a special interest in supporting the Armed Forces. The AFN will aim to build a strong network and be mutually supporting of each other as individuals, of each other’s Lodges and Companion Orders, of the Province as a whole and perhaps most importantly, of the armed forces community.

To launch the Durham AFN, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Durham hosted the inaugural Armed Forces Network Dinner at Durham Masonic Hall on Thursday 20 Jul 23. The event was well attended by Freemasons from all three services from across the province and Northumberland and was ran along Mess Dinner lines with a Presiding Member, President of the Mess Committee and Mr Vice.  The event was attended by the ProvGM for the Province of Durham, Rt WBro John Paul Thompson, and the Deputy ProvGM VWBro Michael Graham and the honoured guest was WBro Gilbert Thompson, a World War II veteran and a Mason with over 50 years exemplary masonic service.

WBro Thompson, who is 97 years old, served with the 2nd Bn of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry who were part of the 6th Airlanding Brigade of 6th Airborne Division. Members of 2nd Battalion were the first British troops to land on D-Day. They were dropped by Horsa glider in the early hours of the morning to secure road bridges across the River Orne and the Caen Canal. Elements of the Battalion formed a Coup de Main force, tasked with an attack on the bridges over the River Orne and adjacent Canal in Normandy (subsequently known as the attack on Pegasus Bridge).  The Battalion’s involvement in the successful Coup de Main action at Pegasus Bridge, proved one of the most remarkable British Airborne actions during the Second World War. The 2nd Battalion itself would continue to see Airborne action however, serving as part of the 6th Airborne deployment to the Ardennes and the Rhine Crossing in early spring 1945.

At the conclusion of the war Gilbert deployed with the 2nd Battalion to Palestine where he was wounded by gunfire on two separate occasions, remarkably on both occasions he was shot in the same place in the neck. WBro Thompson was honoured as the guest of honour and received a standing ovation from the audience stretching over eight minutes in gratitude and admiration for his service and the sacrifice of so many of his generation. In honour of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, a moving tribute in the form of an empty table was set for four and placed before the memorial which sits in Durham Masonic Hall.

The air buzzed with friendly chatter and the inevitable military banter, a band played military marches from all three services and a piper filled the air with the stirring sound of the bagpipes.

The Provincial Grand Master, RWBro John Paul Thompson, paid tribute to WBro Gilbert Thompson and all past and present members of the armed forces for their selfless dedication to the service of the country. He also praised the work of the Armed Forces Committee and expanded on the aims of the Armed Forces Network, emphasising that the network was a testament to the strong bond that exists between Freemasonry and the military, and he hoped to see it would grow and flourish in the future.

The inaugural Armed Forces Network Dinner was a resounding success and a memorable occasion for all who attended. It showcased the diversity and camaraderie of Freemasonry in Durham, as well as its commitment to honouring its heroes and serving its community.

The Armed Forces Committee are now looking at future events to foster that esprit to corps within the AFN which was so in evidence at the dinner, and which is so synonymous with both the armed forces and freemasonry. Future events under consideration include a trip to the National Arboretum, a sponsored walk to raise for funds for Durham benevolence to support Armed Forces charities, a Battlefield tour to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings and a Christmas Ball to enjoy with partners and guests. Concurrently the AFC continues to look for opportunities to support the armed forces community within the Province of Durham.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the Armed Forces Network, please get in touch with the Secretary of the Armed Forces Committee, WBro Mark Arram BEM

Stronger Together

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