Simon West is in the process of moving house at the moment.
Nothing too unusual about that, you might suppose, but he has just retired after serving in the British Army, which started when he joined the Gordon Highlanders more than 35 years ago, and his departure marks the climax of a remarkable story about one north-east family to the regiment.
For well over a century, four generations of this family have shown dedication to the Gordons and, as he says, the former regiment is in his and his ancestors’ blood and they have all devoted their lives to maintaining a precious family tradition.
Their duty has taken them to different continents and myriad conflict zones, and also sparked a prolonged spell in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War for one of their number, while the latest member has been working with the United Nations in Somalia.
But their history and their stories have now been related in the build-up to what will be the most unusual Remembrance Day in modern history.
In order to give this distinguished quartet their proper names and titles, we are talking about Colonel Simon Richard West OBE, Major James Richard Forbes Elsmie, Major William David Russell West and Lieutenant Colonel George Richard Elsmie OBE.
These are men whose mettle has been tested in often challenging and dangerous circumstances, and yet their hearts have remained fiercely loyal to the Gordon Highlanders.
As Col West explained when the Press and Journal visited him in Edinburgh, even while he was packing cases and preparing to relocate to a new home, the medals, memorabilia, military insignia and sepia photographs testify to how he and his predecessors have provided decades of unstinting service and emphasise the close-knit nature of the Gordons family.
He said: “I think that I am one of the last two Gordons still serving and I am retiring after starting my service in 1985.
“I feel very proud of my family and always think of their service as we prepare for Remembrance, which will be very different this year.
“We have very little information about James Elsmie, except that he is buried in Banchory, but my grandfather George Elsmie, who lived at Forgue, near Huntly, joined 2nd Gordons in Singapore and he was taken prisoner of war in February 1942 when the Japanese invaded.
“He spent the rest of the war on the railways in Burma before being reunited with his wife and baby daughter – who escaped almost on the last boat out of Singapore before the invasion – after VJ Day in 1945.
“After the war, he served in Tripoli, Malaya and Cyprus before commanding 1st Gordons in Celle (a north German city), then commanding the Gordons Depot at Bridge of Don and becoming the Regimental Secretary at RHQ Gordon Highlanders at Viewfield Road in Aberdeen.
“In 1973, he succumbed during a routine hip operation – the doctors said that it was likely that his time as a POW had taken such a toll on his body that he did not have the strength to recover from the procedure.
“But, whilst he was in Celle in 1960, his eldest daughter, Jane, met Russell West, who had just returned to 1st Gordons from a tour from the SAS in Malaya, swept her off her feet, and they were married within the year.
“He then served in Kenya, Zanzibar, Swaziland, Penang (where Simon was born), Borneo, Dhofar and Brunei before retiring from the Army to become a Special Forces Advisor in Oman for 10 years.
“I joined 1st Gordons in 1985 in Germany and served in Northern Ireland and at Fort George (in the Highlands) before the amalgamation of the Gordon Highlanders and Queens Own Highlanders in 1994 to form 1st Battalion The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons).
“Thereafter, I served, again in Northern Ireland, then in Sierra Leone, Georgia, the Balkans, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Africa and Afghanistan and, for the last three and a half years, I have been seconded to the UN in Somalia.
“My family have always had a strong link with the Gordons. And I know I always will. The friends made and shared experiences from one’s time in the regiment really do last forever.”
Col West believes that, while the commemorations have mostly been cancelled and any ceremonies will be of a virtual variety, it remains vitally important, on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, to honour the sacrifice of those who have perished in conflict to preserve and protect democratic values and also salute those who have committed themselves to helping others as part of the emergency services.
As he added: “Many of my overseas tours have been interspersed with equally important, but perhaps less glamorous service – covering fire strikes, supporting the community during the foot and mouth crisis [in Britain and Ireland 20 years ago] and helping with flood relief.
“I think it is hugely important that the younger generation understands the service they can provide to others, both through routine and emergency situations.
“The Armed Forces certainly play their part on active service, but the emergency services and, more recently, NHS staff have put themselves at huge risk for the good of others in their community and I have found this humbling and it has kept my motivation strong.
“Essentially, it is about serving others before oneself.
“Some people may question this as being an outdated principle, but I would respond by saying that it shows humanity at its best, it will always be needed, and it has a very real and enduring impact on the lives of others.
“So I continue to have the highest admiration for all those undertaking such roles in their lives today.
“And, of course, all this service, as in other professions, comes at a significant cost to family and friends, for which we should be eternally grateful.
“That’s why I would encourage everybody even if they are doing so at home, to commemorate the men and women who fell when we are on Remembrance Day.”
Col West and those who have come before him have witnessed the best and worst of what their fellow human beings are capable.
We at the P&J would also like to wish him a happy end to his distinguished military career.
Remote services this year for Remembrance Day
The impact of Covid-19 has meant that any plans for communal commemorative services for Remembrance Day this year have had to be shelved.
However, there will still be various online events for people who want to pay their respects to those who served their country – on what is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
There will be a scaled-down, physically-distanced service in the Remembrance Hall at Aberdeen Art Gallery on Sunday November 8 at 10.50am.
It will be led by Reverend Ian Murray of the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting and the attendees will include the Lord Provost, Barney Crockett, the city council co-leaders Jenny Laing and Douglas Lumsden, and representatives from the armed forces.
Mr Crockett said: “These are very challenging times we are living in right now and I think it is especially important that we have an opportunity to pause and reflect.
“Aberdeen has a proud history of support for our Armed Forces and the Act of Remembrance allows us to mark the sacrifices made by so many during times of conflict.
“I am pleased we will be able to hold a special service in the Remembrance Hall, although it is unfortunate that we cannot invite members of the public due to Covid restrictions.”
The 20-minute service will be timed to allow the congregation to observe the two-minute silence at 11am. Only the Lord Provost, on behalf of the people of Aberdeen, will lay a wreath at the service.
Legion Scotland and Poppy Scotland are encouraging alternative arrangements to be made for marking remembrance this year.
The organisations said: “We’re asking people to take to their doorsteps at 11am on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day to mark the two-minute silence.
“The BBC will televise proceedings from the Cenotaph in London on November 8 and we will broadcast a virtual service of remembrance on November 11 on our Facebook page and YouTube.”
Further information is available at www.poppyscotland.org.uk