23/05/2013 10:01 BST | Updated 22/07/2013 06:12 BST

People of Woolwich Will Defy the Far-Right and Come Together Over Killing of a Soldier Son


Yesterday morning I drove to work, as I always do, past the Woolwich garrison.

Down Ha Ha Road young servicewomen were exercising their horses on the common, straight-backed on mounts, whose muscles rippled under gleaming, well-cared-for equine flanks.

For those soldiers there was no hint on a crisp morn of what was to come or of the brutality soon to be visited upon one of their own.

Behind them the flat expanse of the Royal Artillery Barracks parade ground lay empty before its long Georgian edifice.

I've seen them often, horses and riders trotting around adjacent streets, and on one occasion drawing a vintage gun carriage behind them.

It's a sight that locals find quirkily comforting in an area with a long history, stretching back hundreds of years, of military attachment.

The people of Woolwich and nearby Plumstead have a strong bond with the army, one forged as much from living cheek to jowl as through mutual suffering.

In WWII, with the armaments at the Royal Arsenal on the Thames and the military academy at the top of the hill, the whole area was a target for bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. Hundreds died.

At the end of my street are two modern houses built to replace the terraces destroyed by a V2 rocket, destined perhaps for the barracks further down the road, the brass foundry or the docks.

This neighbourhood is pockmarked with bomb craters from that time, now mostly covered over by new buildings or patched up with tarmac and brick.

The most visible remaining scar is the garrison chapel St George's, now preserved as a historic ruin, which sits opposite the barracks, its roofless, torn structure the victim of a direct hit in 1944. Behind its locked iron gates are the names of the units, batteries and brigades based there and the conflicts they fought and died in.

The building and its contents are a poignant reminder of the great cost of service to your country.

But the men and women of the Foot Guards and the Royal Artillery keep a relatively low profile around Woolwich. Beyond the barracks they are not a highly visible group, briefed to wear civilian clothing at all times when off duty.

Generally you only ever see them in uniform at the Firepower Museum in lower Woolwich, running school children through training drills or helping educate them at the Heritage Centre about the role of women in the army.

During a recent exhibition there my young daughter asked a female sergeant what it was like.

'Hard,' she replied.

And that's the truth. The Army is hard. Soldiers have an unforgiving life of manual labour and low pay. They go not where they want to, but where they are told.

The reaction of women who tried to protect the young soldier hacked to death yesterday afternoon does not surprise me at all. Strong, compassionate characters the local mothers are also protective of the men and women among us who must serve in places like Afghanistan at the behest of their country.

And the neighbourhood is a diverse one. The Greenwich Islamic Centre on Plumstead Road has almost completed a large extension, testament to the thriving Muslim community.

While one or two pubs in the area can be readily identified as BNP/EDL supporting by their year-round flying of the cross of St George, they enjoy little support from locals now well used to the eclectic mix of races and religions.

The EDL and its rally last night in the town centre will hold no sway over the response of the community in dealing with this horrific crime.

Yesterday's brutal murder of a serving soldier shocked the nation, but for the people of Woolwich it was particularly cruel and will be taken quite personally.

When a sixth generation waterman drowned in an accident on the Woolwich ferry two years ago there was a similar outpouring of grief here for a hard-working son taken unfairly.

Today my wife and I will walk up the hill to the garrison and lay flowers there. We will be joined by many other local people who will also want to pay their respects and reassure the soldiers at Woolwich barracks that the community, as ever, is behind them.