Volume 1 – Chapter 16 - Part 3
A picture of me in my best battledress; ready for more official duties.
For the first couple of weeks we were kept busy organising and working around our camp, and then we began a routine of training and providing work parties for two months out of every three. On the third month we were designated as duty battalion, and had to provide all guards and parties for other duties for that month. This programme proved busy enough for the officers and men, but for junior NCOs such as me it turned out to be a positive hell on earth. The problem was we were short of NCOs and this often meant that the few we had would be required for duty nearly every day for the month the battalion was on call. Even when we were not duty battalion, the same few men were expected to be on call continuously, whereas everyone else had time off to do domestic things. I always found it difficult to look after my personal kit and equipment when I had little time to do it.
It was not long before I was feeling the stress and pressure of such a heavy work load. I was young and inexperienced, and was given little help or support from senior NCOs and officers. Most of the time we hardly saw an officer, which made me wonder where they were and what were they doing? With few sergeants and Warrant Officers available, juniors like me were expected to take their place, acting as company duty sergeants, colour sergeants who were required to mount guards required for the main gate, and other official duties. We had to take their place in command of work parties, and carry out all sorts of duties usually attended to by older more experienced men. It was a nightmare trying to do the right thing when no one had shown you how. Marching out into the middle of the parade ground complete with the red sash of a colour sergeant, and calling up the main gate guard which had to be inspected and drilled before marching off to their duties. Accompanying the duty officer when he inspected them and taking names if anyone was not up to standard and had to be taken before their company commander for summary punishment. Everything had to be done to a strict procedure and heaven help you if you got it wrong.
I am ready for yet another duty while Neville is in his denims ready for fatigues.
I shall never forget the first time I was ordered to act as ‘A’ company duty sergeant, which required me to represent the company for the whole day. I had no idea what was expected of me, and I ran about in a state of extreme anxiety all that day with no time to eat or drink. Even going to the toilet seemed to be taking a risk in case I missed something vital. I had not become totally familiar with all the bugle calls, and they were sounded every minute of the day. When ‘Reveille’ sounded there were duties I had to attend to, just as I had when ‘Cook House’ rang out its clarion call. There were numerous calls but the one I dreaded most was the one announcing RSMs (Regimental Sergeant Major) orders. If it was followed by a single note only the duty sergeant from ‘A’ company was in demand, if the single note was followed by a further 2 notes, then both A and B companies were being called, and so on. If no notes followed the call then all duty sergeants were being called together, it was simple once you knew what it all meant.
Why was this particular bugle call not a welcome sound? The answer is quite simple; it was disliked because the RSM was a very unpleasant man, who made it his mission in life to put the fear of God into every soldier he came in contact with. No different to any other RSM you will say and I have to agree with that, unpleasantness being the very reason that RSMs exist. The first thing he expected was for all those summoned to be standing outside his door when the last note of the call died away. If you were not there cool and alert, ready to take his orders, his wrath would descend upon you. When those whose presence had been demanded, entered the great man’s office, he would begin to bellow out his orders as fast as he could. It was necessary to write your portion of the orders down, and the moment he had finished he would order a recounting of them from each man present, and if you had missed anything his punishment would be swift and merciless.
These experiences did not make life in the army either happy or satisfying, and when added to other unpleasant occurrences it turned my previously favourable impressions into an active dislike. I had hoped to learn the skills of a soldier, to be given the chance to improve myself as my father had done, but the army now was not what it had been in my father’s time. It was no longer an army of well trained professionals, the introduction of National Service had filled the army with unwilling conscripts, who were treated as just so many unwilling prisoners. It was natural that the few regular soldiers that remained were disillusioned and lacking in morale, which resulted in a lack of interest and performance. No one wanted to be put in charge of labour gangs that carried out not only pointless fatigues that were official, but also labouring jobs that were not.
With the present state of the army it was to be expected that anyone who could avoid involvement in such unsatisfactory affairs would do so. The result was that more and more of these undesirable chores fell to young men like me, and without sufficient backing discipline was hard to maintain. Why should you want to inflict discipline on the men when you felt that it was unfair and unwarranted in some situations?
It could be argued that being made to do things that we did not see the reason for was part of our training in obeying orders. The army has a saying that goes: “Yours is not to reason why, yours is but to do, and die.” I understood this philosophy but did not accept it when it was applied in what appeared to be an unreasonable way. If you were given orders you had no option but to obey them, every order was official though some of the things we were told to do were not, in my opinion at the time. For example, the job I mentioned previously as unofficial work still came from an official order. The reader will recall that I was put in charge of a work detail that was ordered to clean and whitewash an old granary up in the hills behind our base. This job took several days and each day I marched a fresh batch of men up to the derelict old mill to carry out this menial labour. The men only had to endure this task for one day, but I had it for the whole time that it took to complete it to the satisfaction of those that wanted it done. Inevitably, the men in my charge grumbled and asked me to explain why they were doing such work, so I felt it necessary to ask in my turn. When I was told that some senior officers had decided that they would like to take up horse riding, and wanted the old building as a stable for their mounts, I felt most indignant. I was young an immature but even older men might have thought that it was hardly fitting that soldiers who were supposed to be in training should be asked to work as common labourers. What a way to treat people who were being trained to fight and possibly die for their country, were we not warriors arguably the best material in the world from which to make the finest regiment in the world. Is it any wonder that when the men did not work very hard on this project, or show much willingness to want to carry it out, I made little effort to make them?
In addition to pointless fatigues there were also some duties that seemed to achieve very little, and there was nothing irritated me more than the thought that I was wasting my time doing something that was not worth the effort. An example of this would have been the job of keeping order in the canteen, a job that came my way on more than one occasion. The intention was to ride herd on the men during their leisure hours, which is why we used to refer to this duty as being rostered on as ‘Canteen Cowboy’. The NAAFI employed several local women to serve food and refreshments plus the ration of cheap cigarettes allowed to each man. (We were allocated 20 cigarettes per day at a shilling a packet instead of the usual 2 shillings and 9 pence, and this cheap price encouraged me to start smoking, something I did for ten years.) This was one place where the men could go and relax away from army discipline; it was the last place in the world that they would do anything to attract the attention of those in authority. I spent hours in my best uniform in the smoky atmosphere just watching the lads eat drink, play cards and generally relax. Another pointless exercise I thought, as I did on so many other occasions.