By popular demand, another instalment of a soldier’s life!!
After my somewhat chequered career as a recruit I set off for officer cadet school with the rest of my intake – all eleven of us who had surfaced from the forty other applicants.
I learned later that it was no coincidence that the Colonel happened to come past the transport as we left, looking keenly at me! Oblivious to the impact I had had on various unfortunates at the depot, I discovered that officer cadet school was just like going back to boarding school, only better – I got paid!. As the youngest, and just out of school, I probably found it easier than the rest who had enjoyed their freedom. But to me, regular study periods, meals in the dining room, putting on uniform every day, was just more of the same.
Cadet school was set in a camp left behind by the Canadians after D –Day. Our nearest neighbours were the TB patients in the next door sanatorium. No potential there for hobnobbing with the opposite sex. The camp was surrounded by silver birch woods, which stretched for miles to the nearest village, and on still June nights I would wake to hear nightingales singing in the moonlight.
The only difference to boarding school was the hours spent on the huge parade square being drilled by a tiny sergeant major, less than five feet tall, whose mighty voice echoed not just around the parade square but on and beyond to the main Portsmouth road. As the eleven of us wheeled and drilled, and right formed, and fell into line, came to a halt, and about turned, a line of lorry drivers would pull up on the side of the road to watch us for their amusement, while they ate their sandwiches.
Thus it felt all the more humiliating, when dreaming about the un-read pages of the timid love letter stuffed hastily into my battledress top to read in our break, that I missed a step, failed to hear the word of command and carried on marching in the opposite direction when the rest had about turned. Love letters – or what passed for them – were a fairly scarce commodity at cadet school, as we might as well have been in a nunnery, we saw so few men or even boys.
The highlights of each term were the invitations to the house of an elderly couple who invited batches of Sandhurst cadets and us girls to hear talks on Moral Re-Armament. Their house just missed being stately, their servants were helpful, their food was heavenly, the worthy talks were utterly boring to frivolous young women, but the chaps might be interesting, we hoped. They never were, but hope always sprang eternal.
Apart from the daily morning parades, and the hours spent perfecting our drill and learning to shout commands that one day would be directed at our platoons as we took them on parade, we spent a great deal of time in lectures on arcane subjects like pay scales, army regulations, map-reading and leadership.
No rifle drill for us, but instead lectures from a series of university lecturers on constitutional history, current affairs, scientific trends and something called Clear Thinking, which involved logic, and fallacies and syllogisms – all considered necessary for a well-educated officer back in 1957!
Constitutional history was taught by the scion of a famous German intellectual family who’d escaped Hitler before the war, but the name of this gentleman was so long that generations of philistine and irreverent cadets just called him ‘Footy’, which he pretended not to know. He also pretended not to know that we never listened to a word he told us about constitutional history and the balance of power between the Commons and the House of Lords, but sat instead endlessly practising our signatures, or planning what to wear on our next trip to London.
Scientific Trends was taught by another mid-European lecturer, only unlike Footy who’d grown up in England, this very gentle man had a very thick accent and a deadly monotone. He showed films to illustrate the scientific trends, and as his lectures were conducted in the cadet sitting room, where there was a film screen, we just curled up in an arm chair in the dark with a bar of chocolate, and usually dozed off.
The rest of the syllabus was devoted to giving us an understanding of life, and the background many of our future charges came from, so we visited a Lyons Swiss roll factory to see what life on a conveyor belt was like, attended a Petty Sessions where we saw sad souls parade before the magistrates, and I felt like a voyeur, and worst of all, went to the Old Bailey. The day we were there we watched a murderer condemned to death, after a crime passionel. His voice after sentence had been passed was like the rustling of dry leaves.
The most challenging part of officer training was the two days I spent in the cook house, discovering how hard life really was. My worst crime was to leave the potatoes so long in the potato peeling machine that they came out the size of marshmallows. The kindly cooks who actually had to deal with this catastrophe, covered up for me, and my copybook was not as blotted as it might have been.
A handful of lectures on strategy and army organisation at Sandhurst were memorable for the lunch breaks when we mingled with the Sandhurst cadets. My most lasting memory is going for a punt on the lake, and it sinking, and my partner in this exploit – John Blashford-Snell, who has since become a famous explorer who did the first descent of the Blue Nile, explored the whole Congo River, and the Amazon, shooting many rapids unscathed – had to wade ignominiously back to shore, towing me sitting on the end of the leaky vessel.
The one thing I did master while at cadet school were the steps to the Charleston, then back in fashion. I perfected the knock knees, pigeon toes and tight sideways kick by holding onto the back of my chair in the lecture room as we waited for the next lecturer to arrive. I practised my dancing until I was foot perfect, and by the time we Passed- Out was acknowledged as top of the class by my peers in this useful social accomplishment.
At the end of this gruelling training, interspersed with dances, parties and uniformed guest nights – when we practised the solemn ritual of Passing the Port – you Never lift the decanter from the table and only slide it in the coaster from right to left so it goes around in a circle, using Only the right hand – five of us emerged as second lieutenants. And now reality hit us.
Second lieutenants, we discovered, were despised by all, except new recruits. Everyone knew we hadn’t the faintest idea of what we had to do, from the regimental sergeant major down to the newest corporal. We were saluted, and called ma’am, but we knew that behind this ritual was the thinly concealed contempt of ‘old hands’. Wet behind the ears, my father would have called us.
Many of the old hands had been through the war, like my motherly platoon sergeant who told me they knew D-Day must be in the offing, when they had to give up all the sheets from their beds, so that the huge new detachments of American soldiers arriving nearby could have the sheets on their beds! And in the end, it was my platoon sergeant and the company sergeant major who taught me what I needed to know. Which seemed to be mostly to do what they told me!
Their commands varied from: “Here’s the pay books to sign, ma’am”, to: “Time to inspect the recruits, ma’am”, to: “Time to have your tea ma’am”. My requests varied from: “What shall I do now, Sergeant Major?” to: “D’you know where Private Smith is ? She hasn’t made the tea yet.” A soldier’s life is terrible hard…
And as I re-assured my second, and non-military husband who feared that I was the Commanding Officer of our new establishment, he didn’t have to worry – the CO Thinks he runs the place – but it’s the regimental sergeant major who always does. He was very satisfied to be the regimental sergeant major.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
‘Sumer is a-cumen in’ slowly, while the asparagus is a-cumen in quite fast. I love it as a meal in itself. Melted butter of course, is the classic accompaniment to it, but I also love this delicate and delicious Japanese style sauce.
You need one teasp of dried mustard, one teasp of hot water, one egg yolk, one tblesp of dark soy sauce, a teasp of finely chopped fresh ginger (you could use dried) and a quarter of a teasp of salt. Mix the mustard and hot water to a thick paste, then add the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Arrange the blanched asparagus on a platter and pour the sauce over. Serve within three hours. I like it lukewarm.
Food for Thought
There is so much in the world for us all if we only have eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves.
Lucy Maud Montgomery 1874 – 1942 Canadian writer whose evergreen Anne of Green Gables series of books have enchanted generations of children since they were first published in 1908`