A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
Gentle in manner, resolute in deed, was the motto of the lady-like group of women I now joined – no rifles, mud-covered faces, raucous corporals or killing fields for us. The picture above is our Colonel Commandant, the Duchess of Kent, and my company commander, Major Betty Metcalfe- veteran of the war, and a blonde, elegant blue- eyed woman.
The recruiting officer had sent me to the Regular Commissions Board to see if I was officer material. Here I had had a pleasant surprise – though I was the youngest, everyone else was young and full of fun – and life began to look up. I jumped through all the hoops for three days, and was eventually informed that I was indeed officer material.
Back home waiting for the date to join up, when I continued to drive my parents mad dreaming around the place, and my father had uttered with relish threats like: “they’ll wake you up when you join the army”, and: “you’re going to get the shock of your life when you get there”, I wasn’t too worried.
I got to the WRAC Depot on the wrong day, just as I’d got the dates wrong all my life, taking half term holidays when every-one else was at school, arriving to catch the plane as it landed the other end, taking a train to Chester instead of York, or Birmingham instead of Cardiff.
My unheralded arrival at the depot caused great consternation, and several anxious conferences I discovered later. It was decided to park me with the recruit company which was already half way through its training. The quartermaster resolutely refused to issue me with a uniform, because it would screw up her account books, but was prevailed upon to allow me a pair of shoes in order to do all the marching I was about to embark on.
Not knowing the procedure, when they took me to the quartermaster’s stores, I took fitting my shoes as seriously as though I was in Russell and Bromley buying some fabulously expensive gear. I pinched the toes, checked the heels, worried about the width, and walked up and down trying several different ones for size, while the quartermaster’s staff looked on in dumb disbelief, and allowed me to get away with it, since I was obviously away with the fairies! Later I discovered that it was just a question of saying your size and taking what you were given. Ignorance/innocence was bliss…
I was then escorted to the barrack-room, with a corporal helping me to carry my suit case. As we neared the entrance, I heard the clatter of seventy pairs of shoes thundering along wooden floors, and can still remember my subconscious thought, “Oh, they must have taken the carpets up for cleaning…”
Since the quartermaster – a fearsome figure – had dug her toes in over my uniform, I had to trail around at the end of the squad in my old red raincoat, the only thing I had to wear. Every time the Colonel – another fearsome figure – saw my red mac, it was worse than a red rag to a bull, because she then trounced the harried Adjutant for the incompetence of everyone down the chain of command who hadn’t issued me with uniform. Thus, unbeknown to me, I became famous or rather, infamous throughout the depot.
Meanwhile I solemnly got on with the job of being a recruit, with a lot of help from my fellows, who thought I was going to be a clerk or a cook like them. Since I was out of sequence with the other officer cadets, I was in with a room of diverse and fascinating girls, some escaping the slums, some escaping their parents, others escaping an unhappy marriage, or a cruel employer. There were also two girls from the Gorbals, the notorious Glasgow slums, whose speech was salted with curses and swear words – most of them new to my ears.
One night, after another exhausting day of: “by the right, by the left”, right wheeling, left wheeling, right form, and lectures, with the same programme awaiting us the next day, I got tired of their strident voices and obscenities keeping us all awake while we tried to get our much- needed sleep. I said to them very crisply in my pukka Queen’s English, down the length of the barrack room – “Good Bloody Night !” There followed a deafening silence and I went straight off to sleep.
At lunch-time the next day, a deputation from the barrack room came to me, and asked me very seriously not to be corrupted, and start using bad language. They gently told me I’d been brought up properly, and they didn’t want me to be influenced by people who didn’t know any better! I promised them I’d be a good girl, thinking of my father, and wondering if he would think I was getting that shock to the system that was going to wake me up!
Because I’d muddled up my dates, when I emerged as a fully- fledged recruit, my fellow officer cadets were still some weeks behind me, so I was a spare wheel. They invented a temporary rank for me, and I was called a Senior Private. I had the job of marching the new recruits to the cookhouse, which was no sinecure, because you had to remember the right military words of command, shout them loud enough for a long column to hear, and get them timed for the right feet to come to a halt in sequence.
My counting was a shambles so the girls stumbled instead of coming to a brisk halt, and the worst time was when we’d reached the cook house and I couldn’t remember the word for Halt! Finally, as they were in danger of piling up against the door, continuing to march with no word of command to halt them, I shouted “Stop!” in desperation, and I could hear them all muttering things like, “we didn’t get the right foot… she didn’t give us the right command… what’s wrong with her”… responsibility is a terrible thing, I would have told Alice.
By now I was in a new barrack room with all the tough old hands, and one morning in the first week, someone dropped their highly polished shoes for parade, and exclaimed: “Shit”. There was a heavy intake of breath around the room, and then silence. She turned to me and said “I’m sorry”. “Why apologise to me?” I asked in amazement. “Because we all decided we wouldn’t swear when you came into this room,” she said!
My poor father would have been sadly disappointed – coddled and protected, when was I going to wake up? But a soldier’s life was terrible fun! So 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 ground 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 for lunch.
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 when 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 latest 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 same 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…with apologies to AA Milne and Christopher Robin
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
Raw food isn’t really my thing, but I found this recipe for mushroom pate rather delicious. Chop twelve to fifteen baby mushrooms or two really big portobello mushrooms, and marinate them in two tablespoons of olive oil and the same of tamari soya sauce, for half an hour. Put half a cup of walnuts in a food processor and pulse until slightly broken down, and add the mushrooms and a clove of garlic. Pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky and add salt and black pepper to taste. Good on crackers with a glass of wine, or sherry…
Food for thought
Clanmother sent me this time ago, and I love it. She wrote: ” J.R.R. Tolkien lost his best friends in WWI. One of my favourite quotes on war comes from his work, “The Return of the King,”
‘It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’