Saturday, May 18, 2024

Learning To Be A Soldier

April 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Prose

The system of recruits’ training in 1938 meant that individuals, on enlisting, had to wait until sufficient numbers arrived to form into a squad of about twenty. Then the training really got started.

The period of waiting was always referred to as being unsquadded’. When asked by an NCO or officer who you were, the expected reply would be ‘Recruit Number . . ,’ your name and ‘unsquadded’. This term seemed to imply that, to be ‘unsquadded’, you were not just a nobody, but a non-person doomed to continuous fatigues of sweeping the roads, cleaning toilets, working in the cookhouse, until that day when you again became human, not much of a human, (but one at least ‘squadded’ and able to live again).

Then the training really commenced, every second of every day, from reveille to lights out accounted for. One simple mistake caused instant chaos. Each squad was assigned an instructor, a corporal or other NCO and a trained soldier, usually a Guardsman of many years service. The NCO’s were always refereed to by rank and always in full, the brigade of Guards did not tolerate sloppy abbreviations like Corp or Serge!

Their duties were divided into two parts. All outside training, marching, arms drill, saluting, were the NCO’s responsibility. All activities in the barrack room; cleaning of equipment, the barrack room itself, were the job of the trained soldier, plus the teaching of military history of the Welsh Guards. You were expected to know all the battle honours, the names of all the NCO’s, Warrant Officers and Officers of the regiment, and all the medals won by them in action. This was quite a mammoth task in itself; plus all the drill movements, both with and without weapons, all the various parts of your rifle, all had to be absorbed. Even the method and drill of your walking out cane (all Guardsmen carried a swagger cane when in uniform and off duty), was quite an elaborate performance.

Thus from the first notes of reveille, it became all go, wash, shave, clean your barrack room, toilets, bathroom, fold bedclothes and set your kit out in the approved manner. Grab your food utensils, bolt your breakfast, clean everything used, and an extra polish for everything. Room inspection by the duty officer and heaven help any poor unfortunate who hadn’t done absolutely everything correctly. Buttons polished, even the cleaning utensil spotless. One of the more difficult things was the folding of blankets, sheets and towels etc. These had to be folded so precisely, if they were an eighth of an inch out of square the whole lot would be tipped up into a heap, sometimes tossed out of the window, even when four or five storeys high. The worst part was that the whole squad could be punished for a misdemeanour of one of its members. Thus the incredible feeling of comradeship was installed right from the start; all for one, one for all, each helping the other. Any bits of clothing or equipment spoiled or lost had to be paid for out of the individual’s pay.

The work schedule was exhausting. Drills of all descriptions, PT exercises, swimming, all timed to perfection, changing from one outfit to another counted in seconds. One almost ate to deadly precision.

Then every evening, two hours of sitting on beds, polishing and cleaning, always with special attention to boots. These big heavy boots, when new, were of thick leather, the surface all bubbly, like an elephant’s hide. This had to be polished until it became smooth and pliable, like patent leather. There were several ways of getting this result, some were illegal, like heating the back of a spoon and burning them smooth. When smooth, a piece of bone (sheep’s ribs were particularly good) dipped into polish, and vigorously applied in a smoothing motion’ then after all that, the good old spit and polish.

All this was the responsibility of the trained solder, who oversaw everything, continuously barking out questions to everyone about the Regiment, its Battle Honours, Regimental Officers, history of the Brigade of guards, those honoured in battle, etc. Anyone failing to answer correctly was immediately punished by a period of floor polishing. This was done with a long handled polisher, an ingenious thing called a ‘floor bumper’, consisting of a heavy polishing block on a swivel, which allowed it to stay flat on the floor whilst being propelled backwards and forwards by the long handle. Needless to say, the wooden floor, after years of polishing by this means, gleamed as though made of glass.

After three weeks of this it was considered that perhaps you were trained sufficiently to be let out one evening a week. You lined up to be inspected by the trained soldier, who meticulously measured everything, including the winding of the puttees so carefully wound round your legs. When he was satisfied, you strode down to the barrack gates, arms swinging, swagger cane correctly balanced, to be again inspected by the Sergeant of the Guard. He could be a member of any of the five Regiments of foot guards. You marched up, halted as smartly as you could, and then were often sent back to the end of the queue because he was not satisfied with some petty detail. Eventually you emerged to ‘live it up’ for a few hours in the flesh pots of Caterham. Caterham was a garrison town, living and breathing the Brigade of Guards, and many a Guardsman rookie regretted misbehaving in town.

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