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A Shout From The Attic: The Army Takes Over My Life

Life was cardboard, squareness, cleanliness, and routine, routine, routine, says Ronnie Bray about his early life in the Army. "Army life is hell for the lazy.''

We had lots of fun at Blandford. Each day was challenging. My constitutional lack of rigour made some of the events taste sour, as I balked at the parts I did not like. I have never had much stomach for some things, especially if I thought them unnecessary or in bad taste, or even not to my liking. In later years, I have managed to put up with all sorts of things that I resisted in my youth. The one thing that I did enjoy was Army food. In this, I was abnomal, because almost everyone else complained about its quality in general and its taste in particular. I found it good to taste, and of a quality I had never experienced at home.

As more sensible soldiers than I were idly poking and nibbling at cookhouse food and filling up, expensively, at the NAAFI in the evenings, I was tucking away at it, loving it, going back for more, and gaining weight. I cannot recall one barracks I was at where I found the food less than substantial and more than acceptable. That I developed an addiction to fried aggs, chips, and boiled tomatoes in Cyprus, swallowing them at every possible opportunity in no way detracts from my utter appreciation for Army grub.

To say that my Nan was a cook in service conjures up images of sumptuous feasting with quails in aspic, larks’ tongues, and feather-light profiteroles covered in crisp chocolate. Nothing like that ever came out of the kitchen at 121. Meat and two veg were the limit, and the gravy was minimal and always unthickened. Because we had never had steamed puddings, thick gravy, or cooked onions, I had an animadversion to them.

But the continual physical activity demanded of recruits, and the many lofty challenges each day threw up, generated in me an appetite that was gargantuan. I ate everything they had. Pom, the much hated reconstituted potato that sploshed on the plate when delivered with terminal velocity from the ladle of a kitchen hand determined to knock the bottoms out of as many dinner plates as possible, was a particular favourite. I finished the leftovers from my companions’ pates then went back to the servery for more. My mother is a worse cook than my Nan. In fact, although they may not agree with me, I’m the only decent cook my family has produced, and even I was the subject of an entry in Norma’s journal that read: “Ronnie thinks he can cook. Oh, dear!” .

I learned to shoot a rifle, the Short Lee Enfield .303” calibre. Some proficiency was gained on the Bren Gun, my favourite weapon because of its accuracy and fire power. Bayonets were fun: we drilled with them and without them, used them to open tins with, and attacked straw bales with a ferocity unusual in Englishmen, but normal among the wild Scotsmen in our number. We had all sorts, Welsh, Scots, and Irish, all getting along together with only a mild rivalry that never became acrimonious. The most pointed rivalry was between the noble sons of York and those of the House of Lancaster.

We had one chap, older than most of us, from Eire. He was mild-mannered and educated to degree level. His main problem was the drink. When sober he was the nicest man you could meet; speaking wise words in a soft brogue that charmed all who heard him. When he was drunk, he was just the same, except that he was then more inclined to fall over. During a break in the day’s events, our corporal asked him to tell the platoon about the IRA. He protested that two things soldiers never discussed were politics and religion. The corporal explained that he was not required to take a position on the issue, merely acquaint us with the facts of history. This he did with insight and competence.

His acquaintance with the demon drink was attenuated during our first weeks of training, so that he stayed sober and pleasant. He demonstrated his need for sobriety on the fist night he found his way towards an uncorked bottle by returning to our hut and thinking that a comrade’s locker was the village urinal, he emptied his bladder generously over its highly polished and folded contents. Next morning and sober, he was ashamed and fully contrite. The victim was remarkably understanding. The wrong being put to right was never spoken of again.

Life in the barrack room was systematised to the nth degree. After rising at six, we made our beds into ‘bed blocks.’ This entailed placing specially cut lengths of cardboard around the sides of the mattress so that when the cover blanket is stretched over, it assumed the shape of a plank of wood, six feet long, two and a half feet wide and four inches thick. The blankets and sheets were folded into small squares and layered to present a Neapolitan ice cream to the front, the whole being wrapped around by another blanket, and finally the pillows placed on the top, with the cases pulled taut, their open ends facing away from the end door in hospital fashion.

Our webbing packs were filled with cardboard templates to present a flat square front to each item. The whole array was carefully stacked on top of the locker in a pyramidoid, surmounted by the steel helmet, and a dummy set of five .303 rounds in a clip – all highly polished, stood in front. Inside the locker various items of clothing were displayed, duly cardboarded, and squared off like a large Battenberg cake in layers instead of quarters. Life was cardboard, squareness, cleanliness, and routine, routine, routine. I found the routine unpleasant. I needed variety.

Night times were given to some small measure of amusement, and a large measure of preparation for the following day. Army life is hell for the lazy. Webbing had to be scrubbed and Blancoed; an astronomical number of brass tags, clips, and buckle parts had to be Brassoed, boots polished until you could see your face in them, shirts, ties, battledress blouses and trousers pressed with creases as sharp as a Samurai’s sword. This had to be done each night except Friday and Saturdays. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we began to get the hang of the military mind.

We sensed the drama that was at the core of it and the need for unquestioned discipline in situations where our own lives and those of others would depend on instant obedience. As this fell into place, we began to be better soldiers; the Drill Sergeant became less ferocious, more kindly disposed, and we grew in confidence, and experienced sympathy for the new recruits who came to the camp almost daily.

I wrote earlier that I learned how to shoot. While that is substantially true, I confess that I never managed to hit anything. At ranges greater than 100 yards, I could not focus on the target. We had to qualify as a shooter each year, and during my time at 11th REME Workshops in Sudbury, Staffordshire, my shooting was so bad that an ASM shot it for me. The trouble was that he was no better shot than I was and I failed again! No one complained, and I suffered no reduction in my pittance.

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