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A Shout From The Attic: A Strapping Lad

....The ‘standard required’ was exclusively related to foot drill, as marching was called, on the barrack square – the most hated place – and to the order of our uniform and related equipment. Boots were a particular focus of attention from the munchkins trusted with our care and attention, and unless the toe caps of one’s ‘best boots’ shone like enamelled ebony, one was introduced to a vocabulary that not only exceeded Shakespeare’s, but was also as inaccessible as Chaucer’s except to the initiated...

Ronnie Bray tells of dogged Army days at a camp called Borden.

Due to the remarkable status I achieved as a soldier during basic training, when my trade training was completed, I was sent as an example to the REME’s Regimental Re-training Centre at Borden in Hampshire. It was a kind of military catechical school for those whose first baptisms had not taken and who stood in need of repeated re-baptisms before they would become passable angels, only in this case it was to try to elevate me to the ranks of passable soldiery.

So far, the army had trained me to make a bedblock, square off my bed, kit, and hair, march at a normal, slow, and fast pace, introduced me to the Short Lee Enfield .303 rifle, the bayonet, the Sten gun, the Bren gun, Mill’s hand grenade, and taught me to shoot a variety of firearms without teaching me how to hit anything.

I had become proficient at rifle drill, regular and pokey. This last being some unauthorised and irregular moves that astounded both spectators and practitioners when the dextrous and dangerous moves were executed without causing death or injury. There were times when my kit had not pleased the inspecting NCOs, but as very little pleased them, I did not take it too much to heart, and I was in good company.

From Blandford, I was shipped to Barton Stacey to learn to drive, and then was posted to Ellesmere in Shropshire to be trained as a vehicle mechanic. My regimental skills must have attracted attention, because after I passed out at Ellesmere with the grade of Vehicle Mechanic Class A III, I was delivered to Borden without explanation other than what I read on the sign at the entrance to the camp. I was to be retrained in soldering. I was not flattered, and neither were my many compatriots, each of which had also failed to reach “the standard required.”

The ‘standard required’ was exclusively related to foot drill, as marching was called, on the barrack square – the most hated place – and to the order of our uniform and related equipment. Boots were a particular focus of attention from the munchkins trusted with our care and attention, and unless the toe caps of one’s ‘best boots’ shone like enamelled ebony, one was introduced to a vocabulary that not only exceeded Shakespeare’s, but was also as inaccessible as Chaucer’s except to the initiated. I was soon initiated, but I have laboured hard and successfully to expunge them.

When on parades I tried to stand between two soldier whose boots were shabbier than mine, but I was always spotted and charged with ‘offences contrary to Kings Rules and Regulations,’ which was, they said, ‘contrary to good order and military discipline.’ That charge was broad enough to be interpreted in any of several hundred thousand ways, and it always was. As a consequence, in the five or six weeks that I languished there, I spent twenty-four days consecutively on Jankers.

The Bordenite authoritarian mind was such that the penalty for the same offence multiplied exponentially for each occasion of the same offence. My offence was always my ‘best’ boots. The first time I was charged because they were ‘dusty’ even though I had, in the best military tradition, dusted them off on the back of my khaki clad legs as I stood on parade. My Brayite anti-authoritarian mind tried to get by without actually doing the work. It didn’t work!

With a keenness of vision that would turn Superman green with envy, the ‘little corporal’ detected microscopic dust on my shiny toe caps and put me on a fizzer, which was military jargon for a disciplinary charge entered on Army Form 252. On the wall outside the commanding officer’s office was a huge sign that read, “Ignorance of the Law is NO excuse!” Nor was it. I was castigated for being a ‘sloppy soldier,’ rather harshly I thought and sentenced to three days confined to barracks.

Three days confined to barracks –‘Jankers’ in military parlance – didn’t seem too bad, as I had not intended leaving the barracks. Being stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a strange county where the local patois was virtually indecipherable did not encourage poor young lads to feel to wander. However, I soon learned that being confined to barracks involved a lot more than staying in the camp – a whole LOT more!

At the risk of frightening my readers, I will explain all that is involved. Reveille sounded at six am. I had to report to the guardroom dressed in fatigues, belted, booted and gaitered, at a quarter past six each morning of my sentence. There, I was rigorously inspected by the Regimental Police, affectionately referred to as RPs, and sometimes by another term that presently escapes me.

Inspection complete, I was sent to either work for thirty minutes around the guardroom or report to that other hive of early morning activity, the cookhouse, to be set at tasks at the discretion of the cook sergeant. Then I could get my breakfast, and then had to prepare my kit for routine daily inspection, then get myself on parade without being late, and stand all new and shiny as if I had just come out of my box.

My next report was in fatigues at dinnertime - which is midday in England, although dinner is not eaten until teatime. A usually cursory inspection, some paternal words of wisdom delivered at the level of jet engine take-off roar, and the penalised – c’est moi - was free to eat lunch, and then get back on parade ready for the afternoon’s depredations.

I was permitted to eat dinner at the normal time, but had then to report back at the guardhouse by six pm to undertake a further thirty minutes, if I was lucky, the labour was of menial and unnecessary proportions, following which I was sent off, only to have to return as nine pm dressed in my best battledress, and in equipment known as ‘battle order.” This consisted of my small pack, straps, and ammunition pouches, one on each side of his chest. These had to be Blancoed; their brass ends and buckles must be made to shine ‘bright as the sun, fair as the moon.’ Any deviation from perfection was met with condign insinuations of further punishment, but this was intended only to terrorise, and though I was often threatened with such terror it was never visited on me.

At ten o’clock pm, I had to parade at the guardhouse in Full Service Marching Order, which was best BD, and large pack, under which was hung the small pack, crossed straps, ammunition pouches, and, inside them, every item of issued kit I possessed except that which fitted into my kit bag, an item that I felt blessed for not having to lug all over the place on my regular attendances, for what I did have to carry was a toil of a pleasure! Final inspection of the day over, I was then free to return to barracks, doff my kit, fold my clothing back in my locker in Bristol fashion, re-polish my boots, re-Blanco my webbing equipment, including the pouches and straps, etc., and steam press my battledress ready for the next round of melancholy on the following day.

Three days of that and my soul was stripped to its essentials. However, the fickle finger of fate conspired with my unkempt and careless spirit to necessitate my being further apprehended on the morning of my third and final day of punishment for having dust on my boots, for having dust on my boots, and sentenced to additional seven days of dishonour. Round and round on the not-so-merry-go-round I went, my head aching from the mad dash to this place and that, as directed by my maîtres militaires who assured me that it was all for my own good.

Hardly had I hit the middle mark of my confinement when I was arraigned a third time for the same offence. This time I felt quite put upon, but there were more of them than there was of me, and they had the Law on their side, even though they applied it, in my view, unjustly. That was when I came to apprehend the difference between law and justice. The law exponentially asserted itself by handing down a further spell of Jankers. This time it exponented to the tune of fourteen days.

In course of time, as is their wont, the four-and-twenty days ran their race and I was let go at the end thereof with no further apprehension by the retraining staff, and with some lessons learned about proper preparation preceding success paired with punctuality preventing penalisation by a sadder but a wiser soldier.

Two other significant events imprinted my mind during those Borden days. First was meeting one of the nicest men I ever met in the service. He was Staff Sergeant Walters, and he was Duty Officer on the day of the Queen’s Coronation in June nineteen fifty-three. He gave me some fatherly advice on getting along in the Army. His inspections and fatigue requirements were the least intrusive, and demanding that I ever knew. I was deeply saddened by the news of his death at the hands of his wife’s lover some years later in BAOR.

The second memorable circumstance pertains to the cracked ribs I acquired during barrack room horseplay. “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the” Borden Barrack-room, when the chap with whom I was having an impromptu and good-natured wrestling match, threw me across a bed and forgot to let go of my arm. I twisted around, landed on the edge of the metal bed frame, and injured a rack of ribs. The pain was excruciating. This caused me to yowl like a banshee, and the rest of the chaps to howl with laughter, even being as sympathetic as to imitate my painful bellow with varying degrees of volume and elaboration.

The hullabaloo brought down an NCO under re-training from an upstairs dormitory. He opened the door, flashed the stripes on his pyjamas, and bawled, “Unless this racket stops right now, I shall have no compunction in reporting you!” His tone and demeanour were such that we all believed him and ceased our clamour forthwith. We agreed among ourselves that this sergeant’s pin-up girl was probably Marjorie Main.

In low, reverent tones, we discussed the possible range of meanings of the word ‘compunction.’ It was, we concluded, possibly a neologism, but certainly a word with which none of us, not even our educated chap, had come across before.

Although we promised ourselves that we would look up its meaning and share our research findings, none of us ever did. I have meant to look it up across the years, but I fell into the notion that its context supplied all the meaning necessary for it to be understood and have not troubled its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, although I have used the word on several occasions in comparable situations. It seems to have been understood by the rioters and failed not to quell their riotous passions.

My ribs only hurt when I breathed, laughed, spoke, whispered, stood up, lay down, moved, or remained stationary. Without managing to do any of the foregoing I presented myself to the medical room. This was a change from going to the guardroom, although my legs through dint of well established habit tried to take me to that place of incarceration and humiliation, yet I prevailed and ordered them to convey me to the medical outpost where some young soldiers who were breezing through their National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps kept up a barrage of banter between them as they assessed my condition and assayed what course of action to take.

In between a flowing discourse about their romantic assignation, some of which seemed a little exaggerated, and some of which, I confess, made me a little envious, they managed to find several rolls of four inch wide Elastoplast, and proceeded to bind me like an Egyptian mummy to immobilise my rib cage. This they did so efficiently that breathing was impossible, but it did reduce the pain although there were times when I got light-headed due to lack of oxygen. They were kind enough to fill out a chit excusing me duties for seven days, and handed it to me without making eye contact, so enthralled were they in their tales from Decameron Nights, but they did spell my name correctly, so I was thankful for that.

Next day, I did not fall in at parade time, but stood to the side of the parade ground with the look of an injured man in excruciating pain, which I was, and deftly handed the note to the drill sergeant. He read it front and back several times, although there was nothing on the back, and, to his obvious amazement, nothing appeared no matter how often he turned it over to check. Not even when he turned it over quickly to try and catch some apparently expected arcane writing before it disappeared, and then he thrust it back at me growling, “Get fell in!” No mercy and no quarter given. I would have requested of him the coup de grace, but the British had stopped doing that sort of thing some time ago, and he wouldn’t have known what it meant and might have taken offence, as an American police officer did when an acquaintance of mine who called him ‘Constable,’ so I got fell in. I did my poor best and he made allowances, and that was the extent of his mercy, and it was welcome.

The next seven days were difficult, and there were some things that I could not do. However, in spite of my incapacity, I managed to keep the dust off my boots, and maintain the rest of my gear in such order so as not to attract no negative attention. On the due date, the sticking plaster strapping was removed, along with half a square yard of skin. Concomitantly, my time at Borden was up, and I was even more pleased to leave than they were to be rid of me. It was time for fresh adventures.

My dogged dog days at Borden ended as dog days do. Farewells were said, omnidirectional trains boarded, and I was headed for Sudbury, a place straddling the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. My granddad Harold Bennett was from Derby, and my Nan, Margaret Ann Miers, was from Longton in Staffordshire, and my mother was born in Uttoxeter.

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