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A Shout From The Attic: Three ‘Alves

When it came time for Padre's Hour Ronnie Bray learned that the British Army has three halves.

Arithmetic has never been my strong point. I usually managed to keep off the bottom of annual examinations at Spring Grove School only because Mary Appleyard invariably got none and I managed two more than she did. It wasn't until I was almost eighteen and in the Army that I learned how to do long division. That was thanks to the Army Education Corps.

A year and a half later, serving in Cyprus, I was still making use of the Army's Education programmes to advance my limping edification to a standard that would let me compete in life on a more or less even playing field. The woolly-haired young sergeant-teacher became so gently frustrated when attempting to indoctrinate me in the lesser points of trigonometry that during a moment of histrionic over-emphasis, he aimed to bang on his desk, missed, and was next seen climbing back into a standing position with air of complete and utter resignation not usually seen on the face of one so young.

Even though I could not grasp or remember any of the simple formulae that some very young children are so adept at internalising and using as common language, there were some things I knew about arithmetic, and the "three-halves-rule " was one of them. Of course, it might never have come up had I not been a high profile Mormon when about all that was known of them was that they caused a bit of trouble with their Religious, social, and matrimonial customs in frontier America in the Nineteenth-Century, and that some of these had spilled over into the British Isles at the hands of some exceptional missionaries.

The British Army has a language all its own. It is not amenable to analysis, it defies description, and you have to be a British soldier to understand the mind-set that generated it and that perpetuates it. During my first year as an untidy and often inept soldier, I still had some way to go to appreciate the military mind and its place in guarantee the security of Britain and, thereby, the safety and continuance of Western civilisation. However, I gained an important insight into that mind-set one cool Saturday morning on the parade ground under the tutelage of one of the bastions of the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Regimental Sergeant Major.

This warrant officer, the highest non-commissioned rank in the British Army, wields more power than any other officer with the exception of the Battalion’s Colonel. Junior subalterns are subject to his discipline and woe betide any young officer who ignore him or his regulations, every one of them out of the Manual of Army Discipline, or the book of Queens’ Rules and Regulations, each publication having strict rules of conduct and discipline meticulously applied by the RSM. Sensible soldiers respect and fear their RSMs and take extreme care to avoid their disapproval.

It was, therefore, with some difficulty that I managed to refrain from laughing out loud that Saturday morning after we had been assembled, inspected, and drilled by the RSM at Sudbury, when he announced that the company would dismiss to that ailing institution of military life, Padre’s Hour. This was the time, usually held on a Saturday morning when more important duties were out of the way, and the attendance at a religious meeting with either the battalion’s chaplain or a visiting minister or priest was all that stood between the soldier and escape for the weekend on a thirty-six hour pass.

One Saturday morning we were assembled on the parade ground. I still had not overcome my antipathy to the square of asphalt that formed the centre lot of Army camps. Our RSM, a dear man who troubled us very little, except that he insisted that if we wore wellington boots on parade, they must be gleamingly polished. This Saturday we assembled on the parade ground. Except for those who were excused boots and those excused marching. These formed a significant majority of our ranks, because many cerebrally gifted people are lacking in physical aptitude. The brilliant, but inform, whose skills the Army could not afford to do without, lined the square. The RSM looked every inch a soldier.

After his customary harangue – part of the normative ritual of military life – he turned his attention to Padre’s Hour. “Roman Catholics fall out on the left. Anglicans fall out to the rear. Other denominations fall out to the right.” They fell out, moving this way and that to attain their appointed divisions until from the confusion three orderly platoons were formed around three sides of the square. A solitary figure remained in the centre of the parade ground.

The parade ground was now empty, apart from an RSM who appeared to be at least nine feet tall, and me, feeling about four feet tall, standing facing him. It is difficult to describe the look on his face to anyone unfamiliar with the slow burn of Edgar Kennedy. He approached me purposefully shaking his massive pace stick to assist him with emphasis as the spiny ends of his waxed moustache described little circles in the air as his head moved in an indescribable motion and he bellowed at me, “What are you, Laddie?” Although I felt that his addressing me as “Laddie” was hardly showing respect for one of England’s warriors and a true soldier of the Queen, I did not raise that point with him.

I assumed an air of military importance, knowing that demonstrating a military bearing would persuade him that he was in the company of an equal and make him think twice before treating me as he had done a full corporal a little earlier in the parade when he had dismissed him with the charge to “Take yourself down to the guardroom, corporal, and chain yourself to the wall!”

The RSM moved in on me, getting close enough to whisper, but that was against his religion. “And what are you?” he bellowed, repeating himself. “A Mormon, sir,” I repeated, in a suitable military tone.

“You are a what!” It was not a question, rather declaration of war.

“I am a Mormon, sir!” I said with conviction, remembering a book I had read about lions and looking him straight in the eyes, hoping that he had also read the book.

“A Mormon, Laddie?” he thundered back, apparently not intimidated. “Are they Roman Catholics”?

“No, sir!”

“Are they Church of England?”

“No, sir!”

“Then they must be ‘Other Denominations,’ Laddie!”

“No, sir!” I repeated, resolutely but softly, not wishing to antagonise him.

He stepped forward three paces, which, considering that there had only been two paces between us to start with, brought us very close. His eyes, though a good foot and a half above mine seemed to meet as with lowered voice he entreated,

“Listen, Laddie! The British Harmy is made up of three ‘alves: Church of Hengland, Roman Catholics, and Hother Denominations! Which are you?”

“Neither, sir. I’m a Mormon.”

He had neither the capacity nor inclination to prolong the exchange. It probably mattered very little to him who went where or whether anyone went anywhere at all. His resignation showed.

“Right, Laddie. Present yourself at the cookhouse for fatigues.”

I turned to the right, counted ‘two, three’ barely concealing a chuckle that I could feel forming somewhere down near my knees, rising as I completed the dismissal manoeuvre, but the remains of my cold fear made it disappear before it reached physical expression. Marching off the parade ground, that was now ten miles wide, I marched steadfastly to the cookhouse, not daring to glance behind, lest I was observed in my now evident mirth.

The cook sergeant was highly amused when I reported my errand and my reason for being there. He laughed and told me to go and wait for dinnertime in my barrack room. I went and lay on my bed to mull over the happening and to ponder what I had learned that morning. The main lesson was that it was alright to speak up for what you believed in, and that there was justice to be gained from principled stands. I also learned something that neither Spring Grove School nor the British Army Education Corps had not taught me, and that was that your could have “three ‘alves!”


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