Recollections of a National Serviceman

"Every recruit was issued with two pairs of boots which had to be studded - a shop in Acton (a suburb of west London, this conscript came from that part of the world) did little else! One pair was for everyday use, the other to be reserved for full parades. They were good quality but had a wrinkled finish. The classic way of achieving a completely smooth finish was to treat them with the heated end of a spoon. One lad took a short cut and left his boots in the oven to prepare them. Unfortunately, he was called away on some urgent task and forgot about the boots - the first he knew of their fate was when a thin wisp of smoke came round the door. This was not the end of the tragedy, however, he was charged with 'wilful damage to Army property,' and the cost was recovered from his already meagre pay.

One of the most important occasions in the life of an Army unit was the annual General Inspection when every item of kit and equipment has to be accounted for. One particular unit found that they were in possession of one extra 25 pounder gun in excess of their establishment. This was, if anything, a more serious crime than being one short. Desperate attempts to hide the gun were unsuccessful - it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. As the day of inspection drew nearer, panic set in until one senior NCO suggested it would have to disappear completely. After some further discussion it was agreed to bury the offending object. This drastic solution was apparently successful - the gun was hidden in a large hole and covered with suitable foliage. The inspection went off satisfactorily to everyone's relief. If the general ever discovered the truth of the matter he was wise enough not to admit it and so the episode passed into legend.

Life in the Aldershot barracks was not particularly comfortable, recruits being housed in the cavalry barracks dating from Victorian times, where the troopers slept in rooms above the stables. To a newcomer, the noise of boots on iron staircases, together with the shouted orders and slamming of doors was truly terrifying. Most people eventually got used to the rather bleak environment, but there were a few suicide attempts - one chap jumped from a balcony onto a glass roof. Our company sergeant-major tried to keep everyone occupied by arranging a deal with a local contractor to re-decorate the barracks. He would supply the necessary labour (officially designated 'fatigues') while the funds allocated were shared between them. No-one seems to have questioned the legality of using military resources in this way so I suppose the authorities turned a blind eye to what went on within the camp.

The seemingly endless routine of parades and training came to an end when details of postings became available. Most of us stood a good chance of going abroad - a new experience for the post-war generation. There was a wide assortment of bases in what was left of the crumbling Empire - Hong Kong and Malaya among the favourite places. One that was unpopular was Cyprus where a shooting war had begun recently (1955) - one of the previous draft was killed on his first day! An expectant hush was evident when the postings were read out, one lad, normally a loud mouthed individual, was for once silent. I watched his face as his name was called and saw it turn a ghastly pallor as the dreaded word 'Cyprus' was pronounced. I almost felt sorry for him in that instant but, then, it was a lottery in which we all participated for better or worse.

Germany was my destination, and only about ten years since the end of the war, it was a considerable improvement on barrack life. The Germans just about tolerated an 'Army of Occupation,' and, being Rhinelanders, were pretty easy-going anyway, and probably thankful they were not in the Russian zone. So, was it all worthwhile? Well, a lot of time was wasted, but we did see more of the world and its inhabitants than was normal for teenagers then and maybe we learned a few lessons about getting along with other people which would stand us in good stead in our future careers. From a military point of view, however, it was farcical and futile."

February 2016

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