When I Was Corporal For A Day (18 April 1975)
By rights, this article should be read only by old soldiers. It contains just a couple of wartime reminiscences they might appreciate, including how I won my first stripe and lost it again the same day.
I had done the usual six weeks’ square-bashing, followed by several months of technical trade training, and now found myself in a waiting battalion – a sort of pool from which sections were made up and drafted. You might be there only a day, or you might be there for weeks, according to the demand for your particular trade. I was there for weeks.
But I was by no means idle. On the contrary, this was one of the toughest periods of my life. The authorities reckoned, quite rightly, that we would have grown soft again after so many weeks spent largely in trade training. Now we were to be reminded that we were soldiers first and technicians only second.
The man appointed to remind us had been seconded from the Brigade of Guards for the purpose and called himself a Supernumerary Sergeant Major. He knew backwards the whole book of guards training, both ceremonial and battle-wise and, assisted by other NCOs of similar calibre, he gave us what I can still only think of as hell. Yet, as always, there were lighter moments.
One day we were lying on our bellies behind an imaginary parapet and the SSM was pacing up and down in front and haranguing us about what to do and what not to do when we had only one “ball” left in our “breeches” and so on. Suddenly he stood still and fiercely earnest, exclaimed: “And let you have no doubt about this m’lads: if you ever let those ——s get in behind you, you’ll never REGRET it!”
On my left lay the erstwhile editor of a national literary magazine. On my right lay the former chief proof reader for a publishing firm who specialised in text-books on languages. Beyond him were an ex-school-teacher, and ex-assistant post master and an ex-secretary of a building society. It was with real physical pain that we all had to suppress our mirth at this classic malapropism.
All this military stuff, plus PT benders, plus 24-hour guards four times a week, was murder to my 32-year-old feet. Yet, despite all my shortcomings, it was at this place that for a half day I became that army figure of fun and derision, an unpaid, unwanted and, in my case, a most unwilling lance-jack.
It was all on account of what happened on a new assault course. The course was laid out in a circular fashion, with a starting trench that was also the finishing trench. A considerable number of bods lit out of the trench four at a time and I was in the last four to go.
The first objective was a line of four straw-filled sacks dangling from a gibbet-like frame. These were supposed to represent enemy personnel and had to be bayoneted – one each. Two or three men of more than ordinary imagination turned green at this and were taken out of the running immediately. I took the sacks for being just what they were. So, in went my bayonet, then “twist and out” in impeccable style and on to the next objective.
Alas, this had me foundering badly. It was a high brick wall, with smallish square apertures near the top, through one of which I had to scramble. Had my rifle been one of today’s little pop-guns there would have been no problem. But mine was three or four inches longer than the old standard Lee Enfield and surmounted by a bayonet to match. I made three or four attempts which must have looked sheer slapstick comedy before I got myself and Sir Rifle through that hole without landing on my head on the other side.
By this time my three companions had disappeared ahead and I would have suffered the loneliness of the long-distance runner but for sergeants bawling at me as I struggled through barbed wire entanglements, along rope bridges and so forth.
Finally I came to a steep ramp, from the start of which nothing could be seen of what lay beyond. The ramp was lined with squatting khaki figures who, with sheepish grins, greeted my late arrival with ironic cheers. However, I staggered to the top and there found a sheer drop of several feet on to a solid concrete base.
Moreover, some nasty-looking wire hanging from the top meant there was no other way down than to jump. So I jumped.
I landed with an awful clatter. My rifle and bayonet went one way. My tin hat went another. My gas mask carrier clouted my chin. My glasses dangled from one ear. Otherwise there was no harm done.
Leisurely, I picked myself up, collected my traps and ambled to the finishing trench. There, to my utter astonishment, I found that only two others had completed the course, nearly all the rest having duffed at the jump. The waiting SSM looked like he had seen a ghost.
It would be nice to have it recorded that my success was due to great grit and perseverance. Alternatively, and more truthfully, it could have been thought that by the time I reached the drop I was so fed up with the whole affair that I didn’t much care whether I lived or died. Actually, neither was the case. The fact was that I had experienced similar circumstances in ARP training and knew that, although I was now much more heavily lumbered, I could make the jump without any great risk.
It so happened that a number of quick drafts had left the battalion short of junior NCOs and on the next day’s orders I found, to my consternation, that we three finishers had been appointed temporary lance-jacks. I drew my hooks and was still wondering how to get them on straight when, mercifully, there was another quick draft and I was on it. So off went the stripe that had never actually been on, and away I went rejoicing to fresh fields and pastures new.