The journey to Chatham was uneventful but exhilarating. I remember it being a beautiful sunny evening, and felt that whatever lay ahead of me I had made the right decision.
Not much given to introspection, I realised I had set myself a challenge for the first time in my life, and my future was going to depend on how I handled it - without family guidance. Before boarding the train I'd phoned home to tell them of my enlistment. Luckily we were separated by telephone lines. They weren't exactly turning cartwheels. Later I learned more of their concern and was never certain whether it was because of the lowliness of the profession I had chosen, which would undoubtedly involve considerable discomfort and unsociable hours, or still being a minor, I had acted without first obtaining parental permission.
But here I was in Chatham, so let's get on with it. Directions for finding Bromptom Barracks I obtained from a porter.
"Straight down the road, guv. About a-mile-and-a-half. You can't miss it. It's a longish walk with a bag, but there's a bus along in half an hour." With my newfound liberation I didn't care to wait half an hour. So I thanked him and made my second mistake. I took a taxi.
Brompton Barracks was not made for aesthetes. The huge empty asphalt parade ground was lined on three sides by grey two-storey barrack blocks with blank windows. The fourth side was of metal railings and at its centre stood a smaller, economic copy of the Marble Arch, and here the taxi stopped.
Standing beneath the archway were two khaki-clad figures, both wearing military caps covered with a scarlet material. These I was soon to learn were Red Caps from the Corps of Military Police: the least endearing unit of the British Army.
I paid the taxi driver and as I picked up my suitcase one of the military policemen marched smartly towards me. Three feet away he came to an earth shattering halt which must have caused momentary concern for the seismologists at Greenwich Observatory, across the Thames. His right arm swished up in a quivering salute and he opened his mouth.
"G'd evening SAH!" he screamed. "Can I be of any assistance to you, SAH?"
"Good evening," I replied. "I should be grateful if you would please show me where to report."
"Yes, SAH! You see that sentry over there," pointing, "he is standing in front of the Adjutant's office, SAH, and that is where you should report. But please do not walk across the square, SAH, but walk round it."
I had long been taught that politeness is essential whatever the circumstances, but I was now beginning to have doubts. However, I thanked him for his information and suggested that the Adjutant's office might not be my correct destination since I was only a sapper recruit for the Royal Engineers.
There was a short ominous silence. Again he opened his mouth, this time contorted by a purple rictus of hatred. He then issued a roar of obscenities, many of which I was too young to understand. I did gather that he considered me less than human and had serious doubts as to the legitimacy of my birth. It was obvious that he was considerably upset and I wondered how he might have behaved were he not able to keep his deeper emotions under control. But eventually he stopped, whether through lack of breath or to avoid needless repetition, it was difficult to guess. But I had understood that I should report to a detached building over to the right and under no circumstances was I to walk across the square but must march round it, and that he did not want to see me again - ever.
Thus was I introduced to the Royal Engineers Training Battalion and dutifully reported in at the building to which I had been directed. Deliberately isolated from the main barracks it was known unofficially, but aptly, as the Nursery. Here, we new recruits were housed and equipped with utilitarian clothing: boots, towels and a few other essential items. When our numbers became large enough to form a training company we would be transferred to proper barracks where Army life would start in earnest.
So, here we began our service under the benevolent care of an elderly NCO, a Sergeant Marshall. His principal task was to cushion the traumas of those for whom the transition from the easy responsibilities of civilian life to the sterner demands of the Army were difficult to accept. He was experienced enough to distinguish the sheep from the goats and took suitable action, hoping to meld a breed which with luck might become a healthy mixture of both. He told us where to find the NAAFI, the barrack's canteen, and what the initials stood for. He cautioned us not to mix with the men we would meet there who would try to borrow money, involve us in dubious card games where we would inevitably lose money and generally suborn the pride he was trying germinate in us for having joined such an illustrious Corps. His predictions were perfectly correct. He also described the badges of rank we would encounter and their ascending order of importance.
Here was a totally new and revealing world I had entered. The sheer differences between my fellow recruits, from myself and from people I had known at school and at home confused me. They came in all shapes, sizes and aptitudes. The large and the small. The weak and the strong. The sharp and the dim. Introverts and extroverts. The healthy and those obviously in need of regular meals. There were some I might have trusted and those I certainly would not. Some arrived with an audible sigh of relief; a few behaved like trapped animals. They came with all manner of trades or with no trades at all.
At first I was shocked but became fascinated by those whose speech could not be conducted without the mantra of the short copulative verb throughout every sentence. I should perhaps have wondered what they made of me. I neither smoked nor drank, nor did I yet find the need to swear. One or two appeared encouraged by my wearing Paisley pyjamas; a practice I quickly abandoned. I was learning fast; there is nothing so rare as the normal person.
Meanwhile dear old Sergeant Marshall prepared us for the day when we would enter the world of real soldiering. He advised us never to leave money lying about, and neither to borrow nor lend it. If we had valuables be offered to keep them in his safe. We had no valuables. He taught us how to make up an army bed. This consisted of a rigid spring-less steel frame, three 'biscuits', hard square mattresses which, when laid end-to-end were secured by a coarse off-white sheet. Another identical top sheet, sufficient thin blankets and a cylindrical unyielding pillow completed our bedding.
Immediately after breakfast, bedding had to be arranged with fierce military precision. Blankets and sheets folded with exact conformity and laid upon the three piled biscuits in such a hallowed fashion that a lineal deviation by as little as half an inch could lead to harsh disciplinary consequences, or would do when we left Sergeant Marshall's benign care. He showed us how to transform the hard dimpled leather toecaps of our army boots into mirror-like patent leather, essential for the parade ground smartness we would soon be expected to attain. For this, one needed boot polish, a cloth, strong fingers and patience. There were many methods. One involved heating the lid of a boot polish tin over a candle and making a mixture of polish, spit, urine, or even beer to the right consistency. This was then worked strenuously into the leather using a toothbrush handle, or more successfully, as we rookies were soon to learn from the old sweats, with a short length of mutton bone, personally cherished and never lent to anyone else.
One evening Sergeant Marshall entered the mess during dinner. "If anyone's interested," he said, "there's a miniature spoon shoot at the indoor range tonight. It starts at eight o'clock."
For a time I wrestled with the problem why anyone should want to shoot at a miniature spoon. On enquiring further I learned that the somewhat stilted Army terminology meant that a shooting competition for a silver spoon would be held at an indoor rifle range.
This sounded interesting so I decided to have a go. There were plenty of competitors, naturally in khaki uniform. I felt something of an anomaly wearing the shapeless fatigues all recruits had to wear until issued with regulation khaki. However, I awaited my turn, paid my shilling, was given a rifle, a number of rounds and shown my target. The gun was a Short Lee Enfield which normally fired powerful .303 cartridges. For indoor range shooting a smaller dimension barrel was inserted which would accept the .22 bullet; a far less lethal charge.
The gun was much heavier than I had expected, but in the prone position I could at least rest the barrel on a filled sandbag. I fired off my rounds and then spent the rest of the evening watching others shooting, noting the positions they assumed, the time they took between shots and generally absorbing what I could of the art of musketry. The noise and the smell of cordite made a welcome change from the dullish evenings in the Nursery where the only recreations were reading, playing cards or listening to the radio. We were not yet allowed out of barracks.
The next morning I was making up my bedding when Sergeant Marshall appeared. "Leave that for a moment, Thwaites," he said, "put your hat on and follow me. The commanding officer wants to see you."
My heart dropped to ground level. What crime could I possibly have committed, during the time I'd been there? Perhaps it was bad news from home. Or maybe, having muddied the family name, they were going to buy me out, a course many parents had already succeeded in doing on behalf of runaway youngsters.
"When we get to the company office," advised Sergeant Marshall, "don't salute Captain Bell because you haven't been taught how to yet. But try to stand to attention." We reached the company office. I stood before the seated captain in the nearest form of attention I could manage.
"Recruit Thwaites, sir," announced the sergeant. The captain looked up and to my relief, smiled. He then told me I had achieved the highest score at the previous night's shoot and handed me a handsome silver spoon resting on the white silk lining of an attractive case. The R.E. crest was engraved on the spoon's handle.
"Where did you learn to shoot?" he enquired. I told him I'd spent much of my school holidays in Devonshire where we had a powerful BSA air rifle. This I'd been using ever since I was strong enough to load it. And even at twelve, I'd been lent a twelve-bore shotgun by a local farmer who was grateful for the numerous rabbits I cleared from his fields.
Captain Bell smiled again and congratulated me. Turning semi-serious he advised me to keep clear of the battalion drill sergeant who, traditionally, had been winning the silver trophies for as long as he could remember; a break in a record which might breed resentment. He then suggested the wisdom of keeping my spoon in the Company safe, to which I agreed. It may still be there.
So the drill sergeant was someone to beware of. In due course, when we started our square bashing, we were to see more of him than was healthy. A formidable ramrod figure, smart as a new pin, he never walked anywhere, but marched. It was believed he wore corsets and would snap like a Smith's crisp should he ever try to bend. He could spot an individual drill-movement error from four hundred yards and would exact swift punishment. Rumour had it he could even detect an unbuttoned tunic in the dark, with his back turned.
And whether the culprit was on parade or off duty, his vengeance was always quick and fearsome. There were many forms of sudden arbitrary penalties. Forty push-ups perhaps wearing full battle dress or doubling a mile or two round the vast square, similarly attired and with the wearisome addition of a rifle. He was known to us all, by the unloved nickname, Kim. Not based on Kipling's admirable Kim, but the succinct contraction of fucKim.
In due course, with our numbers completed we said sincere goodbyes to Sergeant Marshall and moved into Barrack Block C, and so became C Training Company.