Corporal Fox

Corporal Fox was in charge of our barrack room and undertook much of our initial training. He slept on a spring-less iron bed, the same as ours, in a corner by the door.

Teacher, instructor, mentor, tutor . . ? It was difficult to say. None of those seemed to clothe him comfortably. He was too young. He appeared to be about the same age as us, mostly youngsters, and probably needed to shave but once a week. The only visible authority he carried were his lance corporal's stripes, so it was difficult at first, for us to take him seriously, let alone jump to his orders.

At one stage in his career he had been a useful light-middle-weight boxer, and for his pains had lost a front incisor tooth. The gap he concealed with a denture.

He was a good instructor and we began to respect him. But when he felt it necessary to express anger, and none of us was angels, he would withdraw the top denture with his tongue to expose a gap-toothed snarl of intimidation.

Unfortunately, his bright-eyed boyish looks and curly hair reminded us more of a youngster during his teething years, so it became almost impossible for us to bottle our hilarity, let alone pay better attention.

One day, emboldened by a reasonably good performance at map reading, I asked, "Corporal, you must be about the same age as most of us, so how is it that you're a lance-jack and know enough to be training us? You related to Kim, or someone?"

"No," he said. 'I'm an Ex-Boy."

"Ex-Boy?" I queried. 'Surely, we're all ex-boys?"

"Yeah. We're all fuckin' ex-boys, ain't we?" asked a voice with a shade less elegance.

"You, Smedley," snapped Fox. "You can double round the square until I tell you to stop. I won't have swearing in my squad."

Turning back to us, "No," said Fox with resignation. "I'm not related to anybody here. When I was fifteen I was sent to the Army Training College at Chepstow, in Wales. That's because my father's a sergeant major in the Engineers, and that's where I finished my schooling. We all had to learn parade-ground drill, how to look after our kit and get used to Army discipline. I was called a Boy Soldier there and when I was eighteen I was sent here to do basic training, the same as you lot and became an Ex-Boy. Get it?"

"Then they out me on an Instructor's course, gave me a stripe and sent me back here to knock some sense into squads like you. Most of the lads at Chepstow had fathers in the army and probably all of them were NCOs. Now you satisfied?"

I suppose we must have been. It certainly explained a lot.

Fox was more considerate to me perhaps than I deserved. This was possibly because I tended to listen to him with greater attention than most of the others, and asked questions which although sometimes beyond the remit of a lesson, he took the trouble to answer at length. Perhaps he had also gathered that I had not joined up out of desperation, but actually to achieve something. He knew too, of my win at the miniature spoon shoot and with musketry soon on the syllabus, took me aside and gave me useful hints, not found in the official manuals, such as how to improve the efficiency of a rifle's foresight by lighting an oily rag and allowing the sooty flame to deaden the shine on the metal's edge to give it better definition. But please, not to let him see me doing so.

Dammit! I was committing the heresy of beginning to like him. But he granted no favours to anyone.

One morning I awoke before reveille. The sun was shining. It was going to be a glorious day and suddenly I realised I was enjoying life. I had never felt fitter or freer from restraints. Once discipline had been accepted, there was seldom any need for it to be further imposed. Most orders, however idiotic they at first appeared, soon proved to be based on sound common sense and worthy of attention. Square bashing was nearly over and we'd soon be getting down to practical musketry. And then . . . ? I was childishly eager to tackle the many engineering skills we would soon have to master.

With my newfound exuberance more or less under control, I was listening to Corporal Fox lecturing us on target identification, for the benefit of putative artillery howitzers positioned over a hill and out of sight. On an easel he'd placed a large coloured non-perspective picture of a village: church, pub, houses, smithy, trees, river, ferry, roads, bridge etc. We had to learn how to identify a possible enemy position by so many degrees on a compass bearing from a central point, say the church steeple, and the approximate distance from it to the target. When someone was told to range the ferry for artillery bombardment, I asked in a tremulous voice, "But, er . . . but what about the fairy queen?"

Puns are not part of Army culture. But good or bad, the class took the opportunity to roll around on the floor, howling with laughter.

That evening saw me scrubbing out the five-acre barrack block landing - with a toothbrush.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007