By now I had been in uniform long enough for the tender edges of civilian urbanity to be worn away. Life in the army, as all servicemen know is totally unreal. One is absolved from all the needs to organize one's life. Food, clothing, accommodation and a rough kind of care, though not affection, are usually available, bonded together by comradeship and a loose mix of self-discipline. This left the door wide open for exploration, and there were endless opportunities, so long as one observed the eleventh commandment: thou shall not get caught.
I was never in serious trouble, having learned to dance the diaphanous touch-lines of prudence, and had been threatened, but never having been put on a charge, I was apt to take refuge in levity. Self-discipline was difficult, for I had achieved some popularity as an entertainer. I could play the guitar and was often in demand at singsongs: the soldiers' natural safety valve when enough beer became available.
Anyone promoted as an NCO was expected to buy drinks for his section. Boisterous ballads with guitar accompaniment followed naturally. Fortunately I could also provide a repertoire of salacious jokes, and when military cock-ups occurred, commonplace in any army, I would draw cartoons of the events, illustrating those involved. Jack the Lad.
Thus, it was not surprising that when Jasper, to my amazement, promoted me lance corporal the occasion was greeted with hilarity by members of my own section and disbelief by others. Being something of a court jester, surely I was not now to be taken seriously.
The single chevrons I had sewn on the sleeves of my uniform glowed like neon signs and I walked, swinging my arms more than was strictly necessary, the better to see them.
Jasper Boyte was obviously aware of the difficulties I would have to face, for he had a deep intuitive knowledge of everything that was happening above or below the surface of the Company. So it was possibly with the intention of shocking me to my senses that he put my name down as Guard Commander in the following day's Company Orders.
To undertake this responsibility only the day after promotion was a severe and most unwelcome shock.
At the time we were encamped in a remote location in Egypt's Western Desert. Our camouflaged tents were dispersed around the Headquarters' Section tent, which was sited in a small depression: a natural amphitheatre. Close by was the guard tent.
The origins of formal guard mounting were probably lost in the mists of military history, and to us in our present location, meaningless. What was there to guard? Nothing. But what about our own stores, you ask? Surely they were valuable? Of course, and they were held in numerous vehicles, also carefully dispersed to avoid offering tempting aerial targets and surely worthless to itinerant Bedouins.But the guard's duties required him periodically to march up and down a short stretch of desert outside the guard tent as though it alone were the jewel in our company's crown.
I sometimes wondered why nobody in Higher Command had thought that Guard Mounting in its formal character to be unnecessary, particularly in situations such as ours, with the useless waste of time and so much spit and polish. But traditions die hard in the Army, so no, it was business as usual for guard mounting. The job of relieving the old guard and mounting the new involved a series of intricate drill movements accompanied by complicated commands; the entire ritual to be performed with clarity and accuracy, something like the choreography of a formal ballet, to be learned only by many hours of practice, but with the addition of a powerful voice.
To reduce the terrors of my forthcoming debut I needed help, so I approached a friendly corporal. "Tosher," I said, "can you help me get ready for this guard mounting fiasco tonight? I haven't a clue."
"Yeah, of course, Bob," he grinned. "But let's get a good bit away from the camp so nobody can hear us, and I'll take you through it. You've a lot to learn, you know." His chuckled encouragement didn't help. So we moved a sensible distance away.
"First of all, you've got to develop a parade ground voice," he began. "I know the guard will hear you even if you just speak fairly loudly. But you've got to shout your commands. You've got to show 'em you've got authority. Got to try and make 'em respect you. Even hate you. That's the way it's always been. Especially if bloody Kim happens to be watching. You've got to be seen and heard as though you're a real shit guard commander. Got it?"
He then took me through the guard mounting stages, the movements and the commands, time and time and time again, with me shouting the orders at the top of my voice. And so we continued until I was as word-perfect as I was likely to be by six o'clock. Eventually, cleanly turned-out and accompanying the four sapper members of the new guard we marched to the Headquarter tent and reported to the Company Sergeant Major. It was he who then marched us to the guard tent, inspected us and gave the order, "Carry on Guard Commanders."
It was then I became somewhat disturbed to notice that we now had an audience. Probably the whole of the field company was sitting on the surrounding slopes waiting to see what might happen. Despite Egypt's dry warmth, my palms were moist.
As instructed, I had to use the loud shouted commands to carry authority to my orders, as though the four-man guard were elderly members of a remote Bedouin tribe who didn't understand English and were standing nervously four hundred yards away. We proceeded with the changeover. The old guard was ordered out of the guard tent, lined up, dismissed and marched away.
The new guard had now to fix its bayonets and one member be placed in position for his tour of duty.
To make mistakes in Army drill less apparent, commands were always preceded, by a warning of the next order. Thus, 'Guards will Fix Bayonets,' meant that the following command would require this action to be taken. Indeed, the order for fixing bayonets provided a long-standing joke for drill instructors to air, for on the command 'Fix,' you didn't fix but stood still and reach for the bayonet's handle secured in the scabbard behind your left buttock. Only on the command, 'Bayonets,' was the blade withdrawn with a flourish and attached to the rifle - without the soldier looking down.
All was going well; nerves under control. I gave the command, "Fix ... ," and the correct action was taken. At the command, "... Bayonets!" my overstrained voice broke - and the order emerged as an eldritch high-pitched screech! There was a roar of critical acclaim from my audience, which was doubtless audible for miles.
Company Sergeant Major Boyte turned his back on us, as though to admire a spectacular sunset, but was unable to control his heaving shoulders.