If you've managed to arrive this far you'll have realised how fortunate I'd been, avoiding disciplinary charges and suffering but few wounds during my Army service. But perhaps my luckiest escape occurred during my initial training at Chatham when I failed to win a coveted prize.
After six months or so of infantry drilling, we were introduced to the widest range of activities that anyone could have wished for; many that would have ensured generous self-sufficiency work in civil life.
For me, who until then had led a somewhat dull suburban existence, the pace of our further training was both fast and fascinating. We were given brief introductions to all the skills that every engineering company was expected to provide, many of which we had to master. Anyone showing an aptitude for a particular skill was encouraged to receive further training to a level of professional competence and receive additional pay for his ability.
We learned rough carpentry, turning, concrete mixing, bricklaying, forging, welding, road makings and the sharpening and care of tools; the erection of a scaffolding tower and how to construct a Braithwaite water tank on top. There was fire fighting, rope climbing, knots and lashings to naval standards, cartography and map navigation with a compass and how to calculate the changing magnetic variations needed for accuracy, as shown on the maps provided, then there was navigation by the stars. We learned the basics of irrigation, Morse code and semaphore signalling. We had to remember the formulae for calculating the breaking strain of ropes, how to assemble a multi-sheave block and tackle, rig a bipod with telegraph poles and so lift the engine from a vehicle with minimum manpower.
We worked at a mine face, albeit of Kentish chalk, shoring up with pit-props as we advanced and laying the narrow Decauville track for the trucks removing the spoil and of course, driving and maintaining the engine that hauled them. We undertook electrical installations, though this discipline was later to be the remit of REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers).
Being taught to drive a car was both enjoyable and exciting, as I've already explained, as was learning to drive a steam train. We all had to be proficient swimmers, row in a naval cutter and understand the rudiments of sailing.
We constructed Bailey and pontoon bridges. Then, much to my surprise, five of us were privileged to spend two days aboard a Royal Navy destroyer on a sub-hunting exercise where a suspect contact was bombed with harmless depth charges.
Then one day about twelve of us were gathered around Sergeant Booker who stood on a slightly higher mound the better to address us. He held a bundle of something in his hand.
"When handling explosives," he began, "you pass through three stages. The first is fear, the second confidence and the third is over-confidence. There is no fourth stage - not here, anyway."
"And this," holding the package higher for us all to see, "is gelignite. In fact, it's a bundle of five sticks. It's a versatile and highly sensitive explosive that you will learn to handle with respect, not only for your own safety but also for the lives of those working near you. So beware."
Catching my eye, he shouted, "Thwaites, catch!" and threw the bundle at me.
I caught it with ease. Joyously. For then I knew I had come home. After all, I'd been making gunpowder since I was twelve, for my own fireworks! Sulphur, carbon and saltpetre.
Then five of us were selected to undergo tests to discover the most promising recruit among us, the reward being a gold medal. So imagine my surprise to find myself one of the five selected for the ordeal. That, I assumed was because I showed quick reflexes on parade, had attracted no serious punishments and appeared eager to learn.
The tests we had to perform were based on the subjects we had been taught, with some relying purely on lateral thinking. All was going well until I failed completely to tie a complicated knot, probably a sheepshank. The medal went deservedly to recruit Dorse, a six-foot two Ex-boy.
Before leaving the training battalion each of we five was given a candid appraisal of our competence by Sergeant Booker.
"Thwaites," he began, "you've done bloody well so far and you only missed that medal by a whisker: the sheepshank. But I'm not sure that winning would have done you much good in the end. You'd have been posted to a field company, be expected to shine and get quick promotion. But I don't think commanding men is the best future for you. To be honest, you've neither the stature nor the personality. You'd not be belligerent enough, you know, a proper bastard, so I don't think you're cut out for it. You've already shown how capable you are with explosives, so why not make them your speciality? Most men hate detonators."
I took his advice and so from the start, made what proved to be, by far my luckiest escape!