The first morning of our transfer to C Training Company was one of noise and apprehension. About five o'clock a whirlwind of NCOs swept through the barrack room, lifting bed-ends and letting them crash back with the accompanying screams of "On your feet! On your feet! On your feet!"
Washed and dressed we were quickly lined up on the square. Paraded, should have been the operative word, but clothed in shapeless fatigues we could not have been an impressive sight. A sergeant emerged from the barrack block accompanied by three lance corporals. He took a long look at us. For a few minutes he merely stood there glaring.
"Christ!" he muttered. "After twelve years' service I get you lot. I've never ever seen such a ragbag of fucking rubbish. Look at yourselves. Go on. Look at yourselves." We did. The sight was not encouraging.
He then assured us that we were the sloppiest, most miserable specimens of near-humanity it had ever been his misfortune to see. In his opinion we should never have been accepted into the Corps. How the hell he was going to make anything of us he just didn't know.
"I'm shortly due for discharge," he said, "which will be a bloody relief, so, I don't know whether I'll have the time to do anything with you lot. I'll have to go away and think about it," which he did, leaving us standing on the square for a hour or so to feel both humiliated and hungry, for we had yet to have breakfast. The lance corporals stood looking at us with equal disgust, only screaming, "Stop talking," should anyone dare do so.
Fortunately, I had been forewarned that this charade was a regular feature, played to varying scenarios in order to intimidate new recruits. It was the prelude to the introduction of discipline, which we were shortly to encounter.
Eventually our sergeant returned. He looked a wreck. Whether he had achieved this with the use of make-up it was difficult to say. For a time he stood talking with the other NCOs, occasionally shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands with theatrical misgivings. Eventually he came and stood before us, muttering, "I suppose I ought to try and have a go."
"Do you want me to have a go?" he asked. Silence.
Louder. "Do you want me to try and train you?"
"Err, yes," from a few half-hearted voices.
"I can't hear you. Do you want me to try and make something of you?"
"Yes," somewhat louder.
"I still can't hear you."
"YES," we shouted.
"Well, the first thing you are going to have to learn is, to do as you're told. Discipline means clean, punctual and obedient. Right?"
"YES," we screamed.
"Good. I'm Sergeant Booker and here," nodding at him, "is Lance Corporal Fox. He'll be in charge of Number Three barrack room." (Mine). The other corporals' names were quickly forgotten.
We were then dismissed, told to have breakfast and be back on the square by eight. The rest of the day passed in a blur of frenzied activity.
The first stage of discipline was degradation: a forty-second production line shearing in the barber's chair. No scissors. No comb. Just a quick cooling run-over with electric clippers. Outside again we stood peering uncertainly at each other trying to recognize our barrack-room mates. A hairstyle can tell you a lot. No hairstyle - nothing.
Then in treble-time, uniforms, equipment, rifles, bayonets and steel helmets were issued, as well as all the essentials for Army life including the neat contraction 'hussif', for housewife: a small linen pouch containing needles, spare buttons, thread and wool for our running repairs, like mending socks.
Instructions on the care of our arms and equipment followed.
Then square drill, where reflexes were honed and sharpened, then honed and sharpened again, and again. This daily event became progressively more complicated; standing to attention, standing at ease, saluting, marching, left wheel, right incline, slow march, halt, - with drill-sergeant Kim usually present with his 360 degrees vision.
Time was always against us; everything at the double; drilling, gym sessions, cleaning equipment, eating and occasionally a quick dash to the NAAFI for tea and a wad.
Surprisingly army food was always excellent; plain but varied and plentiful. We had three good meals a day. But the punishing pace at which we had to move still found us ravenous between meals. Yet to my astonishment, during a periodic medical check-up, found that I had actually gained weight. Muscle.
As one would expect, there were occasional mutterings. Sergeant Marshall had been wise, but not foolproof. For those few who had joined the Corps hopefully to capitalize on their artisan skills, it came as a shock to learn that for the first five or six months, they were to be trained as infantrymen. A role we would all be expected to undertake in emergencies - and which many subsequently did.
For some the price of total obedience was too much. They deserted. The only place they knew was home, and that is where they were arrested by the Military Police, returned to Chatham and severely punished - primarily as a reminder to others.
I remember one exception, whose mere presence in the army baffled us. Could his enlistment have been a mistake? Joe Parker said he was only twenty, and a self-confessed tramp. This intrigued us. How could anyone so young want to live and sleep rough? Hadn't he a home? One didn't ask. He was likeable but subdued. He had no barrack-room vices, nor any unpopular virtues. But underneath, we were soon to discover, he was a born rebel, prepared to defy authority with minimum co-operation and a chilling form of dumb insolence. We could all see he was heading for trouble. He deserted.
The Military Police quickly picked him up in the Chatham railway goods-yards and returned him to the battalion guardroom for judgement the following day.
Like the rest of the Royal Engineer trainees, Joe had been issued with a strong multi-purpose jack-knife. Still determined to attain his freedom he had persuaded another detainee in the guardroom cell to help him achieve it. Joe laid the heavy knife blade across his trigger-finger and calmly accepted the impact of a heavy scrubbing brush intending to sever it. The first blow was only partially successful. Before a second attempt could successfully be made it was interrupted by the guard commander. Joe Parker was detained in hospital.
In those days the Army was not particularly anxious to get involved with psychopathology. Most issues were a matter of black and white. One was either right or wrong. The grey areas of alternative medicine and the self-righteousness of social workers were yet to find any cracks in the Army's medicine chests. But someone had seen something in Joe, which the rest of us had missed. Amazingly to us, he was not punished but soon rejoined the ranks, though heavily bandaged. His story deserves a conclusion.
Though still subdued he caused no further disciplinary problems and was encouraged to make himself known to the Army Educational Corps, for his schooling had been negligible. He was also excused certain duties in order to study. Once fully trained in field engineering he left us and was posted to an overseas unit.
One day, much, much later, we met by chance in Cairo. By then, he had been promoted to full sergeant. Perhaps there's a moral there somewhere.