The years rolled back on Friday when I had the joy of going to my Godson’s Pass Out Parade at the Army Training Centre, Pirbright. So much has changed in the Army since ‘my day,’ and yet so little.
Organisationally it looks a different world. Gone are the old Divisional and Corps training Depots and now it looks as if they had a lucky dip when a civil servant put his hand in a bag of cap badges, pulled a few out and said, ‘right, we’ll send this lot to Pirbright, next......’ Gunners, Sappers, Life Guards, Armoured Corp, Signals, Logistic Corp, Int Corps; even the Corps of Army Music all train together. What hasn’t changed one jot though is the Army’s capacity to take a bunch of ragged civvies from all over the country, from different backgrounds, with varying, or indeed no interests, with different family stories and in just fourteen weeks march them off the square as a cohesive and fit group of young people with a collective and personal sense of purpose, pride and achievement.
I take my hat off to every man and women Jack of them. They’ve just joined a special club, the best club in the world and whatever else they do in their lives, no one will ever be able to take that away from them. They deserve respect and thanks. To put their hands up and pledge to put themselves in harms way on our behalf is not something that every comes easily to every citizen.
It was illuminating to watch former soldiers amongst the parents, friends and family who came to watch the parade. As they got out of their cars and heard the familiar sounds and sights of recruits being drilled and beasted around the barracks stomachs were held in, their backs straightened and they began to walk with more assured poise; home on familiar turf, it all comes flowing back.
Now, that their Phase 1 basic training is complete and the young soldiers can dress themselves and point themselves in the right direction, they will head off to their own disciplines to begin learning what their day job is all about.
As I watched the parade, which was only spoiled by the young corporal who whipped up the spectators beforehand encouraging them to shout, whistle and cheer at every opportunity, (why don’t he and his colleagues appreciate the balletic majesty of good drill with added tone from the Band of The Life Guards?; it’s not Britain's Got Talent), I thought of my own Passing Out Parade. The parade, at the Scottish Infantry Depot, Glencorse in December 1978 went, by all accounts, very well. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it. While the lads were marching off to the Pipes & Drums I was lying in a hospital bed at the Eye Infirmary in Edinburgh having been injured by a colleagues ejected empty brass case on the last attack of the final Battle Camp at Otterburn a couple of days earlier. A 10,000 to 1 piece of bad luck. As soon as it happened, with the end of 18 weeks of basic training just 100 yards away, I fell to the ground in agony. My Platoon Sergeant from the Black Watch ran up and started kicking me screaming ‘don’t be fxcking idle sonny, get yer arse up the hill.’ He clocked that there might be something wrong when I stood up and started running in the wrong direction, blind with both eyes closed up. Six hours later, and in some discomfort, I arrived at the hospital.
It was a bit of a lonely and worrying time. Stuck in a bed with pressure bandages over my eyes and nothing to do. I could smoke which seems a bit odd now but then was perfectly normal. The Padre came to see me with two books, Moby Dick and a Robert Chandler novel which were somewhat redundant given the pressure bandages on the lacerated cornea. My only other friend at the time was Laura the Night Nurse who I was sure looked something between Grace Kelly and Julie Christie. I never actually saw her and when her shifts abruptly changed that was it. Eventually the eye thing heeled well enough for me to stay in the Army and life went on. Still, it would have been nice to make the parade..... and to meet Laura the Night Nurse.
Notwithstanding the iconic Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst which was just a very special day, the next Pass Out parade I made was at the RA Barracks at Woolwich as a Troop Commander. There is something especially rewarding being part of the small team that takes those civilians in on Day 1 and marches them off four months later as soldiers, their lives changed for the good one hopes, forever. The parade ground at Woolwich is a sacred place; hallowed ground. As Busty the Mess hall porter used to proudly proclaim to visitors, ‘this is the longest façade in Europe and a light aircraft has landed and taken off from this square.’ Obviously, after 300 years as our spiritual home it was too good to be true with today's parsimonious politicians and Gunners now train at Pirbright, the rest of the Regiment has gone to Larkhill and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment enjoy the biggest upgrade of their lives in being stationed there with the odd Guards company on public duties.
I'll always regret not having made that original Pass Out parade though. Sure, I did bigger and more impressive ones afterward but that one would have been special. Now indulge me here. I couldn't find a clip of a pass out parade at Glencorse, (which is no longer a training depot), so we're going to watch a clip of 2 SCOTS (RHF), who are stationed there and their homecoming parade in 2013. What can I say, there are Jocks, a Pipe Band and lots of rain so it looks and sounds the part. The square at Glencorse incidentally is, I think, one of the prettiest in the Army. Won't mean much to anyone except the half dozen afficionado's of drill squares out there and excepting that horrible new building someone has recently stuck on the East side it really is quite striking. I think I might write a book one day.... 'Famous Army Drill Squares and the Characters That Made Them So.' If they've published books on roundabouts and of fishing huts then Drill Squares will be in good company and after all, if it makes six of us happy then that's enough.