We are indebted to Captain Clare Coward of 4th Battalion REME this weekend for reminding us that the injudicious use of email for internal communication can, when distributed externally, be misread, misinterpreted and generally used as a sharp ended boomerang which comes flittering back to smack you where it hurts. You’re not the first Clare and you won’t be the last. Suck up the flak and move on. The best defence is just to do your job to the best standard you’re capable of and whatever else you do, don’t lose your sense of humour. No one got hurt and no one is shooting at you with live ammunition. Laugh it off.
I’ve been through this temporary tunnel of darkness myself. Told to do something by a CEO, I did. Quelle surprise, there I was splattered all over a full page of The Sun the next morning in an utterly trivial and forgettable article, a copy of which now hangs in the downstairs loo. The Today programme even phoned to ask if they could send their radio van round for an interview. 'No you bloody well can't.' Such are the dangers of catching the press's attention in the dog days of August.
The old adage of never pressing ‘send,’ with an email you haven’t thought through for about for ten minutes or slept on; or in City terms never send anything you would be embarrassed for your mother or a judge to read obviously passed Clare by but we’re all human. The internet though is not. Social media will eviscerate you in minutes, just for fun and giggles, with a nasty and unrelenting vindictiveness which is mostly unfounded and unfair. There is no regard to perspective or circumstance when keyboard heroes savage the unsuspecting individual who thought he or she was communicating with a closed group. There is always some malignant septic maggot who will take joy in giving said email a wider audience with the aim of humiliating the originator; ‘you may be my boss but I’m on the internet where everyone was created equal.’ I would find the culprit and out him as a disloyal and untrustworthy scroat.
Interestingly, one of the Crumble Kids who has an interest in these things said to me recently, ‘We’ve had the Technology Age, the Social Media Age, next will be the Age of Anonymity.’ That is, a total reversal of recent trends for Warhol’s, ‘7 seconds of fame.' People are quickly discovering that 7 seconds of fame isn't quite what they hoped it would be. Expect the 'right to forget,' on the internet to achieve more prominence in the next couple of years.
The trend of internet revenge leads to many individuals in positions of responsibility and seniority to actually send very little at all by email. Their communications frequently go through PA’s or other subordinates or their email traffic tends to be restricted to simple answers, ‘yes,’ ‘no’, ‘put it on the agenda,’ ‘see Smith.’ That is, answers that leave no paper trail of culpability that may be used in the future if a bad thing happens. One could interpret it as being too defensive and an abdication of responsibility. Certainly, in the City, the very first place compliance departments and regulators head for when looking for evidence is email. I would suggest that rather than trawling through thousands of long emails their optimal starting point should be those who use email sparsely.
So, what did Clare actually write? It seems that in her particular REME battalion the young officers are responsible for making coffee and putting out biscuits for Morning Coffee. Why anyone would imagine that a Second Lieutenant is capable of making coffee is quite beyond me but there we have it. As the Adjutant, and being responsible for discipline among the subalterns, she was on a loser from the get go. Her email which expressed exasperation with their clumsy attempts to get the simple things right quickly found it’s way to the Army Rumour Web Site, (ARRSE), and from there to the national press. Good effort there Clare.
There are though, a few points of reflection that came to mind as I read her email. Ambling over to the Mess for morning coffee is just a great part of life in barracks. Soldiers undergo all sorts of deprivations and hardships when on exercise or when deployed and a civilised living routine in barracks is one of the few perks left. Actually, I think its a major selling point for the British Army. Then there is the vexatious question of biscuits which must be a REME thing. I thought the only people who would have biscuits with Morning Coffee are Chaplains; I obviously served in some sort of hardship regiment. Morning coffee was a generally convivial get together where any officers in barracks would gather and chat mostly about work related subjects as opposed to breakfast when few talked at all. I don’t ever recall officers making coffee but if its ‘do it yourself or do without,’ these days then so be it. Less serious, much more important and much more enjoyable was the 4:30pm afternoon sprint for tea on a cold winters day. It was important to get there in good time to secure space in the ‘tick-tick’ toaster and get some of the spreads which mostly would run out by 5pm. I’m talking hot buttered toast with Shippam's, yes Shippam's paste, (Mrs Flashing won’t let me buy it), sandwich spread, peanut butter, jam….. happy days. Tea tended to be the most boisterous event of the day, good humoured but with sometimes acerbic fast wit and was usually followed by a run, game of squash or preparatory work for the next day before dinner. The real point of all this is that the Mess is the single officers home; his fellow officers his family. That is the basis of regimental life for a young officer; soldiers first, (always), then the Mess, then the Rest of the World. Whichever mess member at 4 Bn REME decided the email needed a national audience has lost all grip of this aspect of military life , one that has kept the Army bonded for centuries. I recall getting a heck of a bollocking from my Adjutant once , who threw in 28 extras for good measure. In between exercises it felt like I was Orderly Officer for months. After the bollocking, and at that point where you think your entire career has just gone down the tubes, the Adjutant greeted me in the Mess and said, ‘Now, Crumble, what will you have to drink; gin is it?’ Not mind games, just a ‘what happens on tour’ mindset and keeping the distinction of the Mess being home, not place of work.
Some may of course find it risible that so much attention has fallen on who did or didn't make the coffee in the Officers Mess in 4 Bn REME. That would be failure of understanding the importance of the brew in Army culture, be it coffee of tea. Seventy two pages of comments on the incident on the aforementioned web site tells us that either an awful lot of armchair ex soldiers have nothing to do with their Saturdays or that they are passionate about brews. After all, rather like the weather it's something everyone has an opinion on. The Army though consumes brews on an industrial scale. The quickest way the enemy could possibly impair the Army's performance would be to stop the supply of coffee and especially tea.
That’s the Officers Mess. Now the Sergeant’s and Corporals Messes, (for those regiments that have corporals messes), if any of the instructions laid down by RSM’s various across the Army were instantly made public the media and passing public would be in a state of bemused bafflement; their officers usually were which was pretty much a mutual feeling. Anyway, this old chestnut explains in pretty clear terms how the rank structure operates; many a true word and all that...
The Image of Rank
Leaps over tall buildings in a single bound, is more powerful than a locomotive, is faster than a speeding bullet, walks on water, and gives policy to God.
Leaps over short buildings in a single bound, is more powerful than a switch engine, is just as fast as a speeding bullet, walks on water if sea is calm, and talks to God.
Leaps over short buildings with a running start and a favorable wind, is almost as powerful as a switch engine, is as fast as a speeding BB pellet, walks on water in an indoor pool, and talks to God if special request is approved.
Barely clears a shed, loses tug-of-war with locomotives, can fire a speeding bullet, swims well, and is occasionally addressed by God.
Makes high marks when trying to leap sheds, is run over by locomotives, can sometimes handle a weapon without inflicting self-injury, can doggie-paddle, and talks to animals.
Runs into buildings, recognises locomotives two out of three times, is not issued ammunition, can stay afloat if properly instructed, and talks to bushes and small trees.
Falls over doorsills when trying to enter buildings, says "look at the choo-choo," wets himself with a water pistol, and mumbles to himself.
Lifts building and then walks under them, kicks locomotives off the track, catches speeding bullets in his teeth, and chews them, and freezes water in a speeding glance. He is God.