When We Were Young

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In a 180 degree turn in the near forty year drive to produce a better educated officer corps, the Commandant of Sandhurst, General Nanson recently suggested that many 18-year-olds feel that they should go to university because it is the “done” thing, and often have not considered alternative options. He said that when he was at Sandhurst, it was evenly split between university graduates and school-leavers, but now the vast majority, around four fifths, of Officer Cadets arrive with a degree. “You want to try and get youngsters in early and develop them yourself rather than [choosing from] an ever increasing pond of graduates.” 

That isn’t quite the whole story he was telling. He went on to explain in interviews that school-leavers who have been accepted for officer training at Sandhurst will be able to register for a BSc in Leadership and Strategic Studies. Once they have completed the undergraduate degree,  developed in partnership with the University of Reading, they can go on to complete a Masters. Officers will build up credits during their 12-month officer training course at Sandhurst, which will make up a third of the degree. They can complete the remaining two thirds over a four year period while they are a serving officer.

This approach falls into step with what is becoming a fashion among major employers such as Deloittes to hire 18 year olds and train them in-house. It is hardly a vindication of the university system which as we know from bountiful anecdotal evidence, is a hit and miss affair for most students with no quality control on delivery to speak of outside the sciences and engineering. 

General Nanson is obviously becoming like the rest of us in looking back with fond affection on the impossibly barking mad individuals with whom we trained and served. The intellectual level of Officer Cadet in New College, (the non graduate college at the time), was, shall we say, variable. The reasons for being there were just as diverse although most, simply wanted to serve and I don’t believe it to be any different with today’s cadets. The average age of cadets today is higher at 23 and I am certain they too have many characters in their ranks. The Army attracts them like a magnet. I do feel though, as every intake does, that my time was special. 

This became most evident after commissioning when cadets go on to complete training specific to their Arms. The Infantry go to Brecon to dig more holes in the ground, the Cavalry to Bovington, the Gunners to Larkhill and so on before all are finally posted for regimental duty. As a Gunner I went to Larkhill to join Royal Artillery Young Officers Course 108. I’m not sure if nearly 400 years of Gunner history had prepared the regiment for YO’s 108. For sure and for certain, nothing prepared me for my mess bills on YO’s 108 which every month seemed to include an improbable figure for ‘damages,’  which made the ‘wines,’ column look like a rounding error. I was reminiscing just the other day with a fellow 108 alumini. We joked that given the number of ‘interviews without coffee,’ that we amassed how extraordinary it was that many of the course went on to achieve reasonably high rank, serve in special forces and even today continue to challenge orthodoxy and dullness. Happy days. Although I didn’t think so when I found myself one night clinging to a brick wall while standing on a third floor window ledge of the YO’s Annex. The YO standing next to me was nonchalantly chatting away while sipping his beer. He was speculating on the survivability of jumping and making it across the concrete below to the grass verge some yards distant. The police officers wandering up and down the corridor inside narrowed our optionality somewhat bringing immediate and fresh meaning to the phrase, ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ It seemed to us that the constabulary was overreacting a bit to finding a university officer tied naked to a sign post on the impact area but they probably hadn’t taken into consideration that he was earlier, being a bit too full of himself. Some people just can’t take a joke. I wasn’t involved in the ‘damage resulting from racing around the polished Mess tables in spurs,' incident nor was I involved in the ‘poaching of Colonel Jasper’s pheasants,' incident. I was there when we reassembled one officers entire bedroom on the flat roof with him still fast asleep in bed and I saw, and survived, ’the ‘bangers and rockets,’ incident. A story so far fetched that it can only be retold between those who were present but remains in the junior league when compared to the officer in 50 Missile Regiment who stuck a nuclear simulator up a chimney-breast and detonated it during a dinner night destroying not only the chimney but a considerable portion of the Mess and all of his career.

RA Mess, Larkhill

RA Mess, Larkhill

In fact, and on reflection, the YO’s course was something of a nursery preparing us for some very senior practical jokes and ‘incidents,’ that one witnessed in the regiments. I was reminded just last weekend of one such night. At a May Ball in Kirton-in-Lindsey the Mess Sergeant was faced with a problem which he solved with quick thinking ingenuity. It was a huge Ball and the Mess staff needed to gather all the starter plates, all 500 hundred of them, wash and dry them and have them ready for the Eton mess or whatever was being served for pudding. Then, a bad thing happened. “Sir, can I have a word please. The waters stopped working, we don’t have any water for the washing up Sir.’ ‘Well sort it out Sergeant M, find some bloody water,’ said my host who had organised the thing. So Sergeant M did. Two minutes later two Mess staff ambled through the dining room unfurling a dirty great fire hose behind them and disappeared through the door into the kitchen. They came back into the dining room seconds later just after the call went out, ‘Water On!’ “Water On,’ echoed from down the corridor. The hose filled and suddenly all hell broke loose in the kitchen as a Mess waiter was flung from pillar to post around the kitchen hanging on for dear life to the end of the powerful hose. Someone hadn’t remembered his fire drills. The fun really started when the hose, with Mess waiter attached, appeared in the dining room flying around like an unguided missile until someone had the sense to shut the water off. Not much of the crockery or indeed the Eton mess survived. Oddly, I had quite forgotten that incident and recalled the night more for the moment the CO’s wife put her stiletto heel through the bouncy castle. Odd the things you remember really.