The Recruit

Having asked the bus conductor to alert him when he had reached his destination, he made his way into the dingy interior and, finding an empty seat, wondered what awaited him at the end of this life-changing journey. Many thousands before him had made a similar journey and many more thousands would follow. He had made his way to the bus stop after alighting from the mouldy smelling 3rd class carriage onto the dismal platform at Richmond railway station. Richmond, a medieval market town, boasted many monuments and abbeys on the banks of the River Swale. Dominating the cobbled market place was the 100ft high square Keep of the Norman Castle, built in the 11th century. He had seen none of these picturesque tourist sights; his journey was no sightseeing outing. North Yorkshire in early November 1953 was cold, and frosty, foggy, and inhospitable. The locals knew their county affectionately as God's Own Country; however, of any such Divine presence there had been no sign. Steam had belched from the valves atop the engine like an erupting volcano and from the pistons below and, mingling with the clouds of soot from the chimney stack, formed a clinging patina on the flagstones underfoot and on the ancient stone walls, before rising to the grimy glass roof, shutting out what bit of daylight there was left. It had been a long and tortuous journey, taking most of the day. He had changed trains three times and had waited, stamping his feet to maintain circulation on freezing cold platforms for what had seemed like hours, the icy wind blowing under the cathedral sized glass domed roofs and between the platforms, had transformed them into gigantic freezing cold wind tunnels.

As required by the law in those days for eighteen year olds, he had reported for an army medical and aptitude test and much to his relief had passed both. He had welcomed his call up papers for National Service, anticipating some sort of adventure and maybe the chance to see the world and, when offered, had taken the opportunity to sign up for an extra year. In doing so he had become a regular soldier, who apparently enjoyed extra perks, though apart from the extra pound a week in his pay, what these were he had failed to notice. Indeed in the following few weeks he was to find it more of a burden as regulars were expected to be better in all aspects of soldiering than National Servicemen. A few days later "The Envelope" had arrived, no stamp, the initials OHMS in bold black letters. The hair on the back of his neck had stood up like a Rhodesian Ridgeback's as he opened it, to find inside an army movement order, together with a travel warrant, and he had noticed with ironic amusement that it was a One Way Ticket!

Belching clouds of noxious smoke, the noisy double decker bus had ground its way up Longwood Bank towards Catterick Camp. Now dark and with the windows steamed up he could see nothing of the surrounding countryside. After a weary nod from the conductor who had seen it all before, which seemed to say "You'll be sorry!" he had made his way to the rear exit, and, stepping down, crossed the road towards a large wooden hut, light had spilled from its open door beckoning him as it would a moth. As he approached, his stomach butterflies in overdrive, he had noticed his reflection in a full-length mirror fixed to the woodwork, adjacent to the open door and a large sign which proclaimed, 5Sqn, 7 Training Regiment, Royal Signals. Somme Lines. Above the door, the words Guard Room had announced an unspoken malevolent message to all who ventured this way. Inside, a wooden table had faced him, behind which were sitting what he assumed to be his welcome committee. That had been his first mistake! A brusque demand for his name by one of the minions, ticked off from a list by another and a terse "Follow me" had been a less than enthusiastic welcome. Carrying his small suitcase he had dutifully followed and was led through the dark camp to a further wooden hut. This had proved to be the bedding store and from here blankets, sheets, cutlery and a mug were issued and signed for.

Floating in a tank of icy water, like lily pads on a pond were small discs of margarine ready to be fished out and applied to the slices of thick white bread that were stacked up like bricks in a mountainous heap. Eggs fried to the consistency of plastic had stared up from the hotplate like dozens of yellow eyes and rashers of greasy bacon had floated in rivers of fat. Chefs wearing short white tunics with blue and white chequered trousers had constantly darted about keeping these delicacies replenished. At the far end, an urn stood proud, like a sentinel, containing tea that had been stewing since the crack of dawn and rumoured to contain copious amounts of bromide, said to help control the natural instincts of the flesh. This was the cookhouse and he had been in a long line of hunger, awaiting breakfast, that had stretched back to the open door. A baby faced young officer carrying a short cane in his leather gloved hand had asked if there were any complaints, but the pernicious look on the face of the cook sergeant accompanying him had ensured a sudden speech loss amongst the assembled diners. He had met his fellow recruits in a barrack room the size of a barn the previous evening. They were a really disparate bunch of characters from all parts of the British Isles, each with their own version of the English language. He would get to know them well during the next few weeks. This barrack room, one of six, branching off a central corridor that contained toilets, baths and washbasins, held about thirty men and the whole wooden complex was known as a Spider. This building had soon reverberated at six o` clock every morning to the sound of sadistic Junior NCOs banging doors open and yelling and screaming like banshees, tipping up any bed if the sleeper showed any sign of recalcitrance. Letting all the occupants know who was in charge and reducing them to quivering wrecks. This had set the tone for the rest of the time he would spend here and where verbal abuse, insults, parental doubt and humiliation became so commonplace that they had soon become immune from these tirades. Red-faced, blazing-eyed slavering instructors had taken a perverse delight in screaming orders whilst standing nose to nose in front of the trembling trainees. It hadn't taken long for them to take on the physical attributes of a pachyderm.

Like an avalanche down a mountainside, his fashionably styled hair, which had been callously clipped off, fell to the floor, not a thought for all the hours and years and money he had spent on Brylcream and careful cultivation, leaving him with the appearance of a plucked turkey. The last shred of his identity had disappeared into the pile of clippings already covering the camp barber's shop floor like leaves in autumn. Everyone now looked like a bedraggled bunch of skinheads ready for a brawl. The recently issued baggy and ill-fitting denim working dress and floppy berets, together with an eight digit number had now rendered this mob of former upright citizenry into an anonymous malleable substance, ready to be moulded into a disciplined and orderly troop of soldiery. There had seemed little hope of that at that time, but miracles can be achieved with a little friendly persuasion. So it was, after a few days of obscenities, screaming, bullying and threats, that some sort of order and precision began to appear as they had learned how to march, and salute, up and down the drill square for hour after hour. It was the same routine again the next day, and every day after that, ad infinitum. The snow had made little difference, shovels had been issued and the square cleared. Each synchronous movement interspersed by a shouted chorus of "Two-three!" Then, just as they had started getting cocky and complacent with their newly acquired skill they had been introduced to the rifle. The Lee Enfield 303 had served the armed forces for over fifty years. So who were they to argue? Now they had to learn how to drill with it! It was back to the basics.

He had to be careful with the candle. Mustn't let the flame get too near the stitching that held his boots together. He would have had to buy a new pair if these were damaged. Trial and error, that's the way he had learned how to get the pimples out. The judicious use of a spoon handle on the now hot leather, boot polish melting like butter and more spoon handle rubbing eventually got rid of them. This had become the nightly ritual for the inmates, together with the polishing of their brasses until they shone like the crown jewels. Brushing green blanco onto webbing, the purpose of which he had yet to discover. Every item of kit had to be marked with his number and laid out each morning on his bed for inspection. The whole lot had to be placed in accordance with a sketch plan displayed on the wall, any deviation from this plan, or deemed to be unfit for inspection ended up on the floor. Or in some extreme cases, thrown out of the window like medieval garbage! There was no respite from all this cleaning and polishing, known as bulling. Quite apart from his personal kit, the whole of the barrack room, plus the toilets and basins area had to be spotless. Liberal amounts of wax polish had to be applied to the wooden floor. A deep shine had been produced by the prodigious use of a polishing cloth placed underneath a heavy cast-iron weight attached to a long handle, pushed and pulled like a punting pole the length of the room. It had occurred to him that the previous occupants of this room must have had the same chores to complete; therefore shouldn't it have been in pristine condition? No doubt the devious drill instructors had taken great delight in trashing the place like vandals in readiness for the arrival of the next intake.

Three hundred yards ahead a red and white flag had fluttered across the target, as if in surrender, meaning he'd missed completely. Lying prone on his groundsheet on four inches of snow he had been chilled to the bone. His feet had felt like blocks of ice and he could hardly feel his fingers. It had been about an hours drive in the back of a draughty three-ton truck that had brought them to this barren wilderness high up on the North Yorkshire Moors. After an early breakfast, daylight had only just arrived when they had got there. Frost glistened like jewels on the snow and a grey mist hung in the trees like a shroud. The cartridge case flew out of the breech and his shoulder felt the recoil as his ears rang like church bells at Christmas. An icy wind had blown across the firing point straight from the Arctic, stinging his already frozen ears. Half the troop had been firing Bren guns and rifles from ever increasing distances down the range. The remainder had been employed in the butts, raising and lowering the targets, pasting up the holes that the lucky shots had left and signalling frantically where there were successful hits. This Butt Party had been in a concrete gallery protected from the gunfire and the weather by the ground gradually rising up from the firing point. The loud thudding of rounds hitting the bank behind them and the whine of ricochets had them jumping about like demented rabbits, juggling paste tins and brushes. After a welcome meal of a mess tin-full of hot curry and a mug of tea, followed by a quick fag the troops would change places and he would be pasting up the targets. It had taken a few sessions and more screaming and shouting in the weapons training hut to get the hang of it. Repeatedly stripping and assembling weapons and filling magazines with dummy rounds until it had become as easy as shelling peas! A few bruised fingers, thumbs and egos had been of secondary concern. Now they had been let loose with live ammunition! His scores had been mediocre but now it was all over, the return journey endured in a better frame of mind than the outward trip. Holding the muzzle of the rifle up to his eye like Napoleon with his telescope the NCO had peered down the barrel, his thumb jammed in the breech to induce a reflection. It had taken him half an hour to clean his weapon on their return to barracks, if the slightest speck of soot or dust was found by this instructor he would have to do it all again. And it was almost teatime!

A sombre mood had prevailed in the cookhouse the following morning. One of their numbers had succumbed to the oppressive regime and taken his life. Found behind a locked toilet door, swinging by his army issue braces, like a leaf in a gentle breeze from a metal beam. He'd not been the only one to become disillusioned with the early days of his army career. A few other desperate recruits had disappeared sporadically, like wraiths into the night, before eventually being returned under arrest, like criminals, for a few days in the cooler, there to reflect and realise that the army meant business.

He had soon become tired with carrying his heavy steel helmet, the chinstrap chafing under his armpit. Fire picket had become a euphemism for donkeywork. His name had appeared on the notice board informing him that it had been his turn to join a small gang of what were essentially labourers. For one week they had to carry their steel helmets everywhere they went and, besides continuing with all their other chores, had to report to the cookhouse when all cooking for the day had finished. Mountains of potatoes had to be peeled, carrots scraped, cabbage chopped and washed, and all cooking utensils scoured so clean that they shone like valuable trophies. An actual fire would have been a welcome diversion. Never mind, he had thought, at least he'd sleep in his own bed that night. The only other time his name had been up there was for guard duty, and that had meant a disrupted night patrolling the camp with a pickaxe handle, two hours on, four off. Though what good such a weapon would have been against the threat of an incursion by the IRA, which at the time was a major security concern, he had no idea. Still, roaming like a predator round the perimeter fence had given him the chance to study, like a voyeur, normal people enjoying a life of normality and freedom on the outside.

The rope had been so thick he could barely get his hands round it as he had struggled to pull his protesting body up. He had been four feet off the ground, his ankles trying to grip the flailing rope below him. The instructor had yelled at him like a bear-baiter from below, demanding more progress, and to be quick about it! Dressed in a black and red striped jumper that bulged with muscles like Tarzan and black trousers, this enormous creature was a PTI, ("Call me Staff"), who had a propensity for sadism. More grief! The gym had been a painful place, particularly when, having been given a pair of boxing gloves and an opponent of a similar physique, told to get on with it. Then it had been non-stop, toe-to-toe, head down beating hell out of one another, like whirling Dervishes. Press-ups, squat-thrusts, wall-bars and medicine balls, they had found so many ingenious ways to torture their pathetically unfit victims. Then, given three minutes to get outside and properly dressed, again had come the panic. Nobody wanted to be last on parade; the dire consequences of such tardiness having been made explicitly clear. Said it built character! Yeah right!

The day had dawned bright and clear and their brasses had gleamed like sparklers on bonfire night under the weak winter sun as they had taken up their allocated positions for the long awaited passing out parade. It had been hectic, just short of pandemonium, after breakfast, getting ready for their final appearance on that particular cursed drill square. The back of which they would all be glad to see. The last minute polishing and brushing, checking buttons and buckles. Best battledresses had been immaculately creased and bore the Catterick Rose at each shoulder. Toecaps had gleamed as bright as beacons in the weak sunlight, a testament to all the hard work that they had spent with candle and spoon. Officers all dressed up and wearing swords and Sam Browns had come along to take all the credit for another successful crop of trainees and, on the dais, The Princess Royal; Colonel-in-Chief of the Corps had waited to take the salute and inspect the ranks. Temporary seating had been placed at the edge of the square; this to accommodate the many parents and families who had made the trip and who had looked on with pride, some with tears in their eyes, at their little darlings - all grown up now! The Corps band had struck up, "Begone Dull Care," a strident command had rung out and they were off, strutting like peacocks. Shoulders back, chests out and arms swinging proudly, they had marched like never before, as if to the manner born. Boots had hit the ground with such sweet timing and precision that they had all wandered why they had found it so difficult just a few weeks ago. Seemed more like years! They now felt that they had come of age and that they really were proper soldiers.

Another travel warrant had been thrust into his hands, like treasure, together with a precious seven-day leave pass. Basic training completed, all that toil and sweat now a distant memory, kit bag packed, he was on his way back to the grimy station, then home, like a convict just released, just in time to enjoy what he hoped would be a very merry Christmas.

Keith Armitage 2008