Memories of Barrack Piquet, Le Cateau Lines, Catterick, 1956-58

Tony Northan

Who could forget doing it? As you probably know, the idea behind it was that with the IRA still on the hunt for weaponry and explosives the ongoing protection of armament stores on every military base was paramount hence the need for a patrol to cover the night-time hours. But patrolling the lines was not the only duty expected of we Piquet participants. Based in the Guard Room whilst the daytime RMPs were safely tucked-up in their beds for the night it fell to us to guard, feed, and water any prisoners banged-up there. Yet a third duty heaped on us was that when in pairs on patrol we were required to act as nocturnal stokers by visiting the Le Cateau (and maybe Mons) boiler-rooms for the purpose of keeping topped-up with coke the fires that provided hot water around the lines. This was a joke as most of us would have been pleased to have had the luxury of warm water in our ablutions let alone hot.

To my twisted way of thinking it was this stoking chore not the IRA threat for which Barrack Piquet was intended.

Those of us detailed for the duty went into a frantic kit-bulling session the night before, each hoping we would be the one adjudged to have the smartest turn-out on Piquet-mounting parade at 18.00 hours next day. At this inspection the Piquet Duty Officer would select the lucky candidate, referred to as 'stick-man', whose prize was being released from Piquet Duty but only after 10 p.m. Until then he acted as a dogsbody to all and sundry in the Guard Room - including the prisoners - running errands to the NAAFI or wherever to buy fags, mags and grub, etc.

Those whose bulling efforts had not been dedicated enough may not have been chosen 'stick-man' but they were certainly stuck - in the Guard Room for the next 12 hours! Every two hours the Piquet Commander, a Lance-jack or Corporal, would despatch into the night a pair of the country's finest specimens of male youth, each armed only with a bloody great wooden pick-axe handle but little inclination to use it. Those remaining behind for their hours off were debarred from removing any clothing save for headgear and with no comfy sofas or chairs on which to recline 'rest' was taken laying flat-out on the springs of iron-framed beds minus mattresses. Amazingly, in spite of being trussed-up in uniform, webbing, packs, boots and gaiters looking and feeling like oven-ready turkeys there were those who still managed to nod-off before their heels had hardly hit the springs. Under Piquet Duty Orders this was a no-no so any offender was swiftly recalled to consciousness sometimes by means considered hilarious by whomever was performing the deed. The Duty Officer, no doubt comfortably ensconced in the Officers' Mess with a whisky and soda, could and did arrive occasionally and unexpectedly during the night, obviously intended to keep us on our toes and off the beds.

A concoction - loosely referred to as dinner - arrived about seven, barely warm after being trekked halfway across the camp from the cookhouse on a barrow by a couple on fatigues but memories of these repasts are best consigned to the waste bin of time. Supper arrived in a similar state about ten and the 'tea', which arrived with both meals, was delivered ready-made in a large chrome urn and had a flavour reminiscent of last night's cocoa for which the vessel had no doubt been used but not cleaned.

Any ex-Catterickite will know that brass monkeys aren't daft enough to venture out for an evening stroll in the middle of a Yorkshire winter nevertheless we Piquet had no option but to do just that. The boiler-room visits offered patrolling pairs a temporary haven of warmth. With the fire stoked, the door shut and the boiler singing away the pair of us, encased as we were in a ton of army serge, enjoyed being cooked at Gas Regulo 10. We conversed in low tones putting the world to rights but the 'low tones' weren't deliberate and soon trailed-off to almost no speech at all... we were on the way to becoming unconscious due to the fumes from the burning coke! For the sake of chilling-out we stuck it for as long as we could but becoming lightheaded were forced to give in and return outside to the reviving sting of the frosty night air. There was every chance that by indulging ourselves in an extended warm-up we were setting ourselves up for chance discovery by the patrolling Duty Officer who would have placed us on a serious charge.

One officer in the regiment was (genuinely) a Captain Priestley-Cooper. Acting regularly as Piquet Duty Officer he earned a reputation for concealing himself around the lines in the dead of night and suddenly leaping-out on patrolling pairs with a challenge thus frightening them to death. In doing so he took a real risk as in the darkness he could well have received a disabling swipe from a hefty pick handle with questions asked only afterwards. This behaviour soon earned him the nick-name of Captain Beastly-Snooper! Good-on the wag who came up with that one.

However long and cold the night morning eventually arrived bringing with it an end to our suffering. Personally, I never could take staying awake all night. Oh the terrible morning-after-the-night-before stomach and mouth to match. And who, even after a quick wash and brush-up, could face the Chef's best efforts for breakfast? With sleep pattern disturbed it always took me days to get over BP.

Tony Northan, 23rd May 2011