A soldiers life for me!!

A short while ago there was an article in the Daily Mail about the government setting up military schools. This set me reminiscing as back in the late 50’s, I attended a “military school”.

At that time, the army needed men to maintain, service and repair its equipment (soft and armoured vehicles, artillery, small arms, instruments), in fact, if the army had it, it had to be looked after. The first school opened in 1939 as The Army Technical School (Boys) ending as The Army Technical Foundation College in 2004. These schools supported the needs of the RAOC, RE and RASC, and later when it was formed, REME. They attracted the kids who wanted to travel to exotic places, kids who had a perceived picture that a soldiers life was glamorous and in many cases those who wanted nothing more than three square meals a day and a bed to call their own.  In my case after being an Army cadet, I thought it was a way of getting a good job in the future. In those days, you were pigeon holed from the age of 11. If you went to a secondary school you would probably end up in a factory, down the mines or a similar occupation; it was the grammar school kids that ended up in the banks and offices.

Back in the 1950s, you may have been too young to drink but you were old enough to join the Army! There aren’t many places where a 15 year old’s signature could be legally binding in a contract for 12 years but that’s the way it was.

Just after my fifteenth birthday, I boarded a train at Waterloo to take me to Wokingham.  Mum was there to see me off, very upset and in tears, I was still her little boy, she kept repeating, “You don’t have to go, you can still come home”.  However, I didn’t get off the train I was on my way to the Army Apprentices School, Arborfield to start a three-year Telecommunications Technician apprenticeship and at the end of it join REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and become a soldier.

Courtesy of John ‘Herbie’ Coles Hon. Webmaster, Arborfield Old Boys’ Association

I got off the train at Wokingham Station along with five or six other bemused looking youngsters to be met by a sergeant who checked off our names on a clipboard and took us outside where we climbed aboard a truck. The school was only 3 miles from the station so it didn’t take long to get there. As we pulled in through the gates I thought – What have I let myself in for? Climbing down from the truck, we were met once more by a sergeant with the inevitable clipboard who checked our names but there had been no escapees on the short journey.

We were led into a barrack block that we learnt were called spiders (a central body for ablutions, latrines, showers, blanco rooms) and leading off this by a peripheral corridor, six barrack rooms. Our room had 8 beds and lockers down each side, we were told to grab a bed and we would be sorted out the next day. Surprisingly the beds were already made up, the only time that would happen for 3 years (or 12 years come to think).

What struck me was how quiet and deserted the camp was considering there were supposed to be a 1,000 apprentices. This perception was rudely shattered at 4.00pm when groups of young men came marching down the road as school was over for the day and the “scholars”  went to the square for dismissal, before descending on the cookhouse for the evening meal.

We newcomers were left to our own devices and at 7.00pm, a few of us bravely decided to see what the NAAFI offered. We finally found it and walked in to a great cheer, catcalling and shouting at us lambs to the slaughter. Obviously, this was standard practice, which greeted all new recruits. I have to admit our courage failed and we beat a hasty retreat back to the barrack room where we talked until lights out at 10.00pm – then unlike today’s teenagers we strictly adhered to the NO talking rule, and so ended my first day.

After a restless and for some a tearful night we were woken at 06:30 to the dulcet tones of a bugler blowing reveille. It was up, washed, shaved (we soon learned that if you had the lightest bum fluff it counted as whiskers, so you shaved) and off to the cookhouse with the only kit we had so far been issued, namely KFS, 2 plates and a china mug. Breakfast was fine, in fact army food was generally very good and probably better than some of the recruits were used to.

After the apprentices had marched off from morning parade us newbies were fell in on the road in one long line – tallest on the left and shortest on the right.  Many think that is just a saying but No, that is exactly how the army sorted us into groups. From here we were broken into 3 squads that we would stay in for the six weeks we were in “HQ” prior to joining our main companies.  The squads were introduced to their squad sergeants who were to be our trainers, mentors, tormentors, instructors and to some even confessors while we did our basic training. After 55 years, I still clearly remember Sergeant Elliott of the Devon and Dorset Regiment, from his medal ribbons a veteran of WW2, as were all of the drill instructors.

A quick settling into new barrack rooms for some and then outside again in our new squads we marched, walked, ambled or shuffled our way down to the QM’s stores to be issued with our kit a truly wondrous experience! The army has a marvellous system for issuing equipment ‘one size really does fit all’, The only concession being that the piles of kit were in three lots large, medium and small to match our newly formed squads. Many comments of “the tailor will sort that out” or “you’ll soon grow into it lad” accompanied trying on our uniform jackets, fortunately when it came to our boots, these were fitted properly. But what was I being issued with! These weren´t black shiny boots, they were covered in bumps like the back of a crocodile. Where were the nice smooth ones the storemen had on. My very naive query was answered with gales of laughter, a few pitying looks and I was told, “You’ll learn”.


We may now have been dressed like soldiers, but soldiers of the 1914 – 1918 war! It didn´t take us long to learn that the white buckskin belts were a pain. If you put the whitener on too thin the buckskin showed through, if you put it on too thick as you wrapped it around your waste it cracked, so back to stripping off and starting again. Another oddity was highlighted back in the barracks by Sergeant Elliott, he pointed out our gym shoes were brown canvas and this would not do. So the first thing was polish them with black boot polish until they shone. Why? Who knows, just another mystery of the British Army

That evening, sporting our brand new denims, a few of us ventured back to the NAAFI. As before there were a few jeers but nothing like the previous night, I came to learn it was just a rite of passage that all must go through. So we stayed for a cup of tea and a bun then back to the barrack room for lights out  and it really was lights out, there was hell to pay if a light was switched on. To our befuddled minds we were starting to feel the pressures of army life, but the reality was our first 2 days had been relatively leisurely as we were pretty much left to our own devices. Tomorrow was our first day on the square when the drill sergeants would begin moulding us to the army´s requirements .

Day three was a momentous occasion. Dressed in our new denims, boots and gaiters we got our first taste of ‘drill’ on the square. The necessities of standing at ease and standing to attention were taught. Rifle drill, which the majority of us were looking forward to was not included and indeed we wouldn’t get our hands on a rifle for another two years. When not on the square we spent a great deal of time on what was called Interior Economy (IE) – simply put cleaning be it kit or barrack rooms, god knows why, nothing had a chance to get dirty. I also learned what to do with my bumpy boots, I ironed them! Honest! Ironed them over and over again with a hot iron until they were as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom, and then I spent many happy hours bulling them with polish, duster and spit until they were like mirrors.

As a respite from training, Wednesday afternoon’s were dedicated to sports be it a game of football or hockey and two or three times a week we had PT in the gym. I am sure that anyone who has been in the army will remember with love and affection, the PTI’s in their black and red horizontal striped jumpers to my mind more reminiscent of a cartoon burglar with his bag of swag than the athletes they were.  As youngsters they seemed ancient but we were in awe of their levels of fitness.

For the first six weeks, we weren’t allowed out of camp.  During the next six months we were only allowed out in uniform and despite having had the power to sign away 12 years of our lives we still had to back and in our barracks by 10pm in time for lights out.  If late you were put on a charge so in order to avoid jankers or extra drill I missed the last 15 minutes of innumerable films at the garrison cinema.  It took me years to find out how many of these ended.

This became the pattern of our lives for the next six weeks at the end of which we had our square passing out parade and started our trade training. Friendships were made in those early weeks that would last for years.  We soon came to realise that the discipline and bull were a lot easier to handle if you were all in it together.  Never spelled out but obviously an important factor when training the young soldiers of the future.

As many may have guessed I did not write this, it is the musings of my other half, is that the King of Hearts? You will find him on my Guest Bloggers page,  I was never in the Army, I wanted to join the Navy but as I was under 21 I need my fathers signature which he wouldn’t give.  I obviously always had a wander lust!

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2 Responses to A soldiers life for me!!

  1. Tricia says:

    great Jim,when will you do another one?

  2. tenerifenell says:

    I enjoyed reading that so tell the King of Hearts that he needs to guest more often!

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