Funny how some things stick with you. I had been ejected from Buller Barracks in Aldershot where they said I didn't have the potential to be an Officer Cadet, (see The Open Door February 2004 for the full story), so I landed in Yeovil, with all of three weeks service, trying to catch up with the other lads who had been struggling with the gearboxes on Austin three-tonners while I was giving the wrong answers to the Selection Board. It wasn't much fun being a sprog, you may recall, being bounced around the barrack square and shouted at, (but I suppose being on the permanent staff at at training battalion wasn’t the best posting for a career soldier, so maybe they took it out on us a bit).
The high spot of the week was being allowed out of camp on Saturday afternoon, when we could find a nice warm cafe, relax where no-one would shout at us and eat a sticky bun. Before you could get out you had to be vetted in the guard house by the duty NCO, who was doubtless a bit miffed at being on weekend duty. Naturally we bulled ourselves up before we went in, knife-edged creases, sparkling brasses, gleaming toe-caps, even the most frustrated sergeant wouldn’t find fault. One Saturday there was a bit of a queue outside, some sort of problem? Then the sergeant came out and said, “There’s an officer in there, make sure you you salute him”.
That rang a bell, for I’d had a saluting problem on my first few days as a soldier. We had been warned to salute anyone with a peaked cap, we spent hours practicing how to do it (longest way up, shortest way down?), till we were quite good at it. The very next day my mate and I, (could have been Des Hawken), spotted a peaked cap, and did our first proper army salute, except did his cap look just a little bit different from the others? I've always found that Regimental Sergeant Majors (off the barrack square), are the kindliest of men, and this one was no exception. He carefully explained to us that you must not salute Warrant Officers, he showed us how his cap differed from a commissioned officer’s and how upset he would be if we did it again. It really sank in, that lesson, I always gave the closest scrutiny to any cap with a peak and kept my arm by my side until I was certain.
It was my turn to go through the guard room door, so I entered and looked round for a peaked cap; nothing, only some bloke in civvies at the back of the room. I stood baffled and the sergeant screamed at me to salute the officer, even if he was not wearing uniform. As I belatedly performed, my uniform was closely scanned and I was told my brasses were filthy, my trousers needed pressing and don’t come back till they're immaculate! The officer gave me a sweet smile and said, “Good Afternoon”, so I did him a farewell salute. I left, fuming; what was he doing there if he wasn’t on duty? Didn’t he realise that new recruits hadn't seen civilian clothes for the last eight weeks? He’d ruined my afternoon and hadn’t done a thing about it.
Back in the barrack room I was re-ironing my immaculate trousers when the corporal in charge of the billets wandered in. He saw what I was doing and brought in another pairs of trousers. “Give these a doing while you’re on”, he said,“I’ve got a date with a bird later”. I did my resentful best, for the afternoon was fading fast and so were my hopes of a sticky bun. I tried to avoid ironing tram-lines on his trousers and told him they might just pass in a dark room, meaning that they would be fine if you didn’t look too closely. He roared with laughter, telling me a dark room was where he hoped to be. He’d heard how I got sent back, so he wandered up to the Guard House with me and got me finally signed out. I arrived at the the tea-shop just before they closed and ate a plateful of cakes. For each cake I ate I invented a new story of how I would have acted if it had been me dressed in civvies when some poor nervous sprog poked his head round the door.
It must have been about six months later they decided that, with a bit of training and a lot of shouting, they might just make a subaltern of me. I hoped they would show me how to act the part, as my experience with pips and crowns was a bit limited. Then back came that memory of having to salute a civvie; whatever else happened, I knew at least six different ways of behaving when in a guard room out of uniform. The thought kept me cheerful through a good few sticky moments, it's just a shame I never got the opportunity to test which one would have worked the best.