Bull

by

Bull
Carrying on from our traumatic introduction into the army

Parade, we were soon to learn, consisted of running outside and forming into three lines. This charade was to be repeated many times in the duration of each day, each time dressed in different apparel. Indeed, some times, we would be ordered outside in full BD (battle dress) but even before we were marched off we would be told they wanted us dressed otherwise. ‘Fall out, back here in two minutes in PT. kit, last one back is cleaning the stones with a razor tonight!’ The stones referred to were the urinals and no one really fancied the job. This meant we would all make a headlong dash for the doorway so as not to be the last one back. Now, unfortunately, Blanford Camp must have at sometime, been a hospital sanatorium and the spiders in which we were housed – the wards. Between each ward covered gangways had been built to allow dry passage from one ward to another, the glass sides of these passageways had long gone but the corrugated housings were still in position about five feet from the ground. One such gangway bisected our billet from the parade point, and never failed to take the scalps of at least a couple of fleeing squaddies who neglected to duck. The doorway itself would usually account for another couple as it would only allow access to one at a time and the first two usually arrived simultaneously. This meant if you kept a cool head and carefully negotiated the prostrate bodies, you could normally avoid coming last. You were not out of the wood even when arriving at your bed-space in good time, there were the odd moments when mad panic would seize you, when for instance, small items of equipment would not come immediately to hand. I can vividly remember hearing the poor lad who had the next bed saying, quite sincerely, when he thought no one within earshot: ‘Please God, let me find my bayonet frog’.

Anyway, that first morning, before we even had chance to ‘parade’ two lance Jacks entered the room: ‘I’m Corporal Young,’ exclaimed the first, a slight fair haired lad about eighteen years old. ‘I wear mine up here!’ he snarled pointing to his lonely white stripe. ‘And this is Corporal Newton,’ he pointed to his colleague. ‘Stand up straight for your platoon sergeant: Sergeant Wakefield.’ The entourage parted and a short dapper gentleman swept through, spitting out the words as he came: ‘I’m Sergeant Wakefield and I’m a bastard! (He never understated) I’ve got you for the next six weeks and you’ve got me.’ He spat out the well-rehearsed speech, which was his lot repeat every six weeks. The performance included the slight lifting of the left side of his mouth to enhance his meanness.
One was forced to admire the immaculate turn out of these guys. There was one corporal on the camp, who had actually hammered the brass eyelets on his boots until they were flat, highly polished and about a half inch in diameter. I suppose they had plenty of time to do this kind of thing or it was more likely that some luckless recruit who had fallen foul of them had been the one to apply the ‘elbow-grease’. These three gentlemen, into whose charge we were to be committed, were collectively known as, ‘drill pigs’
This introduction heralded the start of six weeks of intense activity. They marched us about at such short notice that we had time for neither homesickness nor rebellion. One dare not even attend the toilet by day in case the ‘pigs’ appeared unexpected and called for an instant rig out change. If you were not present to hear the order as it was delivered, you had no chance of being ready in time to parade. If one was late for parade then a nasty job was in store for you – but consider the ignominy of the squad actually being marched off before you appeared, then you would have to attempt to join the squad while they were already drilling on the square. The consequences were too terrible to contemplate. So terrible in fact, I never saw it to happen. For the first couple of weeks I imagined I was in some sort of terrible dream from which I would soon eventually wake.

On that first morning we were kitted out with: Three Battle dresses, a best, a second best and a third best (the latter was second-hand working gear) and a set of khaki fatigues for the even dirtier jobs we were to encounter. Two pairs of boots, two berets, one great coat, two pairs of green drawers cellular (we called them: drawers Dracula) two pairs of PT shorts and vests – one red and one white, two pairs of blue and white striped pyjamas and various other bits and pieces. The enhancement of this kit was to be the object of out attention every spare moment when were not required on parade. We were advised on the type of cleaning and packing out materials we would need to bring our kit up to the required standard, these we had to purchase from the NAAFI stores at our own expense. Our own personal effects and the clothing we had arrived in, was bundled up into a sad brown paper parcel and returned through the post. Perhaps our mams would shed a little tear when those parcels arrived home?

Long into the future, those who never knew national service first hand will listen in disbelief to the things we had to do to that kit. For instance, the boots issued to us were like the workingmen’s boots of the period; entirely covered in thousands of tiny raised irregularities, which were probably designed to make the boots stronger, we were told that these irregularities had to be completely removed so that the boots were smooth and shiny as glass. However, the only way to achieve this result, we were told, was: firstly, to take a teaspoon and hold it over a candle until red hot and then smooth out the irregularities. Once these were out, we had then to melt the boot polish onto the smooth surface before commencing to polish away by the ‘spit and slaver’ method. This meant rubbing endlessly in little circular movements until the boots shone like patent leather. To add to our chagrin, we were advised that this method was illegal as it damaged War Department property, so the result had to be achieved without them seeing it to be done. Thereafter we were left to light our candles and smooth away when they were away and extinguish them on their approach. Bizarre!
Battle dress tunics were real swine to bring up to scratch too: they were required to have six pleats ironed into the backs and six more in the fronts – four nine inches long, four six inches long and four three inches long and they needed to be sharpened with the aid of steam and brown paper too. God preserve you if you were unlucky enough to make a scorch mark, then you would have to rub away with a silver coin to try and get rid of it. And bearing in mind most of us had never handled an iron in our lives before we found it quite daunting. We clubbed together to buy an iron but never bothered to get around to buying a plug, we just poked the bare wires into the wall socket. A dangerous manoeuvre certainly but you had got to a point of not worrying too much about it, if you went up in the air, at least you would be out of this nightmare, so it was just about fifty-fifty which was worse.
The whole of our packs and webbing had to be covered by a disgusting substance called ‘Blanco’. Some of the items issued to us had been used before and already had Blanco on but always the wrong colour. You had to scrub this off before you could start to apply our light green shade of Blanco; ‘scrubbing off’ was harder that ‘putting on’. The insides of all our packs had to be pushed out square, aided by the insertion of cardboard which we had to scrounge from boxes thrown out by the NAAFI. The brass buckles, which liberally adorned our packs and webbing, had to be sandpapered smooth until without blemish and then polished with ‘Brasso’ If you happened to get brass polish onto the Blanco it resulted in an awful mess and you needed to ‘scrub up’ and start again. The only items we were not allowed to polish with Brasso, were our bayonets. Evidently the Geneva Convention, states: it’s OK to stab someone but you must not give them blood poisoning. Berets, what a marvellous palaver we had with those. When issued to us they were about the size of dustbin lids but the chic way to wear them was shrunk to half their size and moulded into shape so they fitted jauntily on just the front of the head. The method of achieving this result was to submerge the beret alternately in hot and then cold water. After this had been repeated many times the beret while still wet was placed on the head and moulded into the correct shape by hand. It was then retained on the head until it dried into shape. After such sessions lads could be seen all over the billet with dripping berets, the liberated blue dye running in rivulets down their faces. I suppose these little knacks and wrinkles had been passed down from recruit to recruit from time immemorial like schoolyard games.
We had to lay out all this gear for inspection in a very precise manner: PT vests had to be folded exactly eight inches across and placed in our lockers, red on top of white. Pyjamas folded with stripes matching, socks rolled to a specific diameter. On top of the locker went the packs and webbing, with the water bottle cork hanging down exactly in the centre. The blankets and sheets from the bed had to be made up into a ‘blanket box’ the size and straightness of the lines of the box became the object of much minute scrutiny on inspection nights. Some lads were so worried about having their blanket box perfect for the morning’s inspection they would make it up the night before and place it on the floor, choosing to sleep without either sheets or blankets for fear they would not be able to have it right for inspection the next day. In addition to attending to our personal kit we also had communal duties within the billet: Cleaning the toilets and washbasins, polishing the floors – we had appliances called ‘bumpers’ for polishing the floors; they were like huge heavy mops. Lads who had been on bumper duties did not take kindly to others walking on their pristine floor in their hob nailed boots. We also had to tidy up the outside area daily and scrape the brush handles with razor blades. There was a tale going around that one squaddie, who had transgressed in some minor way, was made to empty one fire bucket full of water into another, empty bucket, using only a teaspoon! The necessity of all of this was to teach us discipline, but was commonly known to one and all as BULL.

Living in such close proximity to each other twenty-four hours every day laid bare all our foibles, personalities, our strengths and weaknesses and a great affinity developed within our ranks. There were the hard cases, the softies, the flappers and those who were unflappable. There were comedians, scruffy beggars and those who immediately looked born to wear a uniform. We had our petty squabbles, even a punch up or two but we presented a united front to authority and to outsiders. What a grand bunch of lads they were! There names still come readily to mind: Yates, Tingay, Mills, Mullis, Bott, Morgan, Smith, Neil. Each of us soon had our own tailored nicknames. One, which comes readily to mind, was Souton. He was a lad from Bedford and one of the best but the fact he had a somewhat cultivate way of speaking quickly earned him the handle: ‘The Duke of Bedford’. One night I remember Stoddard, another grand lad, he was from Manchester and slept in the bed opposite mine; he was hopeless at bulling his kit, the harder he tried the worse it looked. On this particular night, he was flapping about like an old hen and getting all flustered when he came out with a statement that rocked me back on my heels a bit: ‘There’s only one thing that keeps me going; Woody doesn’t seem to worry and his kit is worse than mine!’ And there was I thinking my kit was great. It was my turn to do a bit of worrying.
Last thing at night when the lights had been turned out and we could bull no longer, we would converse from our ‘pits’ on more pleasant subjects, such as what we would do to Corporal Young if we met him on a dark night in ‘civvy street’ or in the unlikely event of us obtaining our own stripes. It was not frowned upon so much if you had a punch up with someone of your own rank but you could not punch a corporal if you were only a private. That would land you in deep trouble. We talked about sex too but not often, they put something in the tea to control such disruptive drives. One night in the middle of our bulling an NCO arrived and without any preliminaries just switched out the lights and departed. Silence followed for several moments until someone stated, quite unnecessarily of course, ‘He’s turned the lights out!’ Mullis, one of the better comedians, replied, quick as a flash, ‘Cor! So he has, I thought it was just me having a long blink.’
We were allowed ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon for our NAAFI breaks, during these breaks the juke box in the NAAFI would blare out, time after time, a contemporary popular song called: The Three Stars. This was a record in memoriam to three stars: The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens who had recently lost their lives in an air crash. Great fifties ballads seemed to epitomise those national service years, in my stint, we sang along to such great songs as: Chantilly Lace, The Big Bopper, Rave On, Buddy Holly, Little Star, The Elegants. Strangely, the NCOs always treated NAAFI breaks as sacrosanct, even when we were not framing on the square and had been lambasted right left and centre we were still allowed our NAFFI break. Perhaps it was because they wanted a break too? I remember an occasion, much later, when I was attached to an airborne reconnaissance unit in Germany: a camouflage manoeuvre scheme was in operation aimed at seeing how well the tanks and guns could be hidden. When the photographs were developed, you couldn’t see an item of hardware but there ‘plain as day’ sat in the middle of a farm yard, was a good old NAFFI van and a line of lads queuing up with their mugs at the ready.
The bulk of our daily programme of instruction concentrated mainly on drill and rifle drill; hour after hour in the blazing sun, we pounded the gravel, swinging our arms and legs like wooden dolls. The drill pigs liked to have a name to bellow out, so if you were extra tall or in my case a bit rotund you were easily recognizable and they learned your name early, so if a dozen of us were making the same mistake in the drill, more often than not it would be my name on the end of a lambasting. Of course having your name constantly balled out across the square gave you iconic status with your mates in the billet.
Eventually, the khaki shirts and trousers rubbed great wheals in our armpits and crotches and the rubber buttons of the drawers Dracula left imprints of their four buttonholes in our sweating stomachs. We dug our heels into concrete until they bruised, soon the grey socks that had been issued to us began to disintegrate and darning became another major occupation. We learned how to salute as a squad on the square but you dreaded the day when you would have to do it for real on your own. We considered officers a bit too ‘God like’ to encounter at the moment – we were still afraid of corporals! If you saw a peaked cap approaching you would think: ‘crikey I’m going to have to do some saluting here if I’m not careful’ and you would nip in between the huts if you had chance. You were really relieved if the peaked hat turned out to be a warrant office – we didn’t have to salute warrant officers but no doubt he’d tell you off for something else you were doing wrong.
Everything was done to screams of; two-three this, two-three that. Up-two-three- down-two-three. We took it to extremes when we were out of earshot: in the canteen for instance, to encompass eating and drinking. Mugs-up-two-three drink-two-three down two-three or into bed-two-three sleep-two-three etc. The studs and heel-plates of our boots always made downhill gradients a hazard. We had such a gradient on our marches down to the cookhouse. We would be marched as a squad down to the cookhouse several times a day. The left arm would be held rigid holding our pot mugs and the other arm cranking up and down like a windmill as usual, as the hill become steeper many a mug met its end on the concrete as the owners boots flayed the air. The mug invariably ‘kopt for it,’ you hardly ever escaped with just a bruised bum. On one occasion I saw the line of men in front of me bobbing up and down at a certain point as we negotiated the hill; when I reached that point myself I saw a luckless lad had slipped and the well loved pig; Corporal Young, was standing beside him shouting: ‘Trample on him – trample on him’, as each subsequent marcher arrived.

So, to the cookhouse itself. Every army cookhouse I ever entered had its own distinctive smell. It was sort of a dinner mixed with grease smell, it would filter up the concrete corridors where we would wait in idle anticipation for them to allow us to enter the cookhouse proper, casually observing the graffiti on the wall: ‘Killroy was here,’ or ‘I was here before Killroy,’ etc. On Sundays, the familiar strains of Family Favourites would filter up those passageway, to accompany the smell of food and you would be reminded of your mates back home just about to roll out of the boozer to enjoy their Yorkshire puddings. That is not to say the cookhouses were dirty, there were always plenty of ‘fatigue wallers’ to keep them pristine clean but quite often there were cockroach infestations. On one occasion, after observing a strange hole in my meat pie, I removed the top to find a beauty nestling snugly between meat and crust. Ever since, I have treated holes in pies with suspicion.
It would be unfair too, to say we ever went hungry, at Blandford, there was certainly no shortage of food: dehydrated potatoes could be had by the mountain and being hungry lads, we used to really dig in. One poor lad, Smithy, he was thin as a rail and having trouble with constipation. Probably, the shock of being in the army had upset his system. After four weeks, he had not yet managed to go to the toilet. There was nothing wrong with his appetite though, day after day he would shovel away mountains of those horrible dehydrated spuds. We used to grab him and press his stomach. ‘This is impossible,’ we would say. ‘Where can it all be going – it must be going somewhere?’ Then he would become panicky and say: ‘God, what am I going to do?’ I think in the end they had to feed him something up his back passage, then he couldn’t stop going. In fact, I see he’s not on the group photograph; he must have still been going then.
Incidentally, they had a nasty but effective way of stopping people reporting sick unless they really were sick. Before one could report to the MO it was necessary for them to pack the whole of their gear into those beautifully bulled up packs, which invariably ruined them. This made all potential malingerers think twice. To return to the cookhouse: each day a duty officer would appear along with a colour sergeant and ask, ‘Any complaints?’ It was unheard of for anyone to say, ‘Yes’ but one day, egged on by his mates, a lad stood up and said: ‘Yes sir, maggots in my meat.’ The sergeant stamped over, face livid as raw liver, he looked at the meat, which was indeed maggot infested under its sickly covering of brown gravy; picking up the offending piece he pronged it straight into his own mouth, screaming; ‘The meat’s alright, nothing could live at the ‘eat this is cooked at!’ The poor lad didn’t even get a reimbursement on the piece he’d lost.
Came the night of our first kit inspection. All our carefully bulled kit was laid out on the beds or in the lockers to comply with a diagram. Corporal Newton carried out the inspection. He was in full BD. with the red and navy blue Southern Areas flashes on his shoulders; we were not allowed such flashes yet, being only ‘sproggs’. He looked most impressive. We stood to rigid attention while Newton made his round, poking about with his stick and make disparaging remarks. If he found a mug bearing even the slightest sign of a tea, he would throw it into the air, shouting, ‘Filthy’. Then the owner would have to replace it at his own expense. When he reached my locker, he twirled his stick around inside, scattering my beautiful ironed and folded clothes, muttering as he did: ‘Shit order, a disgrace,’ etc. I suppose I felt trampled on and probably blushed scarlet but I needn’t have worried too much when he got to the next bloke, he just opened the window and chucked all his stuff out. After a while you stopped taking their insults personally, you knew nobody was going to laugh at you, everyone was in the same boat, it would probably be their turn for a lambasting next time. The sooner one accepted not to baulk authority the better. There was always something worse in store for dissenters. One of the words we all feared to hear was: relegation. This could occur if one did not conform to authority, were unreceptive, or did not progress well enough under instruction. Relegation meant being back squadded for two weeks to join up with the next intake to come in. This would mean you lost your mates and had to do eight weeks initial training instead of six and no one wanted to contemplate that. The threat of relegation was enough to achieve the total cooperation of the majority.
Worse than relegation, was a nasty little carry-on, colloquially known as ‘jankers’. If an NCO put you on jankers, it entailed you having to parade at the guardhouse several times a day, in all manner of different apparel, where the guard commander would give you all sorts of nastier than nasty jobs. Of course, the culprit would also be confined to barracks (CB). This didn’t mean too much to us in those first six weeks as we were rarely let out anyway. Worse even than jankers, was being confined to the guardhouse, commonly know as ‘nick’. I saw a few lads who had been given ‘nick’; usually they were ones who had gone absent without leave (AWOL) or trying to work their passage out of the army. Life looked a real hell for them in there. The lavatory pedestal had a tap placed directly above it so that it doubled as their washbasin. The confinees would have their sleep disturbed by being awakened every hour on the hour all through the night and made to go to the toilet. To make him feel even more uncomfortable his bootlaces, belts and buttons were removed from his dress and he would be paraded around the camp at the double between two burly MPs with everything flapping about and boots slobbering off due to lack of laces. Talk about being degrading! For the worst cases of all, there were the central army prisons at Colchester and Shepston-Mallet. What went on behind those closed doors I hate to think? There was a rumour that the guards would throw a quantity of lighter flints through the cell doors and the prisoner had to find them all before he could eat. Isn’t that the mythical way to keep a vampire in his tomb: throw a handful of poppy seeds around his grave, which he feels he must count before he could go out to eat too?
No request was ever made to us either verbally or written; it was always: ‘This will be done,’ or ‘personnel will do this.’ It was all done in pursuit of discipline and in hindsight, those NCOs did a marvellous job; they got a grip on us from day one and never relaxed enough for us to even question what we were doing or indeed to be homesick. It has a sobering effect today, when we have our feathers ruffled to look back on those times and remember, when they said. ‘Jump’ we didn’t question it, it was a matter of ‘how high?’ and in six weeks it turned us from potential prima donnas into men!

The Greatcoat

The day dawned which was to be perhaps the hottest day of all in that blazing summer of
1959. This was the day chosen for the fitting of our greatcoats. We had been issued with these coats at the start but they more or less just fitted where they touched. To ensure the fitting was correct it was necessary for us to wear everything we would be expected to wear on a winter’s day underneath. This included: vest, shirt, tie, pullover, BD blouse, the whole issue, and bearing in mind this happened to be the hottest day in the middle of that which turned out to be the hottest summer of the decade. We were marched off to a drill square near to where the tailor’s shop was located and paraded in three lines, totally unprotected from the blazing sun, which shone remorselessly down upon us.
After a while, a trio of inspectors appeared in the ranks. First, came a sergeant bearing a stick that had two ninety-degree pointers sticking out at a prescribed distance from the ground. The idea was, that when his stick touched the ground the bottom of your greatcoat must come within the tolerance of these two pointers to be of acceptable length. Behind the sergeant strode a toffee nosed subaltern and bringing up the rear was the camp tailor. As the trio proceeded along the line, the sergeant would test coats for length with his stick and the subleton would tweak about with the material, uttering statements like: ‘In a bit here sergeant, out a bit there.’ etc. I sensed he would be shocked when he reached me as the coat I had been supplied with in order to accommodate my girth finished up near my ankles. I was not disappointed. He took one disbelieving look at me and squeaked, ‘Oh my God sergeant look at this man! Leave him there, we’ll come back to him later.’
‘Stand fast that man,’ snarled the sergeant.
With that, they moved along the rest of the lines and our platoon was moved off – all but me that is, I had to stand fast on my own under the blazing sun while another platoon was marched on of which I then became a part. Down the ranks they came again until they reached me for a second time. ‘My God it gets worse! Stand him fast sergeant,’ moaned the officer again. That platoon was marched off and still I stood: sweat oozing out of every pore – becoming part of a third line-up. Not until that platoon had been inspected and marched away too, leaving me a solitary melting blob, did they decided to see what could be done for me. By this time I had been standing for over an hour in all that gear in that which must have been a hundred degrees in the sun, I felt like a wet dishcloth. Finally, they planned the best course of action to begin the mammoth task of altering the coat. It was like Gulliver and the Lilliputian tailors. Over the next few weeks I had to pay many visits to the tailor who would chop and sew, chop and sew until at last he could do no more. I would never look smart in any greatcoat, I was all the wrong shape but at least it was presentable. Then came the climax of it all – we paraded again with our fitted greatcoats. This time it was a different inspection officer and sergeant. When they reached my position in the line the officer said, ‘Change this man’s coat sergeant, it’s the wrong shade!’ This time, at the end of the inspection I didn’t hang around, I chose to melt away ‘like a phantom in the night’.

One Saturday morning they said we were to have our ‘jabs’ and that after we’d had them, bulling our kit apart, we could have the rest of the weekend to ourselves, we wouldn’t be asked to parade or anything. We thought they were being kind to us at last but they knew what they were doing. After we’d had the three or four inoculations, which would cover us for the various active postings, we sat about on our ‘pits’ bulling gear and talking away pleasantly about going to the NAAFI etc. After a while guys started to keel over onto their backs. By mid afternoon movement had completely ceased, we were all spark out and just about remained so until we were due back in action on Monday morning, Those jabs were certainly powerful medicine. The NCOs knew what they were about, saying we could have it easy, even they couldn’t have got us up on our feet for drilling that weekend.
By now, we had been in two weeks and another intake arrived. They were the ‘sproggs’ now, their numbers were higher than ours and didn’t we let them know with taunts of: ‘Git some time in!’ One weekend we were actually allowed off camp for a few hours. However, we were told we must wear full BD, ties, berets, and the lot. Moreover, on pain of death, we were told not remove any item of clothing while off the camp. Dorset is a beautiful county and Bournemouth being reasonable close, a group of us decided to spend our day at the seaside. In the 1950s, folk were generally benevolent towards national service men, they knew we didn’t have much money and that we were doing our bit for the country, so thumbing lifts was quite easy, if drivers saw a lad in uniform they would usually pull up for him. Some lads thumbed home and back all over the country on 48 or even 36 hour passes. Though it was a bit dodgy relying on travelling back to camp by this method for if you failed to find a lift, which would have you back for 6.00 am on Monday morning you would be marked as AWOL and in the guardhouse. Anyway, that particular Sunday we managed to make our way to Bournemouth alright but it wasn’t very pleasant sitting on the beach, with the sun still blazing down on us wearing all that gear. We were too afraid to remove a stitch in case there was a ‘plain-clothes’ NCO spy on the beach.

During those first few weeks, in addition to the PT and drill, we learned to shoot on the rifle range and hack out the compressed bullets from the sand behind the rifle butts: all still beneath the blazing sun. We learned how to strip a machine gun and use a respirator (gasmask), which incidentally proved their worth in the toilets after the lads had been out on the beer..
Pay parade was one of the first occasions when one realised that perhaps a little progress had been made. All the recruits at various stages of their training were paid out together in a large hut. It also followed that all the pigs that trained all the recruits were there too, the pay hut swarmed with them, it was their opportunity to compete for who could make the most cutting remarks to demean the performance of recruits from other NCO’s platoons. Seemingly, it provided a bit of light entertainment for them. To spice it up there was also a competition going on between the training NCOs as to which of them, would, at the end of the six weeks, have trained the champion platoon. There was plenty of opportunity for snide remarks with all the saluting and stamping about that went with pay parade.
For some pay parade and its accompaniments proved quite an ordeal, especially as it was all for twenty five bob, or fifteen if you were married and had to send money home. Even then, a pig would be standing guarding the exit; trying to relieve you of the little you had just been given for the corps magazine. One lad found it such an ordeal he had arranged for all his pay to be paid straight into the bank and he lived on spends provided by his dad, who later turned up to visit him in a Rolls Royce.

After the assault course I’m knackered  but still smiling

The Demise of Corporal Young.
Because we had completed a few years of industrial training and a few years of further education we believed, in our wisdom, that we were distained for better things than the army: we believed national service was a waste of time. REME intakes were usually composed of young men around the age of twenty-one whom having completed an apprenticeship were eager to get on with their careers. As conscripts in peacetime, we were brainwashed by the media to be resentful just as out mates called up before us had been. We were in a culture of resentment and didn’t the paparazzi have a field day playing it up with tales of how qualified young adults were having to dig officer’s gardens or perhaps run errands for an officer’s wife. What few of us realised at the time, was that although national service, as the name implies, was derived to develop a trained pool of personnel, ready to serve the nation in times of future conflict: it would be we, as individuals, who would be by far the greater beneficiaries in our training for life.
In those, ‘the longest six weeks’ a comradeship developed in that barrack room which would not have blossomed in six years of normal civilian life. We even began to take pride in the 2nd Platoon ‘C’ Company. We took pride in the flashes on our shoulders REME and a swagger became apparent in our bearing, a swagger which could not been forced but born out of being young men, fit and in their prime. You knew they wouldn’t break you now and perhaps, just a little, for the first time you started to enjoy.

The demise of Corporal Young

One night, just before lights out, Corporal Young staggered into the room – he was obviously the worse for drink. Somebody had given him a black eye. It was a beauty!
We ceased our bulling and pondered with affection on the dealer of the blow, Young had done well to keep us in check up to that point. He had entered the service as a regular at the age of eighteen after being a boy soldier – ‘child soldiers’ as we called them. He was only eighteen now, perhaps three years younger than most of us, which is a wide gulf to tackle at that age. He had to be admired for the way he had handled us up to that point but tonight the poor lad was drunk and it was obvious he was battling an inferiority complex. He pointed to his eye and said, ‘Don’t get any ideas, another corporal did this. I’m going to get a grip on you lot!’ With that, he tried to put his foot up on the end of someone’s bed and in doing so fell flat on his back. We didn’t see Young anymore. It was a shame for him really, I suppose he’d lost credibility and they moved him on. We had a new corporal after that, Clarke, he was the one who polished the eyelets of his boots and was older and if it were possible, even nastier than Young

Passing Out

We drilled on, we bulled on, and the jukebox in the NAAFI still blared out with The Three Stars and still the sun blazed down upon us. Finally, it reached the end of July and our turn to pass out. Three platoons had started their basic training at Blandford on the 18th of June 1959. Two platoons were national service, the third: number one platoon was made up of lads wishing to make a career of the regular army. They needed to be visibly keen and enthusiastic to be accepted into the corps, we on the other hand only needed to keep our noses clean and survive two years. The potential regulars passed out as champion platoon. The final passing out parade was a high profile affair; parents were invited to see what the army had made of their sons. A brigadier or perhaps even a general would make the inspection and take the salute, there was to be a pipe band – the whole works. The most ragged half dozen of the squad would be left off the parade to make it look better. I think I would have been disappointed to have missed the final parade in the end. The lads not chosen were issued with dusters and busied themselves around dusting the last specks of dust from the rest of us. One dare not bend down once in our best uniform for fear of damaging the creases. And the boots. Oh those boots! It was the first time we had actually worn those glassy boots and we had to protect them at all costs, everyone was walking around gingerly, eying each other in case another boot came too close. It was worse than having corns. If someone inadvertently stood on your toe it was the end, the whole polished toecap was likely to come away in a solid shell. In fact, throughout your army career, you always dreaded the time when your best boots had to go to the cobblers. I’m sure they used to give the toecap a bash with the hammer just for kicks.
The brigadier was a gentleman: high-ranking officers usually were, he didn’t inspect us too closely. It was a good job he didn’t inspect one of my mates, Eric, too closely on his passing out parade, for he tells the tale of the time when he was actually lined up on his passing out parade waiting for the officer’s inspection. He looked down at his rifle (we had to call them rifles, they didn’t like us calling them guns) and saw to his absolute horror that the ‘bolt’ was missing. The bolt is the mechanism, which pushes the bullets into the breach ready for firing. We always had to keep the bolt and the rifle separate just in case a rifle was stolen, it could not be operated without the bolt. For a soldier to go on parade without a bolt in his rifle was a fate worse than death: a soldier with an inoperative weapon is useless. Eric was on tenterhooks in case it was spotted by the inspecting officer. When he got away with that one, his next worry was: ‘If it’s not in my rifle – where is it?’ to actually lose a rifle bolt warranted as an even worse punishment. Thankfully for Eric it wasn’t permanently lost.
As we marched past the saluting platform on our passing out parade a Scottish pipe-band played Scotland the Brave and our corps march: Lilliburlero. We hadn’t asked to be here but you felt the power of the uniform and those who had worn it with such distinction before you. It brought a swagger to our stride; we were just like proper soldiers. It was a great feeling!
The night before the passing out parade, we had our final billet block inspection. Lockers, kit, beds, the room and ablutions themselves had to be immaculate. We had shaved the brush handles down with razor blades and polished the fire buckets; the lot. It was to be the pinnacle of all our bulling. The whole entourage carried out the inspection: officer, sergeant and the two corporals. There followed the usual cynical comments but to be fair most of us were just about up to the standard even they couldn’t fault. Yet, when they reached Taffy Morgan’s bed at the end of the room a huge bellow of rage went up. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there displayed in all prominence on the top of his locker was a pint pop bottle. Goodness knows why it hadn’t noticed it before – we had been through the whole place with a fine toothcomb, not a speck of dust anywhere, and yet here was a great ruddy pop bottle. Well, they countenanced this as so outrageous that the officer believed Taffy was trying to be funny or even trying to work his passage (they were totally over the top of course) but they lambasted old Taffy. They pulled everything
he had to pieces and then decided he had a dirty neck. Taffy was ordered to march to the ablutions and get it washed. The terrible part of it was, as poor Taffy left the room to visit the washroom he turned the wrong way, which gave the pigs further bullets to fire, in that after six weeks he still didn’t know the way to the ablutions. It was no wonder he had a mucky neck!
The final inspection and parade over we had the traditional last night booze up with the drill pigs. This was supposed to be the chance you got to punch your least favourite drill pig. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. They all turned out to be alright guys, who just wore a shell of obnoxious veneer in order to keep on top of us for those hectic six weeks. In the fullness of time we realise what a great job they did. Before we left I made an appointment to see the MO (medical officer) because there was a rumour that anyone overweight would not get a posting to the Far East and I saw the army as my best chance of seeing something of the world. I thought with all that marching and exercising I must have shot down the scale and that I would be able to be upgraded to ‘grade one’. I hadn’t lost a single pound!
The next morning we smelt Blandford cookhouse for the last time and were ferried to Blandford Forum Station, there to be railed to our next destination for trade training. Some of us were going to the same camp but to the majority we had to say our goodbyes. We vowed to meet up for regular reunions but it never happened. Yet, should I ever have the opportunity, I’d rather meet up and have a night out with that gang who shared those: ‘the longest six weeks’, than be invited to a slap up meal with royalty.

always: ‘This will be done,’ or ‘personnel will do this.’ It was all done in pursuit of discipline and in hindsight, those NCOs did a marvellous job; they got a grip on us from day one and never relaxed enough for us to even question what we were doing or indeed to be homesick. It has a sobering effect today, when we have our feathers ruffled to look back on those times and remember, when they said. ‘Jump’ we didn’t question it, it was a matter of ‘how high?’ and in six weeks it turned us from potential prima donnas into men!

The Greatcoat

The day dawned which was to be perhaps the hottest day of all in that blazing summer of
1959. This was the day chosen for the fitting of our greatcoats. We had been issued with these coats at the start but they more or less just fitted where they touched. To ensure the fitting was correct it was necessary for us to wear everything we would be expected to wear on a winter’s day underneath. This included: vest, shirt, tie, pullover, BD blouse, the whole issue, and bearing in mind this happened to be the hottest day in the middle of that which turned out to be the hottest summer of the decade. We were marched off to a drill square near to where the tailor’s shop was located and paraded in three lines, totally unprotected from the blazing sun, which shone remorselessly down upon us.
After a while, a trio of inspectors appeared in the ranks. First, came a sergeant bearing a stick that had two ninety-degree pointers sticking out at a prescribed distance from the ground. The idea was, that when his stick touched the ground the bottom of your greatcoat must come within the tolerance of these two pointers to be of acceptable length. Behind the sergeant strode a toffee nosed subaltern and bringing up the rear was the camp tailor. As the trio proceeded along the line, the sergeant would test coats for length with his stick and the subleton would tweak about with the material, uttering statements like: ‘In a bit here sergeant, out a bit there.’ etc. I sensed he would be shocked when he reached me as the coat I had been supplied with in order to accommodate my girth finished up near my ankles. I was not disappointed. He took one disbelieving look at me and squeaked, ‘Oh my God sergeant look at this man! Leave him there, we’ll come back to him later.’
‘Stand fast that man,’ snarled the sergeant.
With that, they moved along the rest of the lines and our platoon was moved off – all but me that is, I had to stand fast on my own under the blazing sun while another platoon was marched on of which I then became a part. Down the ranks they came again until they reached me for a second time. ‘My God it gets worse! Stand him fast sergeant,’ moaned the officer again. That platoon was marched off and still I stood: sweat oozing out of every pore – becoming part of a third line-up. Not until that platoon had been inspected and marched away too, leaving me a solitary melting blob, did they decided to see what could be done for me. By this time I had been standing for over an hour in all that gear in that which must have been a hundred degrees in the sun, I felt like a wet dishcloth. Finally, they planned the best course of action to begin the mammoth task of altering the coat. It was like Gulliver and the Lilliputian tailors. Over the next few weeks I had to pay many visits to the tailor who would chop and sew, chop and sew until at last he could do no more. I would never look smart in any greatcoat, I was all the wrong shape but at least it was presentable. Then came the climax of it all – we paraded again with our fitted greatcoats. This time it was a different inspection officer and sergeant. When they reached my position in the line the officer said, ‘Change this man’s coat sergeant, it’s the wrong shade!’ This time, at the end of the inspection I didn’t hang around, I chose to melt away ‘like a phantom in the night’.

One Saturday morning they said we were to have our ‘jabs’ and that after we’d had them, bulling our kit apart, we could have the rest of the weekend to ourselves, we wouldn’t be asked to parade or anything. We thought they were being kind to us at last but they knew what they were doing. After we’d had the three or four inoculations, which would cover us for the various active postings, we sat about on our ‘pits’ bulling gear and talking away pleasantly about going to the NAAFI etc. After a while guys started to keel over onto their backs. By mid afternoon movement had completely ceased, we were all spark out and just about remained so until we were due back in action on Monday morning, Those jabs were certainly powerful medicine. The NCOs knew what they were about, saying we could have it easy, even they couldn’t have got us up on our feet for drilling that weekend.
By now, we had been in two weeks and another intake arrived. They were the ‘sproggs’ now, their numbers were higher than ours and didn’t we let them know with taunts of: ‘Git some time in!’ One weekend we were actually allowed off camp for a few hours. However, we were told we must wear full BD, ties, berets, and the lot. Moreover, on pain of death, we were told not remove any item of clothing while off the camp. Dorset is a beautiful county and Bournemouth being reasonable close, a group of us decided to spend our day at the seaside. In the 1950s, folk were generally benevolent towards national service men, they knew we didn’t have much money and that we were doing our bit for the country, so thumbing lifts was quite easy, if drivers saw a lad in uniform they would usually pull up for him. Some lads thumbed home and back all over the country on 48 or even 36 hour passes. Though it was a bit dodgy relying on travelling back to camp by this method for if you failed to find a lift, which would have you back for 6.00 am on Monday morning you would be marked as AWOL and in the guardhouse. Anyway, that particular Sunday we managed to make our way to Bournemouth alright but it wasn’t very pleasant sitting on the beach, with the sun still blazing down on us wearing all that gear. We were too afraid to remove a stitch in case there was a ‘plain-clothes’ NCO spy on the beach.
During those first few weeks, in addition to the PT and drill, we learned to shoot on the rifle range and hack out the compressed bullets from the sand behind the rifle butts: all still beneath the blazing sun. We learned how to strip a machine gun and use a respirator (gasmask), which incidentally proved their worth in the toilets after the lads had been out on the beer..
Pay parade was one of the first occasions when one realised that perhaps a little progress had been made. All the recruits at various stages of their training were paid out together in a large hut. It also followed that all the pigs that trained all the recruits were there too, the pay hut swarmed with them, it was their opportunity to compete for who could make the most cutting remarks to demean the performance of recruits from other NCO’s platoons. Seemingly, it provided a bit of light entertainment for them. To spice it up there was also a competition going on between the training NCOs as to which of them, would, at the end of the six weeks, have trained the champion platoon. There was plenty of opportunity for snide remarks with all the saluting and stamping about that went with pay parade.
For some pay parade and its accompaniments proved quite an ordeal, especially as it was all for twenty five bob, or fifteen if you were married and had to send money home. Even then, a pig would be standing guarding the exit; trying to relieve you of the little you had just been given for the corps magazine. One lad found it such an ordeal he had arranged for all his pay to be paid straight into the bank and he lived on spends provided by his dad, who later turned up to visit him in a Rolls Royce.
After the assault course

The Demise of Corporal Young.
Because we had completed a few years of industrial training and a few years of further education we believed, in our wisdom, that we were distained for better things than the army: we believed national service was a waste of time. REME intakes were usually composed of young men around the age of twenty-one whom having completed an apprenticeship were eager to get on with their careers. As conscripts in peacetime, we were brainwashed by the media to be resentful just as out mates called up before us had been. We were in a culture of resentment and didn’t the paparazzi have a field day playing it up with tales of how qualified young adults were having to dig officer’s gardens or perhaps run errands for an officer’s wife. What few of us realised at the time, was that although national service, as the name implies, was derived to develop a trained pool of personnel, ready to serve the nation in times of future conflict: it would be we, as individuals, who would be by far the greater beneficiaries in our training for life.
In those, ‘the longest six weeks’ a comradeship developed in that barrack room which would not have blossomed in six years of normal civilian life. We even began to take pride in the 2nd Platoon ‘C’ Company. We took pride in the flashes on our shoulders REME and a swagger became apparent in our bearing, a swagger which could not been forced but born out of being young men, fit and in their prime. You knew they wouldn’t break you now and perhaps, just a little, for the first time you started to enjoy.

One night, just before lights out, Corporal Young staggered into the room – he was obviously the worse for drink. Somebody had given him a black eye. It was a beauty!
We ceased our bulling and pondered with affection on the dealer of the blow, Young had done well to keep us in check up to that point. He had entered the service as a regular at the age of eighteen after being a boy soldier – ‘child soldiers’ as we called them. He was only eighteen now, perhaps three years younger than most of us, which is a wide gulf to tackle at that age. He had to be admired for the way he had handled us up to that point but tonight the poor lad was drunk and it was obvious he was battling an inferiority complex. He pointed to his eye and said, ‘Don’t get any ideas, another corporal did this. I’m going to get a grip on you lot!’ With that, he tried to put his foot up on the end of someone’s bed and in doing so fell flat on his back. We didn’t see Young anymore. It was a shame for him really, I suppose he’d lost credibility and they moved him on. We had a new corporal after that, Clarke, he was the one who polished the eyelets of his boots and was older and if it were possible, even nastier than Young

Passing Out

We drilled on, we bulled on, and the jukebox in the NAAFI still blared out with The Three Stars and still the sun blazed down upon us. Finally, it reached the end of July and our turn to pass out. Three platoons had started their basic training at Blandford on the 18th of June 1959. Two platoons were national service, the third: number one platoon was made up of lads wishing to make a career of the regular army. They needed to be visibly keen and enthusiastic to be accepted into the corps, we on the other hand only needed to keep our noses clean and survive two years. The potential regulars passed out as champion platoon. The final passing out parade was a high profile affair; parents were invited to see what the army had made of their sons. A brigadier or perhaps even a general would make the inspection and take the salute, there was to be a pipe band – the whole works. The most ragged half dozen of the squad would be left off the parade to make it look better. I think I would have been disappointed to have missed the final parade in the end. The lads not chosen were issued with dusters and busied themselves around dusting the last specks of dust from the rest of us. One dare not bend down once in our best uniform for fear of damaging the creases. And the boots. Oh those boots! It was the first time we had actually worn those glassy boots and we had to protect them at all costs, everyone was walking around gingerly, eying each other in case another boot came too close. It was worse than having corns. If someone inadvertently stood on your toe it was the end, the whole polished toecap was likely to come away in a solid shell. In fact, throughout your army career, you always dreaded the time when your best boots had to go to the cobblers. I’m sure they used to give the toecap a bash with the hammer just for kicks.
The brigadier was a gentleman: high-ranking officers usually were, he didn’t inspect us too closely. It was a good job he didn’t inspect one of my mates, Eric, too closely on his passing out parade, for he tells the tale of the time when he was actually lined up on his passing out parade waiting for the officer’s inspection. He looked down at his rifle (we had to call them rifles, they didn’t like us calling them guns) and saw to his absolute horror that the ‘bolt’ was missing. The bolt is the mechanism, which pushes the bullets into the breach ready for firing. We always had to keep the bolt and the rifle separate just in case a rifle was stolen, it could not be operated without the bolt. For a soldier to go on parade without a bolt in his rifle was a fate worse than death: a soldier with an inoperative weapon is useless. Eric was on tenterhooks in case it was spotted by the inspecting officer. When he got away with that one, his next worry was: ‘If it’s not in my rifle – where is it?’ to actually lose a rifle bolt warranted as an even worse punishment. Thankfully for Eric it wasn’t permanently lost.
As we marched past the saluting platform on our passing out parade a Scottish pipe-band played Scotland the Brave and our corps march: Lilliburlero. We hadn’t asked to be here but you felt the power of the uniform and those who had worn it with such distinction before you. It brought a swagger to our stride; we were just like proper soldiers. It was a great feeling!
The night before the passing out parade, we had our final billet block inspection. Lockers, kit, beds, the room and ablutions themselves had to be immaculate. We had shaved the brush handles down with razor blades and polished the fire buckets; the lot. It was to be the pinnacle of all our bulling. The whole entourage carried out the inspection: officer, sergeant and the two corporals. There followed the usual cynical comments but to be fair most of us were just about up to the standard even they couldn’t fault. Yet, when they reached Taffy Morgan’s bed at the end of the room a huge bellow of rage went up. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there displayed in all prominence on the top of his locker was a pint pop bottle. Goodness knows why it hadn’t noticed it before – we had been through the whole place with a fine toothcomb, not a speck of dust anywhere, and yet here was a great ruddy pop bottle. Well, they countenanced this as so outrageous that the officer believed Taffy was trying to be funny or even trying to work his passage (they were totally over the top of course) but they lambasted old Taffy. They pulled everything
he had to pieces and then decided he had a dirty neck. Taffy was ordered to march to the ablutions and get it washed. The terrible part of it was, as poor Taffy left the room to visit the washroom he turned the wrong way, which gave the pigs further bullets to fire, in that after six weeks he still didn’t know the way to the ablutions. It was no wonder he had a mucky neck!
The final inspection and parade over we had the traditional last night booze up with the drill pigs. This was supposed to be the chance you got to punch your least favourite drill pig. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. They all turned out to be alright guys, who just wore a shell of obnoxious veneer in order to keep on top of us for those hectic six weeks. In the fullness of time we realise what a great job they did. Before we left I made an appointment to see the MO (medical officer) because there was a rumour that anyone overweight would not get a posting to the Far East and I saw the army as my best chance of seeing something of the world. I thought with all that marching and exercising I must have shot down the scale and that I would be able to be upgraded to ‘grade one’. I hadn’t lost a single pound!
The next morning we smelt Blandford cookhouse for the last time and were ferried to Blandford Forum Station, there to be railed to our next destination for trade training. Some of us were going to the same camp but to the majority we had to say our goodbyes. We vowed to meet up for regular reunions but it never happened. Yet, should I ever have the opportunity, I’d rather meet up and have a night out with that gang who shared those: ‘the longest six weeks’, than be invited to a slap up meal with royalty.

6 Responses to “Bull”

  1. Eric Says:

    Along with “What were you in, then”, this yarn provides probably the best recollection I’ve ever read about National Service. I’ve heard lots of snippets over the years but never the complete ensemble as here. It’s also well written , blending humour with comradeship & (belated) fond memories.
    A truly great & interesting novella Pete.

  2. Doug Farnill Says:

    I endorse Eric’s comments entirely. This is a great piece of writing and amplifies what I had previously been told about all the bull and things such as the mug had to be oriented in such and such a way with the handle pointing in a specified direction. What is amazing is that as result of such brutal stupidity and sadistic treatment you emerged feeling really good about it and yourself. I would love to see a photograph of you Woody in your greatcoat. It is a mystery too, how after that 6-weeks period of intense exercise and sweating in that greatcoat how you managed not to lose any weight. Please go on some time to tell in similar detail your remaining 22 months of national service. I’m going to read this piece again it was so good.

  3. Edward Blackwell Says:

    Excellent Pete, I had a very similar experience during basic training, I think the most difficult thing to describe was the verbal abuse to which we were subjected, the NCO’s seemed to delight in degrading people until they were humiliated, I recall one trainee from London a big lad stood up to their abuse in a physical manner, and finished up in the Guardhouse under lock and key, he was punished and put on jankers (restriction of privileges) cleaning the Latrines etc. As for the bull, there was always some Old Sweat (regular army, specialising in kit) who for a price would supply polished brasses, Bull up boots etc.
    but who could afford those kind of costs on 15 bob a week. National Service did finish whilst I was still serving, and attitudes it did change dramatically toward recruits, because they couldn’t attract sufficient men who wanted to be Regular Soldiers, and those that did come were not of the quality to achieve the required standard, in fact I think some National Servicemen had to serve longer to make up the shortfall.

  4. peterwwood Says:

    Thanks folk for reading all that ‘Bull’; it was quite long. I have got all the rest of the two years but I’d better feed it in a bit at time

  5. Mark Christopher Wilson Says:

    What a fantastic piece of prose that is, Peter. I’m currently writing something similar about working on Grimethorpe Pit top, and I will be very pleased if it compares to the warmth and humour and humanity of yours. And might I also thank you, and every other squaddie, conscript or not, who kept this country safe all those years ago.

    I have read an awful lot of oral histories of being called up (I suppose Dirk Bogarde’s is one of the best) but that is right up there with them.

    Mark Wilson.

    PS Keep it coming…

  6. peterwwood Says:

    You’re too kind, Mark. But thanks and good luck with your Grimethorpe project.

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