“The Army” series, came about through my Niece, Penny, requesting some information on my Army days. She was doing some sort of project that required a “behind the scenes” view of military life, so I started to jot things down.
I got a little carried away!
I am offering these jottings exactly as originally presented, the only changes being the introduction of badges, where appropriate, and occasional comments, shown in blue.
For more like this click on the Tag “My Life”.
And so Penny, in no particular order, some points that I consider may be pertinent to your project and my apologies for anything you consider in too bad taste.
The Army have always had a call out procedure for rapid deployment. In Germany, during The Cold War, we always had to have our kit packed and ready to go at a moments notice. There were regular tests of this and no thought was given to what effect this had on families (quite naturally as the Russians would not have given notice!). We were called out and did not know where we were going or for how long. Rumours were rife amongst the families and they soon got to know of any injury or death that occurred. (No mobile phones, no iPads, Laptops, WiFi then)
Exercises, training, and detachments away from home are always difficult. It is fairly easy for most soldiers as they change into squaddie mode, get on with the job, and do not do a great deal of thinking, if any, about what they’ve left behind. For the families it is quite different. They are abandoned, in a foreign country, with strange money, strange language etc even though the “powers that be” set up Wives Clubs and the like.
I remember, vividly, taking Claire to the airport at the start of her second term at boarding school. I had to push her, crying, into the departure lounge and watch her disappear in tears. My natural inclination was to hug her and take her back home. It still hurts!
Many more boarding school memories. All of them painful. However, Claire’s education would have been so disjointed had she not decided to attend Ockbrook.
Boarding Schools tend to be very class based establishments and it was only the fact that I was in the highest paid trade group that enabled us to afford to send Claire. She would have experienced quite a large amount of “us and them” as youngsters can be worse than adults in that respect! The majority of non commissioned service families had to accept education at Service schools and a move of school every time their father was posted.
There were a lot of mistaken beliefs that Army families had all sorts of freebies and benefits. In fact, there was quite a bit of hardship, especially amongst the lower ranks. At one stage, in Germany, all Corporals and below were on benefits because they were so poorly paid. If you imagine a young wife, in a foreign country, often with young children, no family nearby, no mobile phones, not even a home phone, no computers, no English language television (Claire used to watch Sesame Street in German!), no credit cards, husband away on exercise, you may begin to understand how difficult it could be.
When we first married the means of getting personal possessions around the world was called MFO (Military Freight Organisation). Everything had to fit into standard size boxes, 1m x 05 x 0.5. We started off with 5 boxes. The quarter (house or flat) at that stage came with everything you needed to live. Furniture, bedding, crockery, cutlery, kitchen ware, brushes, mops etc. You had one room with a square of carpet, and a few mats. In later years you were given 2 carpets and, later still, they started to fit carpets. If you were a Warrant Officer, or Officer, you had a bookcase! We had to store away anything that we did not wish to use and, very much later we could stipulate that we have an unfurnished quarter that came with carpets and cooker.
After a year and a half we moved with 10 boxes. Next time 22. White goods had to be crated and normally ended up being damaged. The process of packing up was extra stressful. One room of the flat or house gradually filled with boxes and you had fewer and fewer things to live your life. Meanwhile the house had to be prepared for “march out” where it was inspected and had to be handed over in perfect condition. Any deviation from perfect had to be paid for – decoration needed, stains on carpets, bedding, damages of any kind. (Imagine trying to restore your cooker/hob to pristine condition. Not only did we try, we succeeded.)
Meanwhile, back with the mother and child (ren). The family had to move. If there was no quarter available in the new post then there were 2 options. Either, the soldier moved to his new post and family stayed in old quarter until one was available, or, family went to mother’s until new quarter available. More stressful separation!
Moving a family by plane, boat or car, with sufficient clothes and supplies to last until you have set up home again is no mean feat. Babies and small children do not find travel exciting and stress ensues. Feeds, nappies, wipes, prams, pushchairs, clothes, drinks, all have to be catered for. A customs official wanting to look in every case, bag, and box whilst your baby turns purple, being desperately in need of a nappy change, and having endured a bumpy landing, is not the way to start a new posting! (We know from bitter experience. First in to customs, last out……with a 6 week old baby.)
Army humour is unique and tends to stem from the unspoken thought that you may not be around long and that you have to make the most of what you have now. The classic story that lots of individuals claim to have witnessed, or said, following an explosion.
“Help me, I’ve lost my leg!”
“No you haven’t mate, it’s over there………”
A regular question from one to another when an exercise or tour of duty away from home is coming to an end.
“What’s the second thing you’re going to do when you get home?”
The answer, of course, is “Take my boots off”
The transition back from squaddie to husband and father is not always a smooth one. The smelly, dirty individual, arriving at the front door is intent on getting clean, getting fed and getting to bed. The child (ren) want to tell Daddy all about what they’ve done, how they’ve grown, stories to be told. The wife wants to tell her husband all about what has happened while he’s been away, she needs a few odd jobs sorted and does not appreciate all the dirty washing and dirty stains on carpets, seats etc.
While away, even for a short time, each partner moves into a solitary lifestyle and copes as best they can. Back together, they must re learn, each time, how to live as a family again. Apart, the wife may be a very effective head of family, taking independent decisions, sorting out problems, coping with crises. Together she takes on the role of allowing the husband to take those decisions, sort those problems and handle the crises. This can often create very real resentment that their own life has been yet again disturbed. This is not a mould for everyone because everyone handles their own situation in their own particular way.
We always made a home as soon as possible after arriving in a house. We put up pictures, we used our own possessions right from the start. We even carried a huge carpet around a few homes. We made a garden whenever we could, nearly always from scratch. We spent a deal of money over the years on these and on curtains, nets, cushions, furniture that fitted one house but not the next, anything to make our nest more homely.
I think it is probably time to call a halt now. I’m sure that there is lots more I could say. I consider myself extremely fortunate that, not only did I have an interesting, fulfilling, and at times, exciting career, I had, and have, a supportive wife and daughter to help me along.
- Army life is often an unreal existence. Soldiers are trained to react instantly without questioning and consequences are left for later
- Mental health problems, alcohol problems, violent behaviour, are all more prevalent amongst service personnel, particularly army
- A lot of young (and older) men and women see, and experience, things in army life that they would prefer not to
- Winston Churchill suffered from “black dog” bouts of depression. Could it be as a result of all the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in India, the Sudan and South Africa and as a correspondent in warfare?
- Is modern reporting a help or hindrance to modern soldiering? We have a Rambo type hero worship and exposure of extremely vulnerable young people. Perhaps we do need more exposure so that more people can see the futility of fighting!
- As a nation we hide death away and we have tended to pretend that disability and mutilation do not really exist. We are now (I originally wrote “being confronted with”) being reminded daily that limbless and disfigured individuals are part of life, as are mental health problems, abuse problems and the like, and that death is very much a part of life. (Though we are still not very good at it!)