Plus ça change…


Nowadays the commissioning course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst assembles on a Sunday.  I don’t remember that being the case when I started there back in 1985, but maybe it was.  A lot has changed since then but equally, much remains the same.

The ritual of the first day at Sandhurst is one of the things that hasn’t changed.  My chief recollection is the arrival of several hundred very clean cut, well dressed young men and women clutching suitcases and holdalls, all with an ironing board tucked under their arm.  My mother took me and whilst I was being shown to my room by a surprisingly polite and jovial Colour Sergeant from the Welsh Guards, she and all the other parents were ushered off to one of the ante-rooms in Victory College (as it was then called – a 1970s concrete and glass monstrosity plonked down in the middle of the otherwise rather beautiful setting of Sandhurst; it is rather more prosaically named ‘Victory Building’ these days) for tea and cakes with some of the senior College staff.

For much the rest of that first day, we sat in the College dining room filling out acres of forms.  The real fun started the next day.  One of the first events was a high speed march round the Academy grounds, still dressed in our suits, in order to get the lie of the land.  This culminated in our arrival at ‘The Warren’, the home of the Quartermaster’s department, for our initial kit issue.

The first things we were given were a fibreboard suitcase and a large green canvas holdall: we needed them.  We went round the clothing store, from desk to desk, accumulating a huge pile of kit.  As I remember it this included two pairs of combat boots, a pair of drill boots, a pair of George boots, a pair of sturdy brown shoes, a pair of black lace-up plimsolls and a pair of white ones; two camouflaged combat jackets and two pairs of camouflaged combat trousers; a quilted ‘Chairman Mao’ suit to be worn under the combat kit in cold weather; three green ‘hairy’ shirts; two pairs of green lightweight trousers; three tan coloured ‘No 2 dress’ shirts; a dark blue beret with Sandhurst cap-badge; a forage cap; two pairs of sports shorts; a red PT vest and a white one; a large, rubberised mackintosh; a camouflaged waterproof jacket and trousers; three pairs of green nylon ‘barrack dress trousers’; two green ‘woolly pulleys’; a green plastic belt and a set of elastic trouser braces; a blue woollen blazer with Sandhurst buttons and, finally, a yellow Victory College stable belt and a red tracksuit which, we were told, we would have to pay for.  We were also measured for our ‘No 2 dress’ uniforms and our ‘Blues’.

Having stuffed all of this gear – more or less – into the suitcase and holdall, we went to the G10 store where we were issued a set of 1958 pattern canvas webbing including the inaccurately named ‘large pack’; a shovel; a pickaxe handle and head; a steel helmet; a sleeping bag; a waterproof poncho; together with various bits and pieces like mess tins, binoculars, compasses and so on.  Much of this was crammed into the ‘large pack’ or squeezed, somehow or other, into the suitcase and holdall, and we were then marched back, at high speed, to Victory College where we spent the next few days learning how to iron, clean and/or polish it all before finally being allowed to actually put it on.

One of the key things you learn at Sandhurst is the art of the quick change.  You might be doing drill for the first two periods of the morning, dressed in No 2 dress uniform (aka the ‘Ginger Marching Suit’) and highly polished drill boots but, after a twenty minute coffee break, you were expected to show up immaculately dressed in lightweight trousers, shirt, ‘jersey heavy wool’, combat boots, combat jacket and ‘skeleton order’ webbing for skill-at-arms training; followed, after a five minute break, by a lecture, for which you had to appear in ‘hall of study order’ – No 2 shirt and tie, jersey, ‘barrack dress’ trousers, highly polished brown shoes – followed, perhaps after the 40 minute lunch break, by some sort of tactical training, dressed in combat kit with fighting order webbing, rifles, steel helmets etc, after which we might get a presentation, dressed once again in ‘hall of study order’ and finally some PT, usually in lightweight trousers, PT vest, fighting order webbing and boots.

Of course, this bore virtually no relationship to life in the wider army where the general policy is that you wear the appropriate clobber for whatever you are doing on a given day.  Even so, back in the 80s, you had a fair amount of choice.  Leaving aside the smarter uniforms, there was working dress, generally green lightweight trousers, boots and shirt, with a woolly pulley in winter; barrack dress which was a shirt and either green barrack trousers or service dress trousers with a jumper and tie in winter; and camouflaged combat kit.  All of this was tempered and varied, in typical British Army fashion, by specific regimental customs and peculiarities.  But the fact is we generally looked quite smart.


Of course, issuing all this stuff was quite expensive, particularly as the army didn’t really have a grip on quality control in those days.  The combat gear that we were issued at Sandhurst in 1985 was a new design, supposedly made by a contractor in the Third World.  It was shockingly bad.  The first time I wore my new combat jacket out on exercise, I put my pair of binoculars in the breast pocket (we weren’t allowed to hang them round our necks, apparently only civvies do that) and the pocket immediately fell off, taking the binoculars with it.  This state of affairs actually persisted for about five years: the army continued issuing combat uniforms which appeared to be made of badly dyed toilet paper until someone, somewhere got a grip on the situation.  What this meant, in effect, was that a lot of soldiers of my generation started buying their own kit to replace the rubbish the army gave us.

Which gave rise to a change.  In 1995, the army started issuing the new ‘Soldier 95’ uniform which was designed to be both a combat and a working uniform.  It basically consisted of a camouflaged ‘lightweight jacket’, worn over a green t-shirt, and camouflaged trousers, to which could be added a heavier combat jacket, thermal cold weather shirts and Gore-tex waterproofs as the situation demanded.  It was well made and durable, well designed and entirely fit for purpose.  The only problem was that it didn’t look particularly smart and the traditionalists, who tended to be amongst the longer-served and thus generally more senior element, didn’t like it.  So they began to subvert it.

The first thing to go was that the lightweight jacket, designed to be worn outside the trousers, now had to be tucked in and worn as a shirt; then regiments began to insist that their members wore regimental stable belts with it; and because you were now wearing it pretty much every day, it got washed and ironed within an inch of its life.  It still didn’t look very smart but it was proving to be much as expensive as the old system because it got worn out so quickly.  At the same time, the British ‘DPM’ camouflage pattern, which was introduced in the late 60s was being used by armies across the world, from Canada to New Zealand, via the Netherlands, Kenya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Indonesia and various other nations, great and small and this WOULD NOT DO!

So with the next upgrade which came along in 2011, a newly designed ‘personal clothing system’ (PCS), we adopted a whole new camouflage pattern.  The particular problem was that thanks to our entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were now issuing two different camouflage patterns on a wide scale, desert and temperate colours, and this was adding to costs.  What we got was ‘MTP’, a camouflage scheme designed to work in both desert and temperate regions.  Along with this came a redesign of the uniform.  Again, it featured a lightweight jacket worn over a t-shirt but this was definitely designed to be worn outside the trousers and this state of affairs was confirmed by none other than the Chief of the General Staff himself.  PCS is a further improvement over ‘Soldier 95’ being durable, practical and comfortable, with the further refinement that – thanks to its design – it would be quite tough to start fucking around with it to ‘smarten it up’.

Or so we thought because, in its desperate need to elevate the trivial and irritating over everything else, the British Army is now dicking around with PCS uniform to make it look smart and ‘uniform’ and we’re all being ordered to tuck our jackets into our trousers.  Which is really fucking lame.


‘Watching War Films with my Dad’

Al Murray Pub Landlord

I’ve got a fairly regular gig reviewing modern military books for the ‘Literary Review’, Britain’s least up-its-own-arse literary magazine, but inevitably the instruction from the editor are quite clear:  ‘You’ve got a thousand words so stick to the point!’  (‘you driveling wanker!’, she probably adds, under her breath). Consequently, I’ve decided to use this blog to put up a few reviews of books, movies and other stuff that I’ve enjoyed with the added bonus that I can roam a bit more freely than I would be able to in a paid piece.  So here goes.

I’ve never met Al Murray* but I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw ‘The Pub Landlord’ in action, and I’ve bored my kids rigid with witty bon mots shamelessly stolen from him ever since:  ‘Where would we be without rules?  France’.  You get the picture.

But I’m not a comedy fanboy and until I bumped into him on Twitter, I had no idea about his fascination with military history.  Having read his new book ‘Watching War Films with My Dad’, a veil has been lifted from my eyes.   It turns out that a significant proportion of our early lives might have been pretty much interchangeable.

I’m a few years older than Al but for both of us, the cultural legacy of the Second World War looms large, as it does for many of our generation.  Al’s father served as a National Serviceman after World War Two and then carried on as a Territorial Army officer afterwards but managed to inculcate in his son his own deep fascination with the history of the conflict.

Which is not dissimilar to what happened to me.  My dad was fifteen when ‘The War’ broke out.  He was born and brought up in a small town in mid-Wales where his dad – my grandfather – owned the draper’s shop on the high street.

As it happens my grandfather was one of the town’s war heroes.  He had gone to London to seek his fortune in the early years of the 20th century and had ended up working at John Lewis’s department store on Oxford Street.  When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered for the Queen Victoria Rifles, the Territorial infantry regiment recruited from the East End of London where he lived.  He rose through the ranks to sergeant, serving on the Western Front before, in 1916, being commissioned in the field into the City of London Fusiliers.  So it was as an officer that, in 1918, he won the Military Cross commanding a trench mortar battery.  During the autumn offensive which finally defeated the German Army, he took one of his mortars out of cover and used it to neutralize a series of interlocking machine gun positions which were pinning down the advance in his sector.  Neat huh?

Clearly this had an impact on my dad.  His father, a clever but self-educated man, had managed to raise himself up from – in effect – the peasantry to become a respectable member of the provincial middle classes largely as a result of his martial valour.  It was a lesson my dad took to heart.

But it was not to be.  Dad was bright. Despite having to do his degree in two years, he managed to get the top First in 1943 and, instead of going into the army as he’d imagined, he was exempted from military service and drafted as an industrial chemist for Albright and Wilson’s in Birmingham, where he worked on refining the fillings for the incendiary bombs which were to be rained on Germany as the bomber offensive reached high gear.  His only military service was as an Officer-Cadet Corporal in the ‘Senior Training Corps’[1] at the university:  ‘the elite of Dad’s Army’ as he used to jokingly describe it.

I don’t know if he was disappointed by this, but I do know that he followed the course of the war with obsessional interest.  Brooke, Montgomery and, above all, Churchill were his absolute heroes; Slim, de Gaulle and Eisenhower weren’t far behind.  They stood tall against the Nazis (and obviously the Japanese in Slim’s case). For the rest of his life he devoured every book he could find about them.  He could talk through the fall of France in 1940 more or less day by day and he would pass long car journeys by telling us the story of Alamein, D Day or Arnhem.

The first film my dad took me to see  was the ‘Battle of Britain’ at the Marble Arch Odeon in – I suppose – 1969 when I was just five.  I loved it, particularly the bit when the Stuka pilot was shot so that his goggles filled up with blood. As was the custom in those days, we got a lavishly illustrated souvenir programme with lots of stuff about how the film was made which I kept for donkey’s years.

By then I’d already started making Airfix models, with much maternal help (dad was a big man with hands like shovels, he captained the University of Wales 1st XV as a second row: fine handicrafts weren’t his thing) and he explained to me that the reason that the German aircraft looked different to the ones I’d made was because they were actually post-war Spanish version of the original German planes.  It wasn’t until much later that I wondered why Spain was making early 40’s propeller-driven military aircraft for use in the jet age: the answer is, basically, that Fascists are fucking idiots.

Thereafter, it was a roller coaster of enthusiastic juvenile militarism.  Early dabbling in Airfix Spitfires, Hurricanes, Stukas and Messerschmidts led on to Action Man.  Between us, my brother and I eventually had about twelve of them, in various states of decrepitude, ranging from the earliest, with painted hair and fixed hands, to the last, with gripping hands, ‘eagle eyes’ and astroturf hair and beards (for the naval ones).  Alpha to Omega. This was the toy of my childhood.

My brother Simon and I were fully equipped for Action Man wars.  Apart from the soldiers (OK Al, dolls) we had the armoured car, the Scorpion light tank and – I seem to remember – a helicopter, together with a plethora of uniforms.  Army officer; paratrooper; frogman; German stormtrooper; Foreign Legionnaire; the whole nine yards.  We collected Action Man ‘stars’ and earnestly supplemented the retail goodies with the stuff you couldn’t get from the shops.  My brother got the Mountie outfit with the fierce but rigid dog; I got two Action Men naked in plain, brown wrappings. Kinky.

Around about my eleventh birthday, I discovered Japanese Tamiya models.  There was shop near us in South Kensington called Seagull Models and it was there I bought my first Tamiya 1:35th scale tank.  It was a German Panzer Mark 2 which came with a little set of Afrika Korps figures.  These were great, far more detailed than the polythene Airfix 1:32 scale toy soldiers that my brother and I played with.  After this start, I began to acquire the paints, brushes and other paraphernalia that you need to make a really good job, and slowly but surely I got hooked.  I reckon that between the ages of 11 and about 17 I always had some kind of 1:35th scale modelling project on the go.

Alongside the models came the books.  My dad had a good library of World War Two literature which I had ploughed through, but my own collection soon became pretty respectable too, and actually hasn’t stopped growing.  All of which has meant that I’ve become pretty much impossible to watch war films with.  Inevitably they use the wrong tanks, the wrong uniforms and the wrong guns. I now find I sit in front of them, pointing out these little failings to anyone around me.  This usually means I end up watching war films alone.  The same is also true of spy films:  having spent a significant chunk of my life working in intelligence, the extent of my spy-related, pettifogging, nit-pickery knows no bounds.

So I was gratified to learn that this behavior pattern isn’t just me.  Al Murray does it too.  He identifies the 1960s era Leopard 1 tank in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (set in 1944) as a particular bête noir (actually this doesn’t bother me too much, the Leopard was pretty much the descendant of the World War Two Panther – just look at the hull shape) and he rightly excoriates the 1960s shite-fest that is (or was) ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ which used crappy and insignificant post-war American M48 tanks as ‘King Tigers’.  So we’re definitely singing off the same hymn sheet (having said that, he does misidentify the ‘Panzerlied’ in the film as being the ‘Horst Wessel’ song.  Tsk, tsk, Al:  one ‘War Bore’ point to me).

I suppose the big difference between me and Al Murray is that I took my obsession with military history to what I saw as its logical conclusion and became a soldier.  I don’t know if I expected that this would get the whole military thing ‘out of my system’ but the fact is that it hasn’t.  I’m still annoying wife, kids and anyone else who watches a war film with me as much as I ever did, and I’ve actually extended my range to include the present day.  Don’t give me your gritty, Iraq-based dramas, muthafuckas:  I was there!

Action Man:  gripping hands, realistic hair but, alas, no eagle eyes.

Action Man: gripping hands, realistic hair but, alas, no eagle eyes.

‘Watching War Films with my Dad’ is a funny book but it’s thoughtful as much as knockabout, and informative too.  It would be easy to forget that Al Murray is an Oxford history graduate but he is, and a sharp historian’s mind informs the text.  It’s the complete package for the military pedant:  you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll find out who invented canned food and why.

So, highly recommended.  Incidentally, if you want my take on the most realistic war film, it’s ‘Downfall’, the classic account of the last days in Hitler’s bunker in 1945 (though don’t get me started about Waffen-SS troops wearing dot-pattern camouflaged helmet covers – I mean, for God’s sake!).  But if you want to know how modern day British soldiers behave, I’d recommend the werewolf black comedy ‘Dog Soldiers’: it’s absolutely bang on.

Buy it from Amazon

* Since I wrote this I have, and a very nice chap he is too!

[1] I think this was actually the ‘Senior Division of the Officer Training Corps’.  In those days, the ‘Junior Division’ of the OTC was what we would now call the CCF in Public Schools and Grammar Schools; the ‘Senior Division’ were the University OTCs.