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.