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When Bugles Call - Training at Chelsea Barracks

by ambervalley

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People in story: 
Mr Len Waller
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Contributed on: 
12 July 2004

'Guards Precision' - even on early-morning PT parade taken from a bedroom window of Bandirran House

I was born on 31st January 1918 at Somercotes Hill, Somercotes, Derbyshire to parents who were Derbyshire people Ida and Arch Waller. I had one sister Jean. I grew up there and fully expected to work, marry and spend the rest of my life there, which I did eventually. In 1939 when war broke out I volunteered to join up but I very nearly didn't join the army at all.

When I went for my medical they found sugar in my urine and deferred me for 3 months. My parents were quite worried; they thought i'd got diabetes at 21. As it turned out, it was nothing serious and I still have the problem in old age. Whenever I give a sample at the Out Patients Department bells start ringing and I’m hauled back to take more tests. The always turn out negative.

After my three months reprieve was up I took my doctor’s advice; on the morning when I went for my second medical I kept off sugar and they passed me A1. During the years that followed I often wished that on that fateful day I’d ladled sugar on my Shredded Wheat before I went to the Recruiting Centre to be told “If you can’t manage it, try running the tap.” But the idea never occurred to me at the time. It wasn’t patriotism, or anything like that. The idea of not joining the army never entered my head, that’s all.

But I can’t help wondering what my life would have been like if somebody had put me wise and I’d deliberately avoided doing my military service. I suppose I would have hated myself afterwards – I hope I would. I’d most likely have married Jean, who I’d been going out with for over a year. I certainly wouldn’t have married Joan, my present wife, who was only eight then. And that would have been a pity.

I joined the Grenadier Guards because I’d heard it was a select mob. I reported at the gate of Chelsea Barracks one day in early 1940, during one of the most severe winters we’d had. In the barrack square, parties of soldiers were pushing table-tops before them as snow-ploughs. I explained to the sergeant in the gatehouse that I was just going to dump my suitcase and then pop out for a walk along the Embankment.And I've never been to London before, and I said. “You’ll be allowed outside these gates in four weeks” he said, “When you look something like a guardsman.” That was the first inkling I had that perhaps I’d joined the wrong regiment. Ah, Well!

During those four weeks the squad of recruits of which I was a member became transformed from sloppy civilians into some semblance of soldiers. And it wasn’t done by kindness. Every day, we were marched and yelled-at up and down the barrack square. We were cursed, humiliated, insulted and worked until we were fit to drop. At the end of each day’s training we were allowed to relax by sitting astride our beds polishing and burnishing a bewildering array of equipment.
"Shining Parade" was made as difficult as possible for the recruit because of the traditional way everything had to be done. Army boots, when issued, had the pimply texture of chrome leather and the pimples had to be burned off smoothly with the heated handle of a spoon and the leather then treated with spit and boot polish in the correct proportions. This disgusting mixture was applied with a yellow duster wrapped around the index finger and stroked in small circles. It seemed like a penance dreamed up by some sadistic maniac. The whole business was time-consuming and it was fiendishly difficult at first to get a mirror finish on the toecaps before bedtime.
Nothing in the army is ever done without good reason. This "small circling" must have been devised as part of the grand strategy for reducing thinking individuals to the level of mindless morons. The same time-honoured method was also used to polish bayonet scabbards, cap-straps,and the pitted stocks of our First War rifles. Then there was the brasses to polish and the web-equipment to blanco. During Shining Parade, a Trained Soldier who was in charge of the room walked up and down the line of beds questioning us on the subject of Regimental history. Occasionally he would pick up a rifle or a boot. glance at it and throw it back on the bed. "Show me that, properly clean, in fifteen minutes," he'd say.
When all our kit was polished to the satisfaction of the Trained Soldier and the floor of the barrack-room reflected the legs of the beds and the coal bucket had been burnished until it looked like silver, we were allowed to stretch out on our beds and enjoy the only luxury left to us-sleep.
But not before we'd rolled back our blankets and spread most of our clothing, between layers of newspaper, on the matress to be pressed. Battledress trousers were a great worry. You had to fill your mouth with water and draw the trouser legs through your lips, moistening them so that they'd have a knife edge crease by morning. Getting into bed without disturbing that Chinese Laundryevery night was like lying down on a tightrope.
After Lights Out the Trained Soldier went out somewhere with his hair plastered down and wearing his best battledress. In the early hours he would return, roaring drunk. He'd burst into the room, switch on the lights,and begin singing "It aint what you do it's the way that you do it". It was the same every night that we were there. One night, a fellow whose name i never knew, a quiet chap from Watford, upstaged our Trained Soldier while he was in full song by leaping out of bed and having some sort of screaming fit. We never saw the bloke again, so at least one got away from the army. He was the only one i ever knew who managed it, though dozens tried.
The only parade i looked forward to at Chelsea was "Swank Parade" every saturday morning. The full regimental band formed up in the middle of the square and we tramped round and round the perimeter learning how to march with the sort of swagger that the Guards are noted for and saluting imaginary officers as we passed the "markers". The blast from the rank of trombones every time we marched past was one of the most thrilling sounds i have ever heard.
One evening during Shining Parade a sergeant came into the room. "Anybody here fond of music?" he shourted. Without thinking, i put my hand up. "Get dressed and report to the Officer's Mess" he said. The Trained Soldier and one or two of the squad started laughing. "You bloody fool!" someone said, "They want you to help move a piano in the Officer's Mess". But when i got down there i found a taxi waiting for me and a free ticket from the adjutant for a concert at Queen's Hall. I finished dressing myself in the back of the taxi as it whisked me through a blacked out London i'd never seen. I found my seat in the Stalls, hiding my polish-stained hands until the house lights dimmed. It was a song recital given by Richard tauber, then at the height of his achievement, before he saught popular acclaim.
That was the first of a series of events that had nothing to do with the army but which made life endurable.
One of the rumours going around the latrine grapevine was the one about them "putting something in the cocoa". We did'nt really believe it. But then a recruit who was newly married went on compasionate leave because his abandoned bride was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He boasted that the second thing he was going to do when he got home was take his pack off. When he came back he said ruefully that there might be something in the rumour after all. His wife had been dissapointed in his prowess as a lover.
Our preliminary training at Chelsea Barracks seemed to us to be unnecessarily harsh; more like a term of punishment than anything else. When it was over and we were told that we were to join the Training Battalion at Windsor, we imagined that things could only get better.

You can read Len Wallers full story by contacting him at 70 Birchwood Lane, Somercotes, Derbys.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - When Bugles Call - Training at Chelsea Barracks

Posted on: 12 July 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Len

Your story brought a wry smile of recognition to my face. Way after your time, in 1948 I joined the Royal Artillery, three months later I was sent on an twelve week junior leadership course with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. Recruit training with the RA had been bad enough, but the Grenadier Guards training was something else. If you can get through that you can get through anything :). I had almost completed the course when I caught chicken-pox and on recovery had to repeat the entire course. Posting after that ordeal to the Royal Horse Artillery was like going to a holiday camp.

I look forward to reading more of your service.

Kind regards,



Message 2 - When Bugles Call - Training at Chelsea Barracks

Posted on: 29 July 2004 by ambervalley

Peter I have passed your message on to Len, he now has three other contributions online all begin 'When Bugles Call' followed by Italy or Windsor Barracks or Wellington Barracks, I hope you enjoy them.

Sarah Seaton
Amber Valley

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