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A Soldier-----What Me? An extract from my book" "The Wearing o' the KHAKI"icon for Recommended story

by Pat Williams -Burr

Contributed by 
Pat Williams -Burr
People in story: 
Patricia Williams Iris Edwards Agnes McDougall
Location of story: 
Droitwich Spa
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 June 2005

True to tradition, our platoon sergeant was indeed beefy, blonde and blustery. Bursting with three-striped pride,she would delight in such comments as "Your shoes (cap, tunic, collar, tie)could look cleaner (straighter, tidier, smoother,etc. )" or "You are wearing the King's uniform-be proud of it!" This would evoke an hysterical idea that I could be wearing one of HM's cast offs-Oh! lese majeste!.

The supply of uniform,for most of us,was quite straightforward. There were some girls, however, whose over generous proportions needed special tailoring which temporarily resulted in a minority still waering civilian clothes on the parade ground.
As we were all completely green regarding army drill, the mixture of mufti and khaki resulted in the most chaotic melee you have ever seen. Our sergeant became hoarse, her face took on the most dangerous hue- " Up two three", Down two three ", " Eyes Right," "Eyes Left"--"Right dress" was indeed a challenge if one had the misfortune to stand next to a girl in mufti whose attire did not correspond in any way to the epaulette on the shoulder of a uniform by which one was supposed to line to one's immediate left!
Within a week of becoming a soldier, I was put on a charge. This meant a frog march to the orderly room to be quizzed by an officer for a misdemeanour not in keeping with King's Regulations.My crime was simple, naive, and very stupid. I was guilty of attending parade with dirty tunic buttons.
No doubt, there are many of you who would sympathise when I say how hard it is for me to rise first thing in the morning. To be rudely awakened by the most horrendous clanging of a handbell furiously swung by the sergeant who stood outside the dormitary, stentorously urging one to rise and shine, was not exactly my idea of gracious living.
A glance out of the grimy, unwashed window showed a dank and gloomy sky from which grey tears of rain fell, matching my mood and, if Hitler had known then of my innermost thoughts he would have been convinced he had another ally!! Most of my companians had dutifully polished their tunic buttons the night before . As usual, in my characteristic way, I had put off the chore until the morning. Ever optmistic, yawning fit to break my jaw, I reached out for my tunic and proceeded to breathe heavily on the buttons and a brisk rub made them shine like new gold. Smugly, I joined my platoon on the parade ground ( in peacetime, the hotel car park )buttons positively gleaming. Alas , two minutes exposure to that damk atmosphere resulted in the old gold changing to an old bronze with just a touch of green. No way could I re-polish as the inspection officer had arrived and we were brought to attention. From the look of horror on the sergeant's face, together with the raised eyebrows of the officer , I knew my fate, I was in for the high jump. I attempted the tiniest tremulous smile, appealing perhaps to a sense of humour? But no, our sergeant,like Queen Victoria, was not amused and ordered me sharply to report to H.Q. within five minutes of dismissal from the parade ground.

Seven days confined to barracks was my punishment-which I confess was deserved , not so much for insubordination as for my stupidity in thinking I could get the better of my superiors. Thus, was my initiation into the ATS.
In next to no time , the sergeant and I ( and no doubt many others ) declared a truce-that is, I at last realised the futility of fighting with Authority and was duly "broken in".

In addition to tunic and skirt, we were issued with a complete military trousseau, including hair brushes and boot brushes, button sticks ( with which one could easily clean one's tunic buttons I afterwards discovered! ) Three of everything in underwear including khaki bloomers-"passion killers" was the name given them by the opposite sex. Although we girls were not so much concerned about passion, we did feel rather like our own grandmothers-one girl gave us a mannequin parade, dressed in white singlet, drawers and good ,old-fashioned lisle stockings. The sight was almost music hall mirth and we then and there decided we would stick to our own personal underwear which, thank goodness, was not against Kings Regulations; and being able to keep our femininity with our cami-knickers and satin slips was good for our morale, which had become rather low since our entry into the regimented world.

Having fixed the whole company with uniform, the next consideration was our health. Vaccination and inoculation against various dreaded germs like T.B . tetanus, typhoid, etc. proved to be yet another ordeal for many of the young girls, most of whom were experiencing a first time away from home. Although they appeared to be enjoying their first real freedom from parental strictures--thetime came when they realised that one mode of discipline had been exchanged for another. Parents had been replaced by corporals and sergeants who whilst being firm and often kind, nevertheless lacked the loving understanding of a mother. Most NCOs were pleasant enough and sympathised, but inevitably there were those few who were " dressed in a little brief authority" and those bumptious corporals and sergeants could make life hell for the more timid among us. many girls who had hitherto borne the privations of service life with great courage, now collapsed in fear and trepidation at the sight of a needle, despite the medical officer's assurance that all would be well and that they " wouldn't feel a thing". They sobbed loudly and declared they wanted to go home to mother.

It was at this point, for the first time in my life, I knew the advantage of being an orphan. Having no parents to elicit sympathy, I was able to withstand these trials and tribulations better than those who longed for home.

Nowadays, young people leave home without a qualm, seeking adventure in big cities, all too eager to shake off the parental strings. But, you must remember, in the early nineteen-fortiesthe young had not yet taken on such self-confidence. There was still an air of diffidence in young girls who, until their emergence into the military world, had been lovingly protected by their parents. Sophistication was something one read about in magazines, or saw on cinema screens. Although no longer the simpering miss of Victorian or, indeed, Edwardian times, the average young girl was considered "respectable". Of course there was a nucleus of more hardened types but, on the whole, the majority of us were fairly innocent. That is , until we had experienced some months of army life, by which time we had become accustomed to the spartan conditions and were able to cope with the inevitable change of living cheek by jowl with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Living with people from different and varied walks of life gave one a great education in understanding human nature.

In the services, one met those from the north, south, east and west with their varied accents. Rich, poor, upper, middle and lower class--all in the same environment, living together ,tolerating each other's foibles and idiosyncrasies; learning different habits and ways of life peculiar to an area other than one's own.
Coping with communal living proved to be a great advantage and here , I must confess, although very reluctant to join the military service, the following three and a half years in the Army gave me the most excellent "finishing school" from which I emerged a much more mature and understanding person .

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