The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

3. The universal perversion

War is, after all, the universal perversion. We are all tainted: if we cannot experience our perversion at first hand we spend our time reading war stories, the pornography of war; or seeing war films, the blue films of war; or titillating our senses with the imagination of great deeds, the masturbation of war.

John Rae, The Custard Boys

The blood that flowed in Spud’s veins was khaki-coloured. He was the son of an army officer. He lived for the Corps, officially known as the CCF, the Combined Cadet Force. He was its captain. He was an under-officer, the highest possible rank, and therefore, when in uniform, carried a silly little stick under his arm and wore a Sam Browne and brown shoes, rather than the blancoed belt, gaiters and black boots natural to lower forms of life. He felt that at Yarborough the Corps — along with Corps-like discipline in the house — was all that stood between civilisation and catastrophe. To Spud, militarism was glorious, in whatever cause.

To me it was inglorious. I was a drip and a pansy, I know: he had told me so. I would fight tooth and nail to defend what I loved and what I stood for, but I have never seen eye to eye with the professional fighter, nor — though I am no doubt being utterly unfair — have I ever had much sympathy with the military mind.

I could therefore never find it in me to be serious about the Corps. Rifle drill with .303 Lee-Enfields of Boer War vintage bored me silly. So did stripping a Bren gun and naming the barrel nut retainer plunger. So did crawling through undergrowth with bracken in my hat and boot polish on my face. So did the military philosophy of life. If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, pick it up. If you can’t pick it up, whitewash it. No military man I have met has ever impressed me. No, I am wrong there. There was one who did.

Two years before, having graduated with our Cert A, Andrew and I had spurned the rival enticements of the other sections of the Corps — the Infantry, the Engineers, the Signals, and the RAF Squadron — and had joined the RA, the Royal Artillery, the Gunners, because they were a small and congenial group. We practised on our only weapon, an antique 25-pounder. There were drawbacks. Having no tractor to pull it, we had painfully to manhandle the beast in and out of its stable. And having, of course, no ammunition, we could only play games with our toy. By now Andrew was in charge of the section. The perpetual success-story, he was already a CSM. I was still a sergeant and likely to stay that way.

At the start of the Easter holidays we were obliged to spend a few days in camp at Otterburn, the artillery range in the wilds of Northumberland. We begrudged the time and yearned for a bit of peace after the stresses of term, but at least we would be firing one of our beasts with real ammunition. Six of us went, a complete gun crew, sharing a single large tent.

There was less army bull than we had feared, and the first morning we were taken out to the range in a truck towing a limber and a 25-pounder. These we unhitched, and the truck departed. Since schoolboys and live ammunition are, wisely, not allowed together except under close supervision, we had a regular officer with us, a lieutenant who had apparently got out of bed on the wrong side. He watched irritably and irritatingly as we set things up. Andrew was of course Number 1, in command. I was Number 3, perched on the little seat in charge of the sights.

The technicalities of aiming and firing heavy artillery are complicated and tedious. But you need to know that, more often than not, the crew can not see the target, which may be several miles away over the hill. So there has to be an OP, an Observation Post, from which the target can be seen. Gun crew and OP are in radio contact, and the crew relies solely on the OP for instructions on range and bearing. Since the first shot is most unlikely to be on target, the OP, on observing where it lands, orders the crew to adjust the aim up or down, this way or that, until the target is found.

We knew the drill well in theory, and it seemed to work out straightforwardly in practice. But the lieutenant was grumbling in the background about the time we took. All very well for him — he had done it in earnest umpteen times before. It was the first time for us, and when firing live shells full of high explosive, deadly and expensive, it seemed rather important to get it right.

I carefully calibrated the sights on a fixed point, Andrew checked my work, and together we worked out the grid reference of our position on the map. The radio operator passed this on to the OP. There was a pause while the OP calculated the target’s bearing and distance from the gun and hence the necessary elevation and propellant charge.

This information was radioed to us. The operator wrote it down, read it back to confirm it, and gave it to Andrew. Andrew repeated the figures to me, and I set the elevation and bearing. The gun had to be traversed round a surprisingly long way, and I was obscurely disturbed. But I was busy going through my drill of adjusting the sights, as one has to do every time the gun is moved. Andrew again checked everything. The others loaded first the shell and then the cartridge containing the correct charge.

When we were ready, “Ready,” the operator told the OP.

“Fire,” came the order back.

“Fire!” shouted Andrew.

I pushed down the handle, there was a huge bang, and the barrel recoiled viciously and slid back. The operator reported to the OP that we had fired, and a few seconds later we heard a distant crump. Wheeee! This was fun! I did my adjustments again, the others whipped out the smoking cartridge, and we waited for corrections to elevation and bearing.

After a while the radio crackled. “Fall of shot not observed. Check settings and fire again.”

Andrew, worried, ordered the others to reload, and came forward to re-check the settings. “They are OK,” he said.

I still had a rough picture of the map in my head, and suddenly realised what was bothering me.

“Andrew! There’s something wrong with the bearing. Where’s the map? Right. We’re here. 6500 yards at 124 degrees takes us roughly there. Christ! That’s outside the range! The boundary’s there.”

As Andrew was absorbing it, the lieutenant’s sardonic voice broke in. “You realise that while you’re dithering we’ve lost the war. If you’ve checked the settings, then fire.”

“Sir, there’s some mistake. I’d like to check with the OP.”

“All you have to check is the settings. Give me the figures.”

I slid off the seat to make way for him, and Andrew showed him the paper. “They’re correctly set,” he said presently. “So fire.”

“But sir, we seem to be firing out of the range,” pleaded Andrew, who had snatched another look at the map.

“Gunner. You are an amateur. The OP is manned by professionals. Obey your orders, unless you want to be put on a charge.”

“But sir! The bearing’s wrong … ”

“Are you trying to teach us our business, Gunner? You’ve gone far enough. Stand aside. I am taking over this gun. Number 3, fire!”

I gulped and steeled myself to disobey. I would have obeyed Andrew, because I trusted him. But not this idiot.

“No, sir. I won’t. We might kill someone.”

He moved threateningly towards me, but at that moment the radio operator shouted “Cease fire immediately.” And after a moment, “Sir, OP wants to speak to you.”

The lieutenant took the mike, identified himself, and listened. Then he picked up the whole radio and walked away from us, apparently arguing. Five minutes later a Landrover appeared and the lieutenant came back with the radio. He seemed shaken.

“Stay here. Don’t touch the gun. Someone will come to pick you up.” He climbed into the Landrover and was driven away, leaving us to gape at each other.

We pored over the map, and with the protractor we measured as accurately as we could the range and bearing we had been given. We pencilled in the line of fire.

“Leon’s right,” said Andrew. “Our shell landed there. It’s not far from a farm. Oh God, I only hope … ” In agony of mind he sat down on the trail and hid his face in his hands.

I put my arm round his shoulder. “Whatever’s happened, Andrew, it’s not your fault. It’s that bastard’s. And the OP’s. Listen, everyone. I reckon questions are going to be asked. We can’t let Andrew be misrepresented. Let’s try to remember exactly what was said.”

Between us, we got it sorted out. Not enhanced, but just the naked truth, word for word as near as we could recall.

For a long time nothing happened. The operator tried to raise the OP, but they were evidently not listening in on our wavelength. We lounged unhappily around and some of us toyed with our packed lunch. Number 2 tried to lift our spirits with a Tom Lehrer song.

I always will remember,
’Twas a year ago November
I went out to stalk some deer
On a morning bright and clear.
I went and shot the maximum
The game laws will allow —
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow.

That was too close to the bone. “Drop it, Rich. Please.” We relapsed into misery.

It was an hour before a Landrover drove up. Not the lieutenant back, please God. But no, a colonel, no less, got out, followed by a captain. We sprang to attention. The colonel returned Andrew’s salute and looked us over carefully, noting our shoulder flashes and badges.

“Your name, CSM?” he asked. We knew that the real army regarded CCF ranks as toys for boys, but this man seemed to respect them.

“Goodhart, sir.” The captain wrote it down.

“Stand your men easy, CSM.” Andrew relayed the order. “Right, gentlemen. Two serious things have happened this morning which we need to get to the bottom of. I suspect they are not unconnected. A gun — your gun — fired out of the range. And Lieutenant Mathias accuses two of you of insubordination.”

“Please, sir.” Andrew could not contain his anxiety. “Our shot landed near a farm. Did it do any damage?”

“It killed a sheep. Bad enough. The farmer is rightly furious. But it might have been much worse. How do you know where it landed?”

“We plotted the range and bearing on the map, sir.” He held it out, and the captain compared it with a map of his own and nodded. “That was after the lieutenant left. But it was when we were about to fire our second shot that we realised something was wrong. That was when I refused to obey him.”

“And so did I, sir.” I could not let Andrew face the music alone.

“And your name is?”

“Michaelson, sir. Number 3.” The captain wrote that down too.

“Thank you, sergeant. I think it would be best, CSM, if you tell us exactly what happened, in as much detail as you can.”

Andrew told the story straight and plain, giving me the credit for spotting the mistake. The colonel never took his eyes off his face, but the captain made notes.

“Thank you, CSM. That’s very clear.” He looked round the rest of us. “Can any of you add to that, or amend it?”

Heads were shaken. “No, sir,” someone said, “that’s exactly right.”

I was reminded of those lines in the Mikado, ‘And in this case it all took place exactly as he says,’ and suppressed an idiotic desire to giggle.

“And you haven’t touched the gun since? Just check the settings, please, Captain.”

The captain took Andrew’s paper, compared it with one his own, and checked the sights and elevation. “All in order, sir.”

“Wait here a minute.” The colonel and captain strolled away, talking quietly.

Soon they came back. “The lieutenant’s account and yours tally as to fact. They differ in the motives they ascribe to you. I have to submit a report on this morning’s events, and in it I will accept the reasons you give for your actions. A truck will come soon and take your gun back to the park. It will take you on to the office, where you, CSM, will dictate your account exactly as you told it to me. It will be typed out, and you will all read it. If you all agree with it, you will sign it. And that will be the end of the matter as far as you are concerned.

“Now, obviously none of you will be doing National Service. Do any of you intend to join the regular army or the Territorials?” Heads were shaken again, and the colonel dropped his formality. “Right. In that case, I want to talk to you entirely unofficially. Let’s all sit down. It’ll be more relaxing.”

We sat on the heather in front of him, in a semicircle.

“Look, boys. There’ve been two cock-ups today, and you’ve been the victims of both. I’m sorry about that. The first was sheer carelessness in the OP, in giving you the wrong bearing. It was a bad mistake, and we’re dealing with it. I won’t go into details.

“What does concern you is that the mistake should have been picked up by the officer with you. He knows this range, and he should have checked, mentally if not on the map, that the bearing was a reasonable one. All credit to you, who don’t know this range, for spotting so quickly that it was not reasonable.

“Now when the OP failed to observe your first shot, it assumed it was a dud shell. That’s the usual reason. But it checked its calculations and, as soon as it realised the mistake was its own, it properly ordered you to cease fire. Meanwhile the lieutenant had made a second mistake. Instead of listening to your concerns, he pulled rank. If your concerns had been misguided, I might not be saying this. But they were well-founded, and you had the courage of your convictions.

“Now, I don’t suppose you found it easy to disobey him?” Andrew and I shuddered and shook our heads. “That’s right and proper. But, contrary to popular opinion, soldiers are supposed to think and use their common sense. Disobeying orders for reasons of conscience is a grey area we needn’t go into. Disobeying orders when you know that obeying them means shooting up innocent English farms is altogether another matter. In refusing to fire, you were of course entirely right. All credit to you again for having the courage to refuse.

“One last thing. Army officers aren’t infallible or perfect. They never have been and never will be, because they’re human. But I’m afraid some pretend to be. They think it lessens their authority if they admit to mistakes or weaknesses. But the men they lead are humans too. And they like to think they’re led by blokes who’re just like themselves but who have the gift of leadership. The good leader doesn’t claim perfection. He is honest. He is seen to be human, weaknesses and all. That’s how he wins the hearts of his men. And that applies to all walks of life, not just to the army. Remember that.

“Any questions? Then that’s all, boys. And thank you.”

We leapt to attention, Andrew saluted, and as soon as the Landrover was out of sight we let our relief rip. Amid the euphoric back-slapping, a hug between Andrew and me went unremarked. For the next two days we had a different officer, friendly and helpful.

Jumping ahead, to pursue this military theme to its end, we found when we got back to Yarborough for the summer term that we had both been promoted.

“Well done, chaps,” said Major Austin, the commandant of the Corps. “O.C. Otterburn requested it, and told me why. I’m proud of you.”

So Andrew was now an under-officer, wore a Sam Browne and carried a silly little stick. I was now a CSM, and took an unexpected pride in ripping off my sergeant’s stripes and sewing the crowns on the sleeves of my battledress. I felt, for once, that I had earned them. In my pride I sewed one crown right through to the other side of the sleeve, which I only discovered when I tried to put the battledress on. I had time for no more than a snip with the scissors, and went on parade with the crown flapping in the breeze. Luckily nobody noticed, or nobody who mattered.

One Thursday, instead of playing with our gun, we had a session at the .22 rifle range behind the armoury. I had never been there before, and to my astonishment found I was not my usual abject failure. I left the range having become a First Class Shot, and proudly sewed a fabric rifle on my sleeve above the CSM’s crown. It actually whetted my ambition. I asked Andrew to book another afternoon for us, and this time I made the grade to the top. Off came the First Class Shot badge, to be replaced by the brass crossed rifles of the Marksman. I rather enjoyed ruining army clothing by punching the necessary holes in it. I thought no more highly of the military, but I did think a little more highly of myself.

Then Field Day came, when we played soldiers for the whole day. By far the largest of Yarborough’s games fields was the Middle, vast enough to accommodate eighteen simultaneous games of cricket. Thither with much grunting, in the absence of a tractor, we lugged our 25-pounder, and under Andrew’s eagle eye — he threatened slaughter if we damaged his precious pitches — set it up overlooking the town. This time our targets were in sight, and we did not need an OP. And this time it was not real life, and we had nothing better than sawdust in our cartridges. Nonetheless we spent a disgracefully if theoretically bloodthirsty day blowing up the classrooms and Hall and School House. By the time we got home to MacNair’s, which we had carefully spared, the rest of Yarborough was a wilderness of smoking ruins.

A week later the whole CCF paraded for the last time on the Binchester, the main rugger field, so called because it was beside the Binchester road. While the military band blew and thumped itself crazy, a brass hat arrived by helicopter. He took the salute as we marched past. He uttered some ill-chosen words. The buglers bugled the Last Post and the banners were lowered, furled, and no doubt stashed away in some museum. The Corps was no more. Two per cent of the school, led by Spud, lamented the end of manliness, of discipline, of the empire, of civilisation. Ninety eight per cent breathed a collective sigh of relief and handed in its kit.

So did I. All except the Marksman badge, which I have to this day, my one and only trophy of sporting prowess. If, that is, you call shooting a sport …