In the Army Now

Leanne Lucas

A far cry from "GI Jane", but a step up for the antics of Goldie Hawn in "Private Benjamin", the Officer Training Corps (OTC) assessment weekend in November was perhaps the toughest physical workout that two hundred and forty-five of London’s brightest and most adventurous new student recruits had attempted to date.

Through Gas Mask
Photo: Jan Knapik

Hopeful recruits began to arrive at OTC headquarters as directed from 1700 hours. Immediately they were registered and given a number, having been in the process assigned to a syndicate, that, if they were successful was likely to become their permanent syndicate for the next three years.

Mingling with the crowd I paused to ask a few of them "why are you here?" Each answered with the usual naïve responses. "I thought it would be interesting", "something new and challenging". Basically they’d all been lured by the action man pictures on display at the Fresher’s Fair and the promise of a weekly pay cheque (£26.11 per day tax–free, plus expenses). "War games for big children" was how potential recruit, Alexander Patterson, put it.

By 2000 hours we were heading south into the dense jungle of Tunbridge Wells where each new recruit would face the challenges of a gruelling weekend of physical exertion, be forced to run 3 miles through virgin terrain and be confronted with life and death situations designed to test one’s ability to cope under pressure in situations beyond his control.

All right, it wasn’t quite like that. The gruelling weekend could in fact be narrowed down to one full day of admittedly fairly strenuous physical exertion, the most difficult part of which was probably the five o’clock start, although the three mile run (on an asphalt circuit), did sort out the men from the boys, or, so as not to be sexist, the ones with metal in their gut. The life and death situations, if not the dodgy minestrone soup dished up upon our arrival, probably refers to the supervised command tasks enacted by the recruits.Platoon Commander 2Lt. Alison Bottom, a final year Sports, Science and History student at Surrey University had the altogether more enjoyable task of assessing the new recruits. "Team work and leadership skills" she said were the two things they were most looking for.

Photo: Leanne Lucas

Once inside this seemingly-austere military world I quickly realised that if I was to get on I would have to learn the lingo. My first telephone conversation with the Adjutant went something like this:

Me: "Ah, hullo. Could I speak to the Adjunct please, I think his name is Officer Clewley". (I’d been told three times by now that it was in fact the Adjutant, but being unfamiliar with this word I had decided to substitute what I thought was far more like to be what they were saying).
Adjutant: "Can I help you?"
Me: "Ah, well, maybe. My name is Leanne Lucas and I’m a student photographer, and ah, I’m wandering, well ahh…"
Adjutant: "You’re not very familiar with military terms are you Leanne."
Me: "Well ahh, how can you tell?"
Adjutant: "Firstly I am the Adjutant, spelt A..d..j.. (you get the message), secondly I’m not an Officer but a Captain and lastly my name is Clowlow, Captain Ade Clowlow."
Me: "Oh, right. Well I’m off to a good start then…"

They’re a little bit touchy about the lingo, especially the TLAs: army speak for three letter abbreviations (a little army humour). As I said we were served up some dodgy soup upon our arrival, well I’m told the technical term for food is "scoff", which obviously refers to the five minutes or less you have to "scoff" it down. Sleep, although there was little of it to be had over the weekend, is called "gonk" and if you’re someone who sleeps too much you’re likely to be labelled a "schlaffen-monster". After the "scoff" and a briefing of what lay ahead the troops had to get "squared away" (tidy their quarters) and over the weekend a lot of people were "cutting about", that is working quite hard, dashing about. "Double away" was a frequently bellowed command, and upon hearing it the troops were expected to break into a canter in order to reach their destination faster. With regard to the command tasks, a number that I saw had "all gone tits up".

Photo: Jan Knapik

Once you get a grip on the language, getting by in the army is not that bad. I attached myself to Syndicate 290 for the weekend, deciding it would be infinitely easier to follow the progress of ten rather than to attempt to follow all two hundred and forty five recruits. By 2330 hours most of the recruits were in their barracks, tired but excited by the prospect of what lay ahead. The bar was off limits that night.

My alarm was set for 0400 hours, this allowed sufficient time for me to get my gear ready and be at the barracks to catch the energetic awakenings of those eager student recruits, raring to go. The first alarm went off at 0430 hours but movement was minimal, a hand stretched out and the alarm was silenced. At 0445 hours the same thing. Finally at 0500 hours, at the sound of the third alarm life stirred as somebody struggled to their feet and to the displeasure of many turned on the lights. By 0515 hours they had donned their "coveralls" standard army greens, "squared away" and fronted up to the cookhouse for a hearty cooked breakfast.

Syndicate 290 cruised into an easy morning of attending to the necessary bureaucracy, completing medical tests which included the usual hearing, sight and urine tests. Asthmatics and colour-blinds need not apply. After delays at the medical centre it was eventually necessary to reschedule the medicals. The remainder of the morning was spent indoors debating various topics that allowed the students to display their ability to reason and to engage in intelligent adult conversation. Such controversial issues as "women in the front line" and "is private education unnecessary and divisive?" divided the group. After group discussions the students were required to give a five minute talk on a subject of their choice which included everything from the ‘history of cinema’ to ‘moneymaking’.

After lunch, and with most of the mundane tasks behind them, the group made their way across the fields to the command task course where each would be given their own command task to solve while Officers looked on, their clipboards perched on their arm as they busily penned the future of each applicant. A limited number of resources, usually a rope, a plank and two shorter poles, were placed at the team’s disposal. A problem was mooted which required them to get from A to B without breaking a few well-chosen rules and the team was then left to their own devices. Some daring and dangerous solutions were attempted, some successful, others, well, at best they amused the officers.

Photo: Jan Knapik

The BFT, or Basic Fitness Test and Assault Course came last on our list of the days events, except for the medicals which had been rescheduled for 1900 hours. The BFT was no more and no less than a three mile run which had most of the syndicate quivering in their boots. A jaunty pace was adopted for the first round, it slowed on the way up the hill but gathered speed on the flat and even got up a gallop on the way down, but cracks began to show in the second and third laps, and after the first few dashed across the finish line in the style of "Chariots of Fire" cheered on by fellow recruits, the rest trickled in, worthy ambassadors for unfit students across the country.

Congregated around the Assault course were the majority of the Officers, including the Adjutant with his camera poised over the muddy brown water that threatened under the "Queen Mary", a precarious looking rope swing. It was easy to see that this was where most of the laughs were to be had, as these aspiring soldiers dropped, and I quote, like "U-boat commanders" into the murky waters below.

With the BFT and the Assault course out of the way and several of the team either soaking wet or covered in mud or both, there was just time enough to hit the showers, eat, and to complete the medicals before rocking up to the bar to get thoroughly pissed, and get pissed they did.

Those in command had generously granted a sleep-in for Sunday morning, although all hands were expected to be on deck by 0545 hours. Rooms had to be cleaned, toilets and showers scrubbed and everyone was required to be on parade and ready for selection at 0800 hours. Of the original two hundred and forty-five candidates, two hundred and sixteen were selected. Three of the original ten I followed were unsuccessful, a blow to the team spirit and camaraderie, but the unsuccessful applicants were quickly whisked away and the successful were marched off to swear allegiance to "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors" and to officially start their training as soldiers in the OTC. Ropes
Photo: Leanne Lucas

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