Wednesday, August 07, 1991

4. A most interesting battle to follow from behind

I admit it now without equivocation, that the final report on my riding abilities when I left the Shop was "Very Indifferent. Has no Ability." Very fairly put. In fact, digressing, I remember no reports on myself during my army career except this one about horsemanship and a later one by a distinguished general, who, at a crucial time when it was soon to be decided whether or not I was to be a future brigadier myself, wrote "I scarcely know this officer. He seems to have improved his unit. He has certainly improved his officer's mess.” That he should have been required to write on the capabilities of an officer who did not serve under him was due to the peculiarities of the confidential report system of the day. That he should have taken no trouble to make my acquaintance showed him in an indifferent light. That I should not have brought myself forcibly to his notice demonstrates either my lack of ambition or my modest retiring nature.

The Shop in my day was commanded by a Gunner Major-general; a kindly man whom one seldom saw. He had the new cadets, called Snookers - (Did the name of the game, invented in India at Ootacamund, come from some remembrance of the Royal Military Academy? This would he suitable Thesis for a Ph.D) to a meal during their first term and he lectured once to my term and perhaps others on the Battle of Cambrai, which, he said, was a most interesting battle to follow from behind. This unconscious witticism delighted us. He also talked to us at the end of our last term before we left on being commissioned. He advised us to persuade our parents to supply large quantities of clothes, and he added that he was still wearing clothes supplied by his own parents thirty or so years before.

The remaining hierarchy were Gunners, Sappers, one Signals Captain, only one Infantry Officer, who instructed in infantry tactics, and an officer from the French army. What they taught proved of little value, it was too theoretical, but some sediment must have stayed in the mind. I know for instance how to make a map and can still not drive up the A2 bypassing Sidcup without glancing at the hordes of houses which cover the Trigonometrical Points which then formed the data from which our maps were made. I can even see through the mists of years the footbridge over the electrified railway from which one future distinguished Royal Engineer officer dropped his alidade, the apparatus through which one viewed the Trig points. This fell on both the live and neutral rail and disappeared in a flash of fire. As he looked aghast, his shock increased when a steam train came in sight. "Not so soon, " he is alleged to have murmured. "They can't have found out so soon.”

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