Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge writes from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst: ” …chanting ‘kill, kill, kill’ approached the sandbag, screamed ‘en garde’ and stabbed it in the heart with full force.”
If you come down to the Academy today beware of a Senior Cadet with a rank slide and swagger in her step. Finally, Senior Term has begun and the distant prospect of Commissioning has turned smudge on the horizon to solid land mass; passing out ahoy.
The first week has been very good fun: seeing the gang (as I like to affectionately term 2 Platoon, Alamein Company) and jumping straight into the Law of Armed Conflict and Counter Insurgency campaigns. We deployed on a short, 24-hour exercise, Senior Stretch, to ensure that the “recess demons” were banished. The exercise comprised advance to contacts and night navigation. In the little personal administration time we were given before the night navigation, 2 Platoon stretched out on our bergens and dozed a little in the sunshine (finally, no more cold injuries). The Company Commander, Major Lytle AAC, surprised the few left awake.
“I don’t object to you sleeping during your admin time but I would prefer it if you did not sunbathe on exercise.”
One or two of the cadets hastily pulled down their t-shirts and coloured a shade of crimson.
There was another check to ensure no one had slacked off on fitness over the Easter break with Physical Fitness Assessment 4; sit-ups, press-ups and a mile and a half best effort. I was one of the chosen few called into Captain Webb’s office for a dressing down because my fitness had been found wanting.
“Miss Eldridge, you dropped four seconds on your PFA. What do you have to say for yourself?”
The mood of the cadets in Senior Term is different. A little sunshine but the training is exacting a price just as it has imbued us with skills and the knowledge of our own capability. If I were to choose one moment, one episode from last term, which took the civilian from me and replaced it with soldier that episode would be bayonet training.
“What makes the grass grow?”
“Blood, blood, blood.”
“What are we here for?”
“Kill, kill, kill.”
It is hard to believe that one hour can insert a splinter of steel into your very soul. The cult of initiation into the British Army betrays its pinnacle in bayonet training.
Forty or so Officer Cadets were marshalled into lines approaching straw sandbags by the duty Colour Sergeant whose sidekick, “the motivator” was waiting in the wings to exact physical degradation until you were bereft of sentient thought. I stood, stamping my feet, chanting “kill, kill, kill” in the beginning with reticence; civilisation preventing engagement with this bloodthirsty ritual. It took less than half an hour of leopard crawling through ditches or pulling myself along the ground in press-up position before I was too worn out to think at all.
We were given motivating speeches, and to act as we would do if an insurgent was trying to kill one of the soldiers under our command, an eighteen-year-old at that. I stomped the ground chanting “kill, kill, kill” approached the sandbag, screamed “en garde” and stabbed it in the heart with full force. I checked my bayonet and put my rifle in the high port.
The Company Commander told me afterwards he was never going to let me near a bayonet again. Of all the things to be good at bayonet training is not what I would have chosen but should the slimmest chance prevail (for some) and a situation call upon our training, we now know that we are steely-eyed dealers in death.
The price exacted by two terms at Sandhurst is the soft side; a glimmer is visible of why values and standards are so important to the British Army. You train hard to fight easy but fighting does not come naturally to most; it is altogether “other”, the aggression that must be controlled, yet at your fingertips as just another resource among many to be called upon in the loneliness of command.
In Junior Term we did not know what was going on half the time and were trained not to think. In Intermediate Term we were asked to remember how to think and now in Senior Term, to understand the complexity of current operations and the decisions that will shortly be ours to make, thinking is imperative. Just as it should be, the magnitude of responsibility that a Platoon Commander, an officer in the British Army, undertakes looms daunting.