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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Bull, Blanco and Bastards

Over the next few months I was to experience (or perhaps “endure” would be a better word) the full range of  military training and discipline designed to convert me into a fighting machine.  However successful that turned out to be, the first two weeks were meant to knock the individuality out of each conscript and reduce them collectively to a “squad” of raw recruits.  From Day One we learned to look after our kit and watch our backs.  New recruits were easy prey for more experienced trainees who had already learned how to survive by taking advantage of others when the opportunity arose.  I learned that lesson on the very first day when, after dumping my kit on the bed allocated to me, I joined the rest of the bunch to march to the cookhouse for tea.  On my return I found one of my blankets had a huge tear in it; I’d given someone a perfect opportunity to swap old for new.  Any item of issued kit, if lost or damaged, had to be paid for before replacement.  A week later, after my first pay packet, a certain sum was deducted for “blankets-grey-one”.

From now on I was army recruit Sapper GRINSELL J., serial number 22727026, which was written into my passbook/paybook and stamped to record the historic event. (The Royal Engineers have always been referred to as “sappers”).

The next few days were spent getting used to surroundings not too far removed from my idea of a German prisoner-of-war camp minus the observation towers and search-lights.  Army everyday clothes consisted of rough denim jacket and baggy trousers (to think denim was to be the fashion in the sixties and beyond!), heavy studded boots and gaiters, dark blue beret with Royal Engineers badge and a webbing belt complete with brasses.

Each group of new recruits was formed into a “troop” of about 30 and there were three troops to a “squadron”.  Each troop had a Corporal non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) responsible for keeping order and discipline and each squadron had a Sergeant in overall control. 

It was soon clear that army routine started with what was commonly referred to as “bull” or “bullshit” to give it its full title. Bull  was designed to maintain the highest standards of personal tidiness, appearance and hygiene, taken to extreme lengths to ensure army discipline. The first priority was uniform, starting with boots which had to be buffed until you could see your own reflection in the toe-caps.  This could only be achieved by combining spit with polish, applied with a soft cloth.  All brasses - badge, buttons and buckles, had to be polished to a high shine and all webbing – belt, gaiters, pouches and rifle sling, were treated with “blanco” which came in a solid block of khaki distemper and applied with a wet brush.  Apart from the denims we were also issued with a best BD (battledress) which had to be perfectly pressed with all the seams in the right places.  Army issue shirts, made of thick rough material, were laundered together with underpants, socks, handkerchiefs, sheets and pillowcases but always had to be ironed and perfectly folded when not in use, ready for daily inspection.

Collectively occupants of each hut were responsible for keeping the inside spotlessly clean for inspection. Each recruit was responsible for his own bed space and locker where all his personal kit had to be displayed but we all had to ensure that the floor and other internal surfaces were clean and dust-free.  Also each hut had a central coke heater made of cast iron with a flue rising through he centre of the roof.  This had to be “black-leaded” using a cloth and buffed up with a brush to give it a shiny surface. There were usually two fire blankets to each hut, one filled with sand and the other with water.  These had to be painted white and were also included in the inspections.

Regular inspections were made by the Corporal in charge of the troop.  Weekly inspections were carried out by the Sergeant in charge of the squadron.  Both NCOs were soon to be referred to as “bastards” in common with their brethren in all military training camps.  As training developed over the weeks, so too did the natural hatred towards these two individuals of doubtful parentage! Put one foot wrong in front of them and you provoked a mouthful of verbal abuse known only to personnel.  Something more serious and you would be put on a charge, a form of punishment peculiar to the armed forces.  For trivial sins this meant carrying out “fatigues” like sweeping the square, cleaning the toilets or working in the kitchen washing pots or peeling spuds.

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