A Comedy of Errors in the British Army UOTC: Part 6
We gonna yomp like its 1999.
So Christmas of ’98 came and went. My face went back to its normal size and shape after the ‘jaw-gate’ incident. I had a wire in my jaw, but it wasn’t wired shut, so I could carry on pretty much normally.
The first exercise of January 1999 took us back to Sennybridge. To my surprise it wasn’t raining. But this was only due to the mercury plummeting to below zero degrees centigrade. So instead of raining, it was snowing.
The whole of the Brecon Beacons was covered in a thick layer of snow. To be fair, the views were breath-taking.
It was also bloody cold!
Our gloves, socks and boots did little to stop our fingers and toes from going numb, but at least we didn’t get frostbite.
One of the nicest things about the snow was that it made it easier to see at night. There is a lot of contrast between a layer of crisp white snow and a somewhat dishevelled UOTC cadet.
It helped that I was prepared this time too. After the four-day-exercise-from-hell, lessons were learnt by all. I had brought a supply of baby wipes to clean any Cam Cream covered hands. I had tied tent pegs into the corner holes of my poncho to avoid losing them, and to make setting up my Basher easier. Flashlights were attached to pockets via lanyards. Issued-but-useless kit was discarded. Necessary-but-not-issued kit was obtained from one’s own pocket. The self-illuminating watch I had received as a Christmas present was attached firmly to my wrist.
Due to these preparations the weekend went well. There was only one minor hiccup, which took place during the night exercise.
We had formed up in the treeline at the edge of a field, laying prone to stay hidden. Due to being under the thick conifer trees it was very dark. I could see out across the field, but not what was right in front of me. The other section charged across the field towards the objective, whilst our section was ordered to lay down covering fire.
At last. "Get Some!" I thought.
My SA80A1 jammed. Because it was a SA80A1. It was too dark under the trees to see what I was doing, so I couldn’t clear the stoppage by eye. My hands were too numb from cold to do it via touch either. Not that I would have remembered what to do anyway, considering we have had all of 30 mins instruction on clearing stoppages, and this had been three months ago. We were then ordered to advance across the field too. So there I was, charging over the field making ‘dakka-dakka-dakka’ noises.
I’m sure ‘Johnny Foreigner’ would have found me terrifying.Not.
It was also this weekend I formulated my hypothesis regarding the ‘Kamikaze Arse Hamster’. My hypothesis was that the Brecon Beacons must be inhabited by a small furry animal, whose sole purpose in life is to crawl into your sleeping bag at night, insert itself into one’s rectum and then die. Its decomposition then causes unspeakably foul gasses to escape from said orifice.
Some of the other cadets didn’t believe in the ‘Kamikaze Arse Hamster’. They said it was the rat packs we were eating that was causing the noxious fumes. But I knew better.
Trust me, I was a second year Zoology student, I knew these things ;-)
Not long after this there was a paintball weekend. First up it was the UOTC verses some medical students. Obviously the UOTC won, since the cadets took it far too seriously.
Next up was the university vs university paintball matches, Cardiff vs Swansea, Bangor vs Aberystwyth etc. Both male and female cadets were taking part, and there was a Regimental Dinner coming up. At said dinner the female cadets would likely be wearing strappy or shoulderless dresses. Some of my colleagues thought it would be a hoot to deliberately shoot the female cadets in the upper back and shoulders, thus ensuring any exposed flesh would be covered in bruises come the Regimental Dinner.
Did I forget to mention that some of my ‘colleagues’ were a bunch of dicks?
I didn’t go, in case you were wondering. Being a second-year (sophomore) Zoology student, I had a proper degree to be getting on with, and I simply didn’t have the time to waste on frivolities like this.
I did find the time to blow things up of course, especially when I was getting paid to do it!
A few miles up the coast from Aberystwyth you will find the Ynyslas Nature Reserve, with its sand dunes and beach. Back during WW2 the beach was used as a training ground for D-Day. As such it was pounded by bombs and naval artillery shells, not all of which exploded.
'How do they dispose of it?' you may ask. By blowing it up of course!
A few of us were asked if we wanted to come along and lend a hand. They didn’t have to ask me twice!
Therefore we spent an interesting afternoon watching the EOD guys blow up the old shells that had been found. They also found several more by digging them up with an excavator.
Where we found one of these shells gave me a shock.
The previous summer a bunch of my hall mates and I went to Ynyslas to have a BBQ on the beach. Some of us chilled, some of us went surfing, whilst my friend, who we will call ‘W’, dug a hole. A very big and deep hole, which he then decided to sit in. You know, as you do.
One of the shells we unearthed was found only a meter or two south of where his hole had been. If he had dug his hole only a few meters down the beach he would have dug up a bomb. That was a sobering thought.
Oh well, at least we got to play with plastic explosives. Strange and smelly stuff that, 'Plasticine with a hint of petrol'.
The next training weekend we were blessed with a full moon and near zero cloud cover. This meant that even at night we could see for miles. After the dark induced myopia of the previous weekends this was a relief. Granted, if it had been a real conflict being so visible would be the last thing you would want, but by this point I had stopped caring about such things.
Random question time.
Have you ever seen someone sleep with their eyes open?
Have you ever heard someone speaking to themselves, when sleeping with their eyes open, leading everyone around them to think he was talking to them?
Neither had I, until that weekend. We were back in the cow shed, about to get some sack time, when one of the cadets next to us started doing this. It was very strange.
There must have been a scheduling snafu that weekend, as there was a rally taking place right through the middle of our training area. Of course, we had great fun with this, calling out ‘Contact, enemy Subaru at 10 O’ Clock!’ and the like.
I actually had a good weekend, apart from still not being able to see down my weapon’s SUSAT.
Speaking of weapons, this was the weekend I was issued with the L86 with its defective bipod. I recall moving through a wood at night when the bipod yet again flipped out unbidden, and promptly got itself entangled with in the straps and string on the cadet in front’s bergen. She was not impressed. The fact we were full tactical, it was dark, and we were not allowed to speak made explaining the situation rather difficult.
That was the last training weekend for that academic year. I decided not to continue with the UOTC the following year, for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, I was entering my third year at university, and I was studying a science degree, so I simply did not have the time for any extracurricular activities.
The second reason was that I simply did not want to. Not because of the training and the harsh condition out on the Beacons, I loved all that, but I hated most of the people I was with, and I disliked what the UOTC was turning me into.
You may have guessed by now that I didn’t fit in well with most of them. There were many reasons for this. I have covered the class divide before, so I will not go over that again, but what I will go over is the subtle indoctrination they used.
I’m not sure if this low-level brainwashing was deliberate or not, but from an outsider’s prospective its effects were obvious.
As I stated earlier I was a second-year student. I didn’t even know the UOTC existed until about half way through my first year. I only found out about it from a friend who had joined. He had a great time, and I had a lot of time for this guy, as he was one of the nicest guys I knew. I naively thought that if most people in the UOTC were like him, then I should fit in nicely. I should point out that my friend, let’s call him ‘G’, was most definitely not an ex-public schoolboy.
Most of the other cadets I was with were in their first year however. They were freshers, or freshmen as some might call them. As such, most did not have a network of non-UOTC friends when they arrived. The selection weekend started at the beginning of term, and there were a lot of weekends away and socials during the first few months.
See where I am going with this?
Many of the UOTC cadets didn’t get a chance to form friendships outside of the UOTC, as they were spending so much time with the other cadets. This was compounded by the dismissive attitude that many of the ex-public school boy senior cadets had towards non-service personnel.
“Why would you want to associate with those students anyway? They are only civvies. You are better than them.”
This attitude was intoxicating. What 18-year-old testosterone fuelled male wouldn’t be affected by being told this. Male egos at that age are easily inflated. I was a year older and wiser, and so I was not affected as much.
The other thing that separated me from most of the cadets was that I was doing a degree in science. Anyone who says students have it easy has clearly not done a science degree. My time as a student consisted of 9 O’ clock starts, back-to-back lectures, followed by three-hour lab sessions. This was pretty much every day. If I was lucky I would get finished by about 18:00. On top of this there was the expected studying and revising to be done. (In your own time of course.)
Most of the UOTC cadets were doing a much easier degree called ‘International politics and strategic studies.’ A degree many of them admitted to as being the easy option, AKA ‘a Micky Mouse degree’. They boasted that they could submit essays that were largely copy and pasted from the internet. If they had four lectures in a day they would consider it a busy one. This of course gave them plenty of time to do other things, things they did with the other cadets, obviously.
Many people have a deep desire to ‘fit in’ and will adopt the ways, mannerisms and lingo of the group. The British Army is an extreme example of this. The Army has its own slang, and everyone who joins is expected to use it. Pretty soon everyone will be speaking the same lingo, all-of-the-time. The only difference will be the accents they say it in. This only goes to reinforce the ‘Them (civvies) and Us' (UOTC) mentality.
I have always been something of a lone wolf, and fitting in has never been important to me. Therefore, I did not change how I spoke just to suit them. I also split my time between the UOTC, my martial arts buddies, my science degree colleagues and my random friends outside the UOTC. By doing this, I was viewed as something of a traitor to the UOTC.
“You associate with them!?” being their general attitude.
I didn’t like the effect the UOTC was having on my mental state either. I was becoming petty. The UOTC placed such a heavy importance on having sharp creases and shiny boots, and seemingly judged our worth as human beings based on this, that I started to think this was important as well. I was beginning to internally judge others by these criteria.
The ‘we are better than civvies’ attitude was starting to rub off on me too. The real turning point was when one of my former friends told me bluntly “Since you joined the UOTC you have turned into a c*nt.”
And you know what, he was right.
If you are out there reading this, and you know who you are, then thank you for pulling me up short. Apologies for any offence I may have caused.
So, to sum up. Was my time with the UOTC worth it?
Yes and no.
It was character building certainly, and what I learnt there has been incorporated into my upcoming book ‘The Chernobyl Zone Survival Guide’.
That said most of my experiences were extremely unpleasant. I only stayed with the UOTC for as long as I did to show that I could tough it out.
I met several other students who had a similar experience, so this was clearly not an isolated incident. What was worrying was how many of these students had turned to drugs soon after. I suspect the sudden feelings of freedom they experienced after escaping from such a cloying institution went to their heads, causing them to take their new-found freedom a little too far.
I have since spoken to soldiers and ex-service people who reassured me that my experience was a particularly rough one, and that life in the real Armed Forces is generally much better.
This may be true, but I will never know.
They say 'You only get one chance to make a good first impression'. The UOTC was my first impression of the British Army, and that impression was not good. In fact, it was so bad that I decided to rule out pursuing a military career completely.
This was a long time ago of course. Perhaps it is better there now. I hope so, because if it has remained the same, then the British Army will lose as many prospective recruits because of it as it gains.
Endex. Platoon Dismissed.
Brecon beacons in the snow.
By Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Indiglo night light watch.
By Andrew J.Kurbiko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Darren (PC013833) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
From Wikipedia. NB - judging by the 'upside down comma' shape of the charging handle, the one pictured is probably the A2 model.