T. E. Lawrence - THE MINT 
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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

3:  OFFICERS, PLEASE

P.T. this morning was severe, especially as the daily harrowing makes us all cannibals of our nerves. The dawn gloom it hindered us, by being more chill than usual. As a rule, the first P.T. makes only one or two casualties. Today seven men of the muster fell out or fainted where they ran. It is good luck to be behind a man who faints: you and the next fellow lift him, and carry him to the edge of the square, with great parade of effort. If he's decently slow in reviving, he'll save you from the rest of the period.

The omnipotence of the non-commissioned officers here in the Depot still strikes me as un-English and unfortunate. They totally eclipse the officers. We are supposed to have a flight-lieutenant over us. I saw one, when the Sergeant Major ran me: but our sergeant and corporal do not know his name or face. Probationary officers spring up like mushrooms on the square each Sunday, for Church Parade. They give the wrong orders, which our corporals correct sotto-voce for our right performance: and they are cursed before us by Stiffy, the Drill-Adjutant, our ring-master. We hear rumours that he (whose prerogative is drill) wants to make the Depot all drill, and will not permit other officers to learn the men, or men the officers.

However it is, there's a complete lack of touch. No single officer has yet spoken voluntarily to a man of us. Yet to know the troops' mentality and nature and outlook is a main part of their duty. The Commandant may say they would lower themselves, if they met us. If he's so apprehensive for them, they are not the right stuff. On ceremonial, now, they are ridiculous, when they first force us into error, and then 'chew our balls off'. The corporals grumble that good officers have depth enough not to bawl about: but these poor figure-heads get no practice in command. Good officers are easily made out of good material, by trying. They lose no caste as they publicly learn. A decent officer can go down on all fours among his decent men, without demeaning himself: and all men are decent till they have proved otherwise.

We have a craving for these, our natural masters. Won't they prove a different creation? We think to serve them without the reservations which apply to Stiffy, who is clay of our clay. So far the only upper being we have met (most of us in our lives) is the school-master here, who has won our golden approbation. The rough end of the hut tries to copy the accent he displays when he reads our nominal roll. It's an Oxfordy drawl, which sounds queer with White's East End consonants.

From the class of officer whom we'd like to serve, but whom we find asses during their weekly appearance on ceremonial, we all except Stiffy. We have for him a technical admiration, for his superb competence in drill; and he believes so earnestly that drill is as useful and natural as sunshine, that the force of his belief half converts us.

As man and character he seems not to reach his standing in drill-mastery, for a hastiness lets him swear at us on parade. 'You damned men'... you men alone had damned the Commandant. Cursing fellows forbidden to look resentful (an airman could be charged with dumb insolence if his face glowered), fellows whose hearts are so set on obedience that they blush to feel resentful, is a sergeant-majorish trick which good corporals would not allow themselves on a formal occasion. Of course sergeant majors are lost souls, ex officio: but we feel that officers should practise dignity.

In the midst of a quiet period on square, suddenly the instructors will burst into fury, blackguarding us fore and aft. Then we guess that Stiffy has prowled up behind us to oversee. We instantly get nerves and worsen our performance. By nature the corporals are near us in feeling (there's no corporals' mess to subtract their living hours from our lives), and if let alone, they'd be patient and painstaking. But they have their promotions to earn, and the tradition is that a hot manner, brittle and painsgiving, earns the adjutant's approval.

Most mistakes on square rise out of nervousness. By straining we overshoot or undershoot the order. Once our solid Corporal Jackson got cursed by Stiffy for a fault of the squad in front. He took it dutifully. We trembled for a castigation, when we were next alone together: but in the afternoon he was equable as ever, saying, 'I won't take it out of you irks just because my bollocks were chewed to arse-paper at dinner-time.' Jackson's instruction is a running-fire of 'Swing your arms, hold your heads up, keep your dressing, keep your step, left, left, LEFT, I tell you. March by the right. Swing them up now.' So many exhortations that none of them find targets. Every drill-correction should have a man's name in it: any squad-name will do so long as you pepper them about. When we do something very bad, Jackson chuckles richly, in a stage-manner.

After his unjust Monday abuse of the Corporal, Stiffy relented and forgave us our boot-inspection penalty parade. Instead he stood us at ease on Wednesday morning and told us, loudly smiling, how he'd been cursed himself and had been thirty years an instructor and these things were part of the secret of smartness. We were picked men from all the nation: drill would make us look like it and be proudly remarkable for carriage.

He was genial; we laughed whenever he smiled: but the turn clashed with his 'square' sobriety. One or other manner is insincere. I fancy that today's used to be the man's reality, before tradition and hide-bound stupidity rusted a brain which had a native bent towards drill-mania. But the others think the manual is his soul's confession of faith. He little suspects how we'd shudder, if his words came true. We pray, even in our sleep, to avoid the parade-manner, off-parade. The permanent and terrible disability of long service is that, even in plain clothes, its victims are stamped as old soldiers. Old sailors escape it; and, we hope, old airmen. There seems nothing, in legitimate air-forcing, to difform a man's body.




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