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An Army Cadetship

Like most young people of my generation, I grew up knowing about war.

I was born in 1941, the darkest year of the Second World War, and my early childhood was imbued with the belief that the invasion of Australia by the Japanese was not only inevitable, but imminent. Our family home in Perth had an ‘air raid shelter’ in the cupboard under the stairs, complete with tinned food and other rations in case we had to camp in there during a blitz, and there were trenches in the school yard at Dalkeith Primary School. My cousin Margaret and her mother had been evacuated from Fremantle, where they had rooms above their newsagent shop in High Street, to live with us in Dalkeith. Uncle John feared for them in the coming Japanese bombing raids. Darwin and Broome had been bombed, and a Japanese Carrier Task Force had been down the coast nearly as far as Fremantle during 1943.

In my childhood the sounds of war were all around us – air-raid sirens at night, howling Catalina Flying Boats down on the river, fighter planes screaming overhead, anti-aircraft batteries practicing across the river, and my father bent over the wireless, grim-faced, listening to solemn-voiced news-readers detailing the progress of the war.

Real war, as in fighting or bombing, never came to Perth, but the tensions and fears were widespread and palpable. Many people around us were directly affected, with husbands, fathers, sons and brothers away fighting, and sometimes not coming back. Other indirect signs were things like rationed food and clothing, and Mr. Bart next door having a charcoal-burning gas producer fitted to his car.

My father had gone down to the call-up centre to volunteer when war was declared in 1939, but he was told he had been “manpowered” because of his agricultural expertise. But my Uncle Geoff had joined the army, and I remember him coming home on leave, a dashing figure in his officer's uniform. Young men up and down the street where we lived had signed up, donned uniforms and disappeared, including Ray Walter, who lived about three houses down and joined the Air Force. Ray had taken my brother and me for rides on his BSA motorbike, and we thought he was a wonderful hero. We never saw him again. Even my mother’s formidable friend, the barrister Molly Kingston, had joined up, and she turned up at home on one occasion in her smart blue WAAF uniform.

When the War was over, we had a poignant reminder around the house of its effects. My mother invited a young man called Eric Fraser to come in and “do the floors” once a week. Eric had been a POW on the Burma Railway, and years later was still a cadaver-like figure, depressed, gaunt, and with a ruined digestive system which allowed him to eat only thin gruel. My mother would sit at the kitchen table with Mr. Fraser for most of the time he was meant to be doing the floors, drinking cups of tea, quietly talking, trying to help him come to terms with things and recover his lost life. I liked Mr. Fraser very much, and his problems troubled me profoundly.

I was also born at a time in which it was possible to know many men who had fought in the First World War. My Uncle Harry Edwards had been a member of the famous Eleventh Battalion in the First AIF (later to become known as the First Eleventh, because in the Second World War there was an equally famous Second Eleventh Battalion), and was one of the young men posed in that famous photograph at the Great Pyramid in Egypt, before they left for Gallipoli. Uncle Harry was a kindly, but remote figure in the family….like so many of the World War One returned soldiers, he would not talk about his experiences. Before the war he had worked in the Goldfields at Kalgoorlie and farmed at Coorow and was well-known as a dynamic and expert horseman, but he died a relatively young man. My mother’s view was that he was still confronting inner daemons.

Another World War One veteran was Gordon, a friend of my Auntie Joy’s family. Gordon had been gassed at the Somme, and now worked as a book-keeper for a mining company on the goldfields. He kept some items of his old Army uniform at Auntie Joy’s place, and my cousin Malcolm and I would dress up in them and Gordon would instruct us in elementary aspects of soldiership, in his clipped British Army accent. There was one more family connection: my sister Jill’s father-in-law Alex Lawson had fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and then in the trenches in France (including the Battle of the Somme). Later in the war he became a Lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps, flying a Sopwith Camel, and was wounded in action.

The 1940s were warlike times. After the end of the World War in 1945 came the Korean War and this was followed by various insurgencies and crises close to home in places like Malaya. There was a profoundly held view in Australian society at that time that we were vulnerable to invasion. This would come from a “yellow horde” streaming down from Asia. We had to be prepared to defend ourselves, and to expect the attack at any minute.

As a result of all this, military training (known as National Service or “nashos”) was still compulsory for most 17-year-old men well into the 1960s. Like my father, I was excused from this, as forestry was classed as an essential support industry, and although I was only a forestry student in the year I turned 18, the military authorities said they didn’t want me.

By that time, however, I was already quite a well-trained soldier. This is because there was another whole level of compulsory military training applying in those days in which I had participated. This was the School Cadets. I spent four years in the Hale School Army Cadet Corps, and by the end of it I was a reasonably accomplished infantryman, at least up to the standards of fighting which had taken place during World War II, and to which we were trained.

At Hale School, which I attended at its original West Perth site for five years from 1954 to 1958, there was both an Army and an Air Force cadet corps, and the whole business of military training was taken very seriously. In the first place it was compulsory. In the second, it was part of the tradition of school life, and the heirachy in the Cadets reflected that in the greater school world, of which the Cadets was an integral part. Furthermore, the Hale School culture in those days was deeply conformist. The only person I ever remember getting out of cadets was my brother’s friend Peter Dowding, later State Premier. Dowding’s father was a Presbyterian Minister, and Peter drew upon his religious upbringing in claiming status as a Conscientious Objector. To general surprise, he got away with it.

Hale’s Cadet Corps was one of the oldest in the State, started by the famous headmaster Dr Buntine. Originally cadets had to buy their own uniforms, but by the time I came on the scene the scheme had blossomed across the country, and was funded by the Australian Army.

Recruitment into the Cadets occurred in second year high school, or the year you turned 14. Although service was compulsory, you could opt to join the Army or the Air Force cadets. They drilled on the same day, but were very different in both culture and image. In general, the Air Training Corps was considered by the Army boys as being soft and cushy (we heard that the ATC cadets actually slept in beds when they were away on camp), while the Army was a man’s affair: tough and macho. But it was looked down upon as being intellectually inferior by the airmen. I was susceptible to this sort of thing, and had no intellectual pretensions, so chose to join the Army.

The Army Cadet Corps was organised into a standard Infantry Company, with five platoons (each under an officer and a sergeant). The platoons comprised three sections (each under a corporal). There were two supporting specialist squads, a Vickers Machine Gun unit and another unit who operated a trench mortar. The Geography Master Mr. ‘Duck’ Drake was in charge, and had the rank of Captain, and he was assisted by the History Master ‘Taffy’ Wall, a small, dark and violent Welshman. The rest of the officers and NCOs were schoolboys, usually the same boys who were also the School Captain, the Prefects and the various sporting captains. For some reason the officers, who would have been called Lieutenants in the proper army, were given the title of “Under-Officer”, a curious title which led to some amusing situations during my time. One of the boys above me when I was a young cadet was Ted Officer, whom we had to refer to as Under Officer Officer, and later my brother, who was an outstanding cadet, became Under Officer Underwood.

Our Commanding Officer was the Senior Under-Officer. In my final year this was Bob Binks, who was also a school prefect and had been stroke of the First Eight rowing crew. He cut an impressive military figure; for some reason his uniform always looked smarter than anyone else’s. The weekly parades were in the hands of one of the schoolboys who had risen to the rank of Company Sergeant Major. In 1958 the CSM was my good friend Dick Kelsall, who had been in my year every year since Nedlands State School days. Off the parade ground he was a gentle and humorous young man, inoffensive to a fault. At the weekly parades, however, he would bellow officiously at us from the top of the quadrangle where the platoons lined up.

As the afternoon’s parade began, CSM Kelsall would order us to stand to attention, stand at ease, slope arms, present arms and perform other essential parade ground manoeuvres. The preliminaries completed each platoon Under-Officer and his Sergeant would then minutely inspect each cadet and his rifle to see if they (and it) met the required standards of cleanliness and neatness. Poor presentation was noted down in the Sergeant’s notebook, and the miscreant warned or punished. After the inspections the CSM would dismiss the company and we would march off in our individual platoons to undergo the afternoon’s training session. This might be rifle drill, route marches around the streets of West Perth (in those days a residential, rather than a business area), squad manoeuvres in which we surrounded and eliminated imaginary enemy posts located on the wooded hill above the tennis courts, or the endless drilling designed by military experts since Roman times to instill instant and unthinking discipline in a soldier.

Sergeant Underwood (left) and Company Sergeant Major Kelsall

We paraded every Wednesday afternoon after school and additionally attended an annual camp at the Northam Army Camp. Cadets aspiring to leadership rank also attended a special camp at the old Mosman Park Training Camp during the holidays between 4th and 5th year. Thus, the average schoolboy might have attended five training camps and up to 100 training sessions by the time he graduated from school.

On Cadets Day you wore your Army uniform to school, rather than the school uniform. The uniforms were cast-offs from the Regular (or “real”) Army and similar to the sort of uniforms worn by the First AIF in 1914. Khaki serge jackets and trousers, webbing belts and gaiters, slouch hat and highly polished boots were the standard gear. The clothes were generally ill-fitting and uncomfortable, especially in summer. The webbing belt had brass buckles and attachments and the greatcoat had brass buttons, all of which needed to be shined to a high gloss. Boots were literally given spit and polish, the best method short of varnishing them for bringing up the sort of gleam required by a stern platoon sergeant.

Each cadet had a rifle, issued on about our first parade. The rifles were World War I vintage Lee Enfield .303s. They had a heavy wooden stock and a long barrel with a place for attaching a bayonet, and a sling. They were in full firing order. In another sign of the times, all those little schoolboy cadets would traipse off home after school each Wednesday carrying a fully operational rifle, complete with its bolt. Before the novelty wore off, which happened quite rapidly, as the rifles were a terrible nuisance to carry home on the bus, I sometimes used to practice aiming mine out of my bedroom window, in imagination taking out a Japanese sniper foolishly exposing himself as he watered his roses in the house across the road, or I would knock out the tyres of a passing armoured troop carrier full of storm troopers, masquerading as the 201 bus to Claremont. We were each issued with a ‘pull-through’, a heavy brass weight attached to a strong cord with a loop in the end, and small rectangles (four inches by two inches) of striped cloth known as ‘fourbee’. The pull-through and fourbee were used to bring the barrel of your rifle to a state of immaculate cleanliness before parades.

The 1955 Hale School shooting team, showing the Lee Enfield rifles we all used

The Vickers Machine Gun crew and the unit who operated the 6-inch trench mortar also trained every Wednesday afternoon in the school grounds. It was an indication of the innocence of those days that the mortar was set up on the grass in front of the classrooms and they actually fired off live shells. There would be a whoomp! and you would look over and see a mortar shell arching hundreds of feet into the air and then burying itself in the grass a hundred yards or so away in the spot where on other occasions we kicked a football or played cricket. The shells were not armed with explosive of course, but had they come down on someone it would have been curtains. I don’t remember any special safety precautions being taken to ensure this did not happen.

It was also a sign of the times that we had a rifle range on the school grounds in Havelock Street. This was laid out next to the gym, and allowed keen rifle shooters to practice their art at lunchtime. You simply went around to the staff room and asked Mr. Drake for the rifle (a .303 modified to shoot .22s) and a box of cartridges. Then you would use a winding arrangement to take targets back and forth from the firing position to the back of the range. We were completely unsupervised. I used the training rifle many times, and became a good shot. Later I regretted this, because I made the school shooting team which competed against other schools down at the Swanbourne Rifle Range, using real .303s. We wore no modern safety accoutrements like earmuffs, and I became very deaf in my left ear from those sessions at the range at Swanbourne. I still remember coming away from a Saturday morning shoot with my ears ringing, and not being able to hear properly for days afterwards.

The school Army cadet corps was supported by the Regular Army, in that they provided a squad of superannuated old regulars to go around to the schools on cadet days and give special training. I remember two of these old soldiers very well. One was Warrant Officer Jim Gordon. He was a lovely old chap, gentle, humorous, and didn’t give a stuff about military discipline, especially as it applied to schoolboys. Like the rest of the boys, I regarded old Jim with affection – but also with great respect, because it was well-known that he had won a Victoria Cross in World War II, for some incredibly brave and savage act in the jungles of New Guinea. I cannot remember the details now, but he had stormed a Japanese machine gun post single-handed and killed about eight of them with his bare hands or something. I could never imagine this gentle old man doing anything like that. I don’t think he could either.

The other regular was his mirror image: an older man, but still ramrod straight, a perfectly dressed martinet of the old school, who would have liked to terrorise the cadets, as once perhaps he had terrorised platoons of recruits from the bush back in 1915. Unfortunately, he had a slight speech defect, and this rendered him a figure of fun to the schoolboys. His most famous line had been “You men in the wear wanks march awound to the Q store and collect your wifles.” His nickname was Wear Wanks. He also had terrible trouble instructing us in the use of Wubber Weconnaisance Wafts for making wiver cwossings at night under enemy wifle fire.

It pains me now to remember how we made fun of old Wear Wanks. He had no doubt been a hero in his day, and now in the twilight of his career he was reduced to dealing with part-time soldiers, and cheeky schoolboys to boot. Because he was only at the school one afternoon a week, and officially there only as an adviser, he was severely constrained in the way he could mete out punishment to recalcitrant or insolent troops. How he must have itched to send one or two of the cheekier of my schoolmates to the kitchen for a week’s fatigue duty, or to the Glasshouse for a long stretch!

My favourite memory of Wear Wanks is of a glimpse of him one evening when we were in camp at Northam. He was coming back to his quarters from the Sergeant’s Ablutions, wearing a dressing gown and slippers, and carrying a sponge bag, clamped under his arm like a swagger stick. But he wasn’t just walking. He was marching, with the thumb of his left hand rigidly down the seam of his old Blackwatch tartan dressing gown and his right arm swinging up and back to regulation height. He stepped out as if to the beat of the massed pipes and drums of a mighty Highland regimental band.

The Northam Army Camp was a fearful experience, especially to first year Cadets. After that you knew what to expect, and coped, but the first day of the first camp was something to be remembered.

I can still recall it. We travelled the hundred km to Northam by bus, each of us with our rifle, and a kitbag containing a few personal necessities, like a toothbrush, pyjamas, mess gear and a spare pair of socks and underpants. There were perhaps 80 or 100 of us, ranging from raw recruits aged only 14, to hardened troops on their third or fourth camp.

It was the May school holidays, a time of the year where the weather up in the Avon valley was mild and sunny during the day, but bitterly frosty at night. Piling out of the bus, each platoon was assembled and marched to its ‘hut’. These huts had been built during the First World War, and comprised a long low building with an iron roof, no ceiling and unlined corrugated iron walls. When you entered, the first thing you noticed was that the hut was totally bare of furnishings. The second thing you noticed was that you were handed a hessian sack-like thing, called a palliase, and in the corner of the hut was a pile of loose straw, as found on the floor of a horse stable. On receiving the instruction, we would move one-by-one to the straw pile and fill our sack with it and then move off down the hut and choose a spot on which to lay the palliase. This was our bed and our mattress. We were then each issued with two or three thin, worn blankets. These bore indefinable stains, and in my imagination they had been last used to wrap a badly wounded digger brought back from No Man’s Land somewhere on the Western Front in 1917. There were no sheets and no pillow – you used your canvas kitbag as a pillow.

I found the sleeping arrangements very trying. In the first place it was hard to estimate how much straw to put in a palliase – too much and it threw you off; too little and you might as well be lying on the floorboards. It also took me a couple of nights to work out that to keep warm you needed to go to bed fully dressed, including your greatcoat – none of this nonsense about changing into your pyjamas. The second trick was to sleep on at least one of your blankets, rather than under them. This reduced the scratches from the sharp ends of the straw poking through the hessian palliase and also provided some much-needed insulation against the frigid air which gathered under the hut each night and seeped up through gaps in the floorboards. By my second camp I had learned to pack a couple of newspapers in my kit, and to lay these on the floor under the palliase. The newsprint provided excellent insulation. I still think of that time as being the highlight of my relationship with The West Australian newspaper.

The huts at Northam Army camp. (Photo ex Wikipedia)

The other revelation for me was the food. This was atrocious. Up until my first Army cadet camp I had never lived away from home, and there I had been very spoiled when it came to food. My mother and my two sisters were wonderful cooks, and we were a family that enjoyed good food, well cooked. My mother’s winter soups were a Speciality de la Maison – thick, nutritious, full of chunks of flavorful meat, peas, carrots, onions and bones from which the marrow could be sucked. Mum’s Pea Soup almost needed to be eaten with a knife and fork. Taken with a slice of crusty bread it was a meal in itself.

On that first day at camp, after filling our palliases and laying out our beds and kit, we paraded for lunch. This had been prepared by Army cooks in the camp kitchens up the hill, and we marched up there in an orderly fashion, each of us with our two metal pannicans, knife, fork and spoon. It had been a long time since breakfast and we were starving, as only 14-year-old boys can be. The lunch was soup. We moved up, one by one to a trestle table where a surly looking cook stood over a huge cauldron. He was smoking and the ash from his cigarette drifted into the cauldron. Reaching him, we each held out our pannican, and he dashed in a ladle full, and you moved on. I remember to this day looking at this stuff which they called soup (a name conjuring up such saliva-dripping expectations from my home life): it was basically hot water, in which floated large globules of fat.

I ate the Army food because I had to, but there was only one camp in which I didn’t really mind; this was in my fourth year at Hale, when my brother and I spent the year in the Boarding School (our parents being overseas). Army food was not as good as the Hale School Boarding House food of that time, but the latter conditioned you for the former.

Another horrible feature of the camp was the toilets. These comprised a row of pedestals, with no privacy. Most of the boys seemed to be able to adjust to this, but I never could. My strategy was to get up early, filch a length of toilet paper and find a quiet spot way off over the hill in the York gum bushland which surrounded the camp. There I could not only have a shit in peace and privacy, but I could enjoy the music and aromas of the awakening bush by myself without being ordered to do so.

The camp was a genuine Army training camp. Each day we paraded, drilled, marched, crawled on our stomachs, cleaned and polished our gear and weapons, learnt how to strip and assemble small arms and fired at the range. There were mock battles and a night-time lantern stalk where we careered about the bush, hurting ourselves dreadfully by falling into old foxholes or running into fallen logs. We sometimes watched grainy black-and-white training films in one of the huts where blackout blankets had been nailed over the windows. These films were all made by the British Army in the 1930s, and if I saw them today I would probably roar with laughter, expecting Captain Mainwaring or Sergeant Wilson of Dad’s Army to appear. The films were shown on an ancient projector which would snap the film every five minutes or so, resulting in howls of disapproval and a lengthy delay while it was fixed.

The range firing was the most exciting part of camp, because we used life ammunition, and had access to modern weapons, such as Bren Guns. Thinking back, it is amazing that all this went off without someone being hurt, or someone shooting himself or his neighbour – many of the 14-year-old boys were not much taller than their rifles, and when the old Lee Enfields were fired they kicked back savagely. The Vickers Machine guns were also a very dangerous bit of gear. They were water-cooled and belt-fed, and required a two-man crew, and shifting the thing from one spot to another needed a mature strength not usually found amongst small schoolboys. When finally set up on its tripod, the gun fired .303 rounds at a high rate and velocity and the barrel of the gun would ride up and fire in a wild arc if not firmly controlled. It seems to me now that it was a miracle that some passing squad of schoolboys was not mown down in its prime.

We were not alone in the camp. The training area was very large, several hundred acres, and there would be cadet units from other schools present in camp at the same time. This led to trouble. One year I remember some of the Hale boys mounting a midnight water and flour bomb raid on the unguarded Aquinas College huts, causing minor havoc. A few nights later came the counter-attack and it was both better planned and better executed than ours and more ruthless. The hut I was in was ravaged and it took us hours to clean up the mess. I also heard accounts of a terrible night of internecine warfare between the cadet units from Kalgoorlie and Collie High Schools. These two mining town corps regarded themselves as tougher and more uncompromising than any other school in camp, and we Private School boys respected this, and kept well out of their way. But there was a need to establish Top Dog, so they turned on each other, and the result was absolute mayhem. I am reminded of a story told to me years later by an old soldier from the British Army who liked to yarn about his days in the Second World War. The most savage fighting he was ever involved in, he told me, had not been against the Germans or the Japanese, but against the Yanks in a coastal town on the south of England just before D Day. Several soldiers on both sides had been killed.

During my final year at school, I rose to the exalted rank of Sergeant. I had attended the Officer’s Training Course at Mosman Park at the end of 4th year, and fully expected to become an Officer, as I had done well in the course. To my dismay, there was some stuff-up in Army administration and no record existed of my having attended the camp or passed out as one of its top students. As far as the Army was concerned that two weeks of my life might not have existed. This was disappointing, but as a consolation, Duck Drake made me a Sergeant, and allocated me to Three Platoon. My Under-Officer was Peter (also ‘Duck’) Drake, a classmate, a good bloke, and the son of Captain Drake. Peter had a laconic but effective style and we got on well together. I was a good Sergeant, because I enjoyed the role, and was popular with the troops – I could maintain discipline, but also make them laugh. I found I had a natural gift as an instructor, and enjoyed teaching the lads the various routines and disciplines. Peter and I turned that little mob into very good schoolboy soldiers, and I remember the day it happened. We had set off from the school grounds for a march in Kings Park, and it was the usual shambles for a start, with some boys unable to tell their left from the right foot, others who “gaited” (swinging the same arm and leg instead of opposing arms and legs) and a couple who enjoyed seeing how far they could go at messing things up without getting caught. But as we got into the bushland and onto one of the old bitumen walking tracks in the Park, suddenly everything meshed. We marched as one man, our boots crunching in unison, our arms swinging. Had we been Germans we would have burst spontaneously into a Teutonic marching song. I will always remember the way those boots rang out, the clean and perfect rhythm of it. From that moment the platoon started to see itself as a team. We all knew the military stuff was bullshit, but we also knew we were in it together, for the duration, and there was a feeling that we might as well do it properly.

The other memory I treasure is of an instance of mob psychology I witnessed at my final Northam camp. Although I have many times read about mobs rising and challenging and overthrowing authority, this was the first, and only time in my life I witnessed it. To see a large group of mostly fearful individuals suddenly coalesce and behave as a fearsome mob must in most cases be quite frightening. On this occasion I enjoyed it enormously.

At Hale School at that time there was a particularly feared bully, who went by the name (not to his face) of Dog. Dog was big, and mature for his age, the sort of schoolboy who shaves at 13. He had a bull neck and a bristly jutting chin, like a bulldog’s. He was tall and powerful and had a gut like one of those 1950s sheriffs from Alabama who shoot out your tyres with a shotgun when you exceed the speed limit through their one-horse town. Dog was the epitome of a school bully – he liked to take things from smaller boys, and he derived a careless pleasure from hurting and humiliating people. He got away with this for most of his school days for the simple reason that everyone was scared of him, including the Masters. Then one day up at the Army Camp at Northam, the peasants revolted. I don’t remember the spark, but something ignited a flame of rebellion, and it flared like a bushfire on a hot windy day in January. Dog had done something to someone, probably nothing he hadn’t done many times, but on this occasion the watching crowd did not cow as it usually did. As one man, it took a collective breath, and stiffened its collective sinews. A voice from deep within the mob shouted “Get Dog!” There was a murmur of approval. Another yelled “Get Dog… and Nugget him!” Oh, magic words! The roar of response was reminiscent of that from the massed Zulu warriors before they threw themselves on the British at Rorke’s Drift.

Dog twigged what was going on but initially underestimated the situation. He sneered and turned to walk off. He was almost done for at that point. About 50 small boys with their blood up, revenge in their hearts, and with the courage of the mob, rose up and lunged at him. Dog evaded the first arms and broke into a run, and the chase began. He ran as if his life depended on it. He weaved between the huts, up the hill, back down past the ablutions and across the parade ground. He cut between the huts, and swerved around the clumps of wandoo trees which lined the camp roads. At his heels ran the mob, and they screamed and chanted as they ran. They were baying for blood. As the chase progressed, the number of boys chasing Dog grew until it seemed the whole camp was after him. I wasn’t among the leaders, but I was definitely tagging along. Dog had given me and my brother a hard time the year we were boarders, and I wanted to be in at the kill.

Eventually he was ambushed and run down by two sub-mobs as he rounded the corner of one of the huts. In the end, he was exhausted and terrified, without fight and blubbering for mercy. He got none. A sea of furious little boys hurled themselves at him, pummeled him to the ground, pinned him, tore off his trousers and underpants, and gave him as thorough and vicious a nuggeting as had ever been heard of before or since.

"Nuggeting", by the way, was a traditional form of schoolboy punishment of the day and involved the thick and vigorous application of boot polish to the testicles. Nugget brand boot polish was regarded as the best for the job, as it was (so I heard, I was never nuggeted) as painful to remove as to be administered. Nuggeting was not done lightly; like capital punishment, it was applied only for the most heinous of crimes.

Dog was never the same after he had been chased, caught and nuggeted that afternoon at the Northam Army Camp. The bully in him had been broken, or perhaps he no longer felt he wanted to try it on. In fact, he subsequently became a half-way decent bloke, and I later enjoyed playing football with him. Nor were his former victims ever the same again. They had discovered the awesome power of the mob, and they knew it could be reactivated if needed.

I often wonder whether the nature of the Army Camp itself, the crude living conditions and rough life, and the sort of training we were doing at the time (which was basically how to kill people) was a factor in the demise of Dog. My brother, more a philosopher than me in these matters, would say that we had been brutalised by the Army and that this was the root cause of the rebellion. I think not. To me it was simply a case of the downtrodden being pushed too far once too often ... something I have seen on other less dramatic occasions over the years. Whatever, it was a wonderful demonstration of that excellent adage that a bully must never be allowed to get away with it.

Despite my brother’s views and the political incorrectness of military training these days, I have always felt that the Army cadets were a positive influence on my life. They emphasised discipline and teamwork, and they taught young people to be tough in the face of harsh conditions and to cope with bullshit and come out the other end. The killing side of being a soldier was very remote to schoolboy cadets – I never saw myself as being someone who would leap into an enemy trench and bayonet a bunch of real human beings. It was all a game; we were playing at soldiers. At the same time, the army cadets provided my first taste of leadership (which I enjoyed), and of what was known then as “man management” (which I turned out to be good at). Many years later when I was a firefighter in the karri forest, and a young District Forester with a large staff of officers and men, this training stood me in good stead.

The Cadet system survives to this day, but is greatly modified from the Second World War style of soldiering which I knew in the 1950s. Nor is it compulsory any more, at least as far as I am aware. Certainly, neither of my sons had to become a military cadet in their High School days. This is a pity – it might have done them good (at least in my opinion).

March, 2002

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Mar 19, 2022

Wonderful memories, Roger, and I agree that practicing to be a soldier for a bit is good for a young lad's upbringing.

My cadet years at Hale were around '68 and "69 by which time camp stretchers enabled a fair night's rest at the Northam camp.

But the food was still pretty rough. During one winter's camp a bout of gastro went through the place like wildfire. Some poor boys couldn't undo the numerous buttons of their uniforms quickly enough, resulting in some very unfortunate accidents. I fortunately suffered the opposite: constipation.

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