After lunch, the two new platoons practised drill in the quadrangle for an hour and a quarter, before they were marched through town again, this time, to have photographs taken for their new identity cards. The afternoon continued with more drill and orientation talks, then a few minutes before four, Lieutenant Condon arrived and addressed them.
"You have three parades daily. Morning inspection with the ceremonies at the flagstaff is the first. Afternoon tea is the second and evening Mess is the third. Proper social conduct is an essential trait of a military officer. His behaviour and deportment must be seen as exemplary at all times."
He waved his swagger stick to indicate the platoons marching past. "You'll not be attending tea in the mess with the others today, rather you'll be taking it in a classroom where you'll be instructed in mess rules, etiquette and table manners, among other essential social graces."
Condon swept his swagger stick slowly across the ranks. "Do not take these parades lightly. Be aware that you'll be closely watched and that you'll be assessed on your behaviour and your manners. I'll see you at evening Mess."
Sergeant-Major Bates called the company to attention, saluted Lieutenant Condon, then turned the platoons over to the sergeants, who marched them across the quadrangle, fell them out and directed them to a classroom.
After two hours of lectures, demonstrations and practise, they were dismissed to clean for evening Mess. David walked across the quadrangle toward their quarters wing with Derek and Herbert. "It appears they think the way to win this war is to have us learn the proper way to sip tea and carry on polite conversation."
"This comes from the days when all officers came from the upper class," Derek said. "Commissions were bestowed on the sons of the nobility or were purchased by untitled gentry. It was all part of the social structure, and it was rare for a commoner to be granted a commission."
"That's certainly changing," Herbert said. "Think at all the field commissions. Men being commissioned for ability, rather than for class standing. Look at all of us here at Brasenose, all of us commoners."
"That's a concept I have difficulty with, commoners. In Canada, we're essentially classless, assessed on merit, rather than on birth. The condescension in that buffoon's voice when he compared real officers to those commissioned from the ranks." David shook his head. "His quote: Men and horses sweat, officers perspire, and ladies glow is laughable. We all sweat to cool ourselves, but his attitude stinks."
"We grew up with it. With the haughty, superior attitude." Derek laughed. "God, how quickly the trenches showed most of them that their birth and social standing have no currency in the turmoil of battle." He paused in front of his door. "I'll see you at Mess."
David looked at his watch as he entered his room. Twenty-eight minutes. Plenty of time for a shower first. His thoughts were interrupted by a knock.
Tompkins snapped to attention and saluted as David opened the door. "Good evening, Sir."
"Good evening, Tompkins. Come in."
"Sir, my father will be here tomorrow at noon to measure you and show you styles and cloth samples." He held up David's suit trousers. "These were superbly crafted, Sir. Very fine cloth."
"I had them made in Switzerland last week." He looked down at the clothes he was wearing. "I needed something finer than these for a dinner with the Ambassador."
"They hold their crease well. Needed only touch-ups from their being packed, Sir."
"Thank you, Tompkins. I have nothing else for you today."
After Tompkins had left, David quickly showered and dressed into his lounge suit, then headed through the shortcut to the Mess. He glanced at his watch as he stepped into the foyer. Four minutes early. No line-up, everyone heading in. He joined the flow of men and looked for familiar faces. Most in uniform, a few in lounge suits, very few in mess dress.
Garth held up a hand and beckoned David to join the small group he was with. "Here's another Canadian," he said as David neared, then he introduced everyone.
"How many Canadians are here?" David asked.
"With you, we're up to twenty-nine. We lost three last Friday with the graduating class. How many are in your company?"
"I've met none so far. Not really had a chance to talk with many yet, and those I've spoken with are all British."
"Right, you haven't done your introductory presentations yet. That's the second day. There are four or five per intake, about ten percent of the school, so there are likely a few more in your company. You'll spot them tomorrow." Derek examined David's clothes, then added, "That's a spiffy suit."
"I needed it for a dinner at the Embassy in Bern last week, and since I'd been told it was required for this course..."
"Bern? Where's that?" one of the others asked.
"The capital of Switzerland. I passed through there on my way here from Belgium."
"I'm no expert in geography, but that seems to be a rather roundabout route."
"It seemed the easiest after I found myself trapped behind German lines when they overran our position. I figured trying to get back across the uninterrupted line of trenches would be difficult, so I headed southward to the Swiss-German border."
David looked around the room, then asked, "So how are we being assessed in here?"
"What we've figured is they watch for those not participating, so we've learned to form small groups, rotate among them and maintain a banter." Garth nodded toward to the entrance. "The door is closed at precisely eighteen thirty, and anyone arriving later is listed. When we move into the dining room at nineteen hundred, we'll be seated by platoon. Empty chairs are obvious, so the missing cadets are easily identified."
"Sounds as if the dining room's laid out like a parade ground." David nodded to the Lieutenant in mess dress. "That looks like a Company Commander. Do all the officers attend?"
"No, not all at once, only one per company. It appears they rotate among themselves, the Company and Platoon Commanders and the commissioned instructors. There are about three dozen of them in total. Most are benign, but there a few who seem to resent commoners invading the officers' list."
"We had one of those at our manners and etiquette presentations. I couldn't believe he's allowed to teach such offensive attitudes."
"Lieutenant Croydon." Garth tilted his head to the left. "Over there at the bar, his usual haunt. We've figured he resents having had to pay for his commission while we're getting ours free. He's as harmless as a fart, though. Noise and stink, but nothing else." He chuckled. "Unless he catches you using the wrong fork."
"Surely the entire course isn't social behaviour, dress fashion and drill square."
"During the first few days, it certainly seemed so. But next week you'll begin communications, tactics and leadership, first with lectures, then increasingly with practical exercises. The exercises are where most of the RTUs happen."
"Arty yous? I'm not familiar with those."
Garth laughed. "R-T-U, Return to Unit. That's the Army's term for failing and being sent back."
"How many fail?"
"Four or five seems the average. We've lost only three so far, all in the leadership exercises at the end of week four. That seems when most are cut."
"So they're stuck with a huge debt for uniforms and kit they can't use. I guess they might try to sell to the new intakes."
"No, they don't have a chance to. They're whisked away from here immediately, as if they're infectious."
David slowly shook his head. "There's that condescending British attitude again."
"You'll need to learn to live with it while you're here."
He held his nose and grimaced. "I hope I get none of it on me."
YOU ARE READING
Back In ActionHistorical Fiction
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...