by Paul Hudson, 58A
1958 to 2008 – have fifty years passed by already?
Over 200 young teenagers left comfortable homes, families and friends during February, April and September 1958, having signed the necessary Notice Paper – Regular Army, Army Form B271A (Revised 1957) and received the Queen’s Shilling. Various means of transport were used from all over Great Britain, and possibly from serving parents abroad, with all lads entering the wrought iron gates, totally unaware just what lay ahead. It wasn’t long before we were introduced to a new life, shouted at, ordered about, dressed in Army type clothes (civvies now banned), marched around at pace and stature, as ordered by shouting men of any rank above us. We had less comfortable and smaller beds than those at home, ‘made up’ each morning and not to be ‘made down’ until evening. Bugle calls ordered our lives – ‘Reveille’, at a previously unheard time, meal calls, ‘On Parade’ calls, roll calls, ‘Lights out’ calls – plus those to “Do as I say A/T, and not as you want to do”. What a sudden shock we all received, having spent such a comfortable and reasonably free life, until entering those famous gates. Although our time spent in Arborfield was often tough, there was also plenty of sport and fun, all of which shaped us into the people we are today – and proud of it.
Well, here we are, fifty years later at the annual reunion, proud, upright (as best we can) and smart, shaking hands with long-lost friends, rather than having punch-ups, gypping, arguing, avoiding senior intakes etc. The gates are still there, making us very proud of all those years ago but, sadly, only three original buildings remain on the old ground. At least a certain Sergeant no longer stands at the gates! Fred did his best to have as many A/Ts as he could, either in front of the CO and ending up on jankers (as it was then) or worse – slammed into the nick immediately we entered his side of the gates. One or two of us had started off from home with a little trepidation, due to the weather and particularly the floods, remembered from last year. But fortunately this year the Gods were on our side and we all arrived safe and sound. The booking-in procedure, which took place in the Sergeants & WO’s Mess, soon formed a lengthy queue, showing the eagerness to attend. This kept a committee member slaving away locating names on the lists, then asking us to find our name tags from a box, before locating our block and bed-space; at least the procedure contained a modicum of humour and bonhomie. Having completed this, it was back to the Mess, to find a pint of beer at just £1 (can we have a reunion every weekend please?) and a slap-up curry supper was shortly to be available.
The atmosphere in the Mess informed us that, as usual, we were in for a really great weekend. What followed was round upon round of drinks and meeting all those mates who haven’t seen each other since around 1961. There was a lot of “Do you remember when?” The evening soon got into full swing, with constant movement between tables and bar, the staff hardly had time to breathe, but kept up their smiles and mirth. It hardly seemed five minutes since arrival, such was the chat, when the call was made (no bugle this time) that supper was ready and, as of old, a long queue soon grew. As usual, there were a good variety of curries, with plenty of accompaniments. The evening continued in happy mood, with slightly hoarse but well-lubricated throats, until chucking out time at 0200. Some of us had rooms in the Mess itself, not too far to stagger, while others had to find our way back to our billets. “Don’t forget the path, somewhere near a gap in the hedge, in the garden”, we heard people say. All well and good but some of us couldn’t even find the garden, never mind the hedge! Then of course there was the lake to contend with, less said the better. Fortunately, we all found our way back to our billets and soon it was morning. Following a comfortable and well-earned night, we joined the breakfast queue with a good line of pals already there. Back came memories and mention of the word ‘Gyp’ – but nobody risked pushing their luck, even on juniors. What a difference from fifty years ago! We found an excellent variety of food ready and waiting – different to 1958, when we’d be ordered to “put that back, you’re not allowed that much”.
After this, dressed up into smart attire with blazers or suits, various hats, proud medals, we prepared to march on to our original parade square, with heads held high. This year, for the parade, the weather played its part, with bright sun and hardly a cloud in the sky. It really couldn’t have been better – if I was picky, I could say a tad too warm, but that would be rather churlish. Eventually, having been formed up for a while behind the old Jeep Block (brick-built and of which we never saw the inside, just our own wooden spiders), there was some shouting somewhere up the front. The band, this time a Scots pipe band, struck up and we were off. Boy, was it a slow ‘quick march’ – we thought we would never get there, some said it reminded them of the French Foreign Legion march! However, with aching legs and hips, we were in due course brought to a halt, turned and proudly faced the spectators. As with every year, the marching and drill on the square was superb. Just goes to show that Old Boys, of all age and time since service, have not forgotten how to parade – smartness was 101%, heads were held high and I am sure that each one of us felt very proud.
Then along came ‘The Car’, allegedly Monty’s old original staff car, carrying the inspecting officer – an extremely nice touch. During the inspection, the band played incidental music but it was noted by some that the music was a bit old. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag” and “Goodbyee, Goodbyee” – blimey, how old do they think we are? We then marched off the parade ground, down to the Memorial Garden, where the padre, an Old Boy himself, received and laid the Old Boys’ banner on the altar, before conducting the prayers and hymns. A very moving and solemn moment came, when the names of those who are no longer with us were read out, and a young lady played the bugle for ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ for the two minutes silence. Following this came the group photos, all of us waving and grinning up at the photographer. During the main group photo-take, many rapidly disappeared to the Mess, while the 58ers had numerous photos taken for the record; very nice they looked too, smartly-pressed trousers, shiny shoes (no they were not bulled!) and those ties – didn’t they look the business?
Then it was back to the Mess for drinks, hoping the bar hadn’t yet run dry! The BBQ lunch was exceptionally good and very welcome, especially when sitting in the shade in the Mess garden after the heat of the day. Good company, good food and a couple of cold beers – what more could a man ask? The bar was closed bang on time, 14.00 this year, in order to ensure that we all spent the afternoon looking around the workshops, REME Museum and shop, all of which had plenty of interesting exhibits and purchases. It was hoped that a good number of we Old Boys would take advantage of this, as permanent members of staff gracefully gave up their Saturday afternoon to talk and answer questions. Thank you, chaps and ladies. At 16.00, more food was available, by way of sandwiches, cakes etc, tea and coffee for those who were still hungry after breakfast and lunch. Following this it was AGM time in the Mess, with the Committee all set to brief us – particularly to update us on the situation regarding the pending closure of the Garrison and the likelihood of Rowcroft Barracks being demolished very soon after next year’s reunion. A short discussion was held on the possibility of next year being the last reunion at Arborfield and what possibilities were being considered. The main importance currently being that we must still hold a reunion somewhere and for us all to take part and put our thinking caps on to help the Committee.
Then came the most important part of the weekend, the evening dinner, which took place in the dining hall (cookhouse as we used to call it), with fifteen 58ers taking ‘Top Table’, along with the Committee and Col Barry Keast, our special guest and inspecting officer. He was a past Commandant at AAS and, in 1977, largely responsible in re-starting the OBA and reunion. Initially, some thought it a little odd that the dinner venue had been moved from the Mess to the dining hall, but actually it worked – a good move. The food and drink was once again way above expectations, with no shortages. The waiters were very efficient and polite, with wine top-ups at each course. Everything went off extremely well, particularly the speeches – although the music was somewhat muffled by the curtains covering the central staff unit. Then of course the long walk back to the Mess to finish the evening off, for those with enough stamina to continue a few rounds of drinks. But not too many this time, because we were all too conscious of the drive home later that day (as it was by then 03.00). In ‘the morning’, again came the well-earned breakfast, pity our wives don’t serve that up on a daily basis! And, before we knew it, we were outside the Mess, all packed up ready to go; saying our Goodbyes, exchanging e-mail addresses etc and feeling sorry that it’s all over for another year. Once again, the weather had played its part throughout and kept the rain away, in fact it turned out to be a very starry cloudless night.
Of course there will be another year, wont there? And we look forward to next year’s Jeeps of 1959. We offer our hearty thanks to Bill Cleasby & Committee, to the RSM and to the Mess members, for letting us invade the Sgts’ Mess and making us so welcome, which made the whole weekend so successful.
(Paul was well assisted throughout by Barry Lucas-Carter, John Kelsey and Paul Wiggins – without whom he admits he could not have created this report.)
My Fiftieth Anniversary
This was my first ever reunion, having joined the AAS in 1958, passing out in late 1960, and then spending nine years as an Electrician. I later retrained as a Control Equipment Technician and was demobilized in 1970. I then travelled overland to Sydney with my Australian wife and set up a life and family for the next 37 years, before we moved to Colorado to live with our daughter. This meant I’d had little or no communication with fellow ex-Apprentices for most of that time. Thus it was, with some trepidation, that I entered Hazebrouck Barracks, to meet chums I hadn’t seen in some cases for 48 years. Would I recognize them, would they recognize me? It turned out to be a mixture of both. Some people never change, they may lose some hair, add a bit of weight, inherit a few wrinkles, but basically you ‘see’ them straight away. Others need introducing and almost some sort of ID before you finally realize it really is ‘Fred’, who slept opposite you, sharing many good and bad times for more than two years!
After checking in and working out ‘sleeping arrangements’, which, it needs to be said, were the low lights among many high lights, the first port of call was the Bailleul Sergeants’ Mess, where the bar was open, the beer good and wonderfully priced. Numerous introductions and beers later, not necessarily in that order, it seemed that everyone had a story to share. Sometimes about their life since leaving Arborfield, sometimes recalling escapades or former Apprentices who had left their mark (sometimes physically!), but always a good story. An excellent curry supper arrived to assist in absorbing the beer and, several hours later, we headed for bed, perchance to dream? No hope, the snorers were in fine song and only exhaustion finally led to sleep. Having lived out of the country for so long, it came as a shock to see all the security and barbed wire surrounding the barracks compared to my last visit, obviously a sign of the times.
Saturday morning meant a FULL breakfast in military tradition, there was something for everybody. Many swore that the yearly reunion was the only time they ate fried bread, but they were back at Sunday breakfast with another story. Much as I used to like fried bread, I had to pass! Dressed in our ‘best’ gear, we assembled behind the brick building at the top of the square, oh! how that brought back many memories. Apart from the ‘normal’ parades, Saturday afternoon Rodeo was always one to avoid, easy to get on and even easier to stay on. Col Brian Hutchins soon had us “tallest on the right, shortest on the left”, then “front, centre, rear”, until we were formed up in two squads ready for the march. The Colonel was in fine voice, however I suspect he might have had a sore throat on the Sunday. The City of Rochester Pipe Band led us off and we all managed to keep in step as we entered the parade ground and boy how the memories came flooding back – 48 years since I passed out into the Regular Army. It was a very hot day and the organizers had the foresight to have a water truck stationed beside the parade ground. Once a “Dressing …… right dress!” was complete, under the watchful eye of the RSM, we were ready for the inspecting officer, Col Barry Keast, another ‘old boy’. He created quite a scene, arriving in Monty’s old staff car. The inspection complete, he called the parade around him and spoke informally with the main focus on Pride. We then marched past with an appropriate “Eyes … right!” and onto the Memorial Garden (Fred’s Hotel) for the Drum Head Service. The Service was conducted by another Old Boy, Rev Canon Bev John (66A) and this was a very moving experience, as we remembered fallen comrades. Our intake lost three this year, and of course for those still serving – just a few days previously, a REME corporal was killed in Afghanistan.
We made our way slowly back to the Sgts’ Mess, where the bar was open and an excellent BBQ was served. The afternoon was free, to visit the REME Museum or, for some, the chance to catch up on lost sleep from Friday night and prepare themselves for the rigors of the night to follow. The AGM was next, very well managed by the Chairman, giving members a chance to air their opinions but politely cutting off any diversions. The Committee will have some big decisions to make in the near future, which will affect the AOBA; they will need the support of all members as they work through the options. Right on cue, the bar opened prior to the Reunion Dinner and, shortly afterwards, we were piped into dinner. The food was splendid and accompanied by good wines and music. Speeches completed, most adjourned to what seemed to be the ever-open bar, to share the past and hopefully make arrangements for the future. A few diehards probably saw the bar finally closing at 3:00am, but mostly we retired after a long and enjoyable day to do battle with the snorers.
One lesson learned, take lots of photos, and make sure you engage every one you know or wish to catch up with; returning home with photos of your group, and realizing you can’t name everyone in the photo, or you didn’t get time to chat, leaves a disappointing taste. However, it provides an opportunity to cement communications, established during the weekend, with the help of the Internet. Sunday dawned with yet another warm and sunny day – who said it always rains in England? Yet another mammoth breakfast, Reunion Church Service for some, coffee, farewells, hugs and handshakes, brought the end of another successful Reunion Weekend. On reflection, it was a gratifying experience and I’m glad I made the trip from Colorado. Well done to the Committee, particularly Bill Cleasby.
Robin (Bob) Moore