Back in the days of Aldershot, as duties go, fire piquet wasn’t too bad unless there was a fire, which didn’t happen very often. A bit of checking against that possibility around the camp along with a fair bit of sitting around was pretty much all that was involved.
Company and battalion duties were tolerable, perhaps a little more arduous on occasion than being on the fire piquet but, all in all, not too bad.
Battalion orderly officer, orderly sergeant and canteen corporal were generally okay unless you happened to draw the short straw and end up on duty the night before pay day when clearing the canteen was about equal to exposing yourself to the black plague.
Then, there was the daily mounting of the quarter guard.
No one is quite sure where the term ‘quarter guard’ came from.
Some said it was a quarter of a fifty man guard of honour. Others, more into history, claimed it came from the Indian Army when it referred to a group of soldiers given the responsibility to guard the quarters. Because of that, in the early years, it was known as The Quarters’ Guard.
The origin of the name was not the least bit important to those who had to go through the somewhat painful daily routine of being a member of the quarter guard.
If you were on the guard, or if you were the corporal of the guard, the sergeant of the guard or the orderly officer, it was certainly not a happy experience.
It probably was a pleasant interlude for the adjutant and the regimental sergeant major or the company sergeant major of the company that provided the guard. For them, watching the mounting of the guard on the parade square every day at 1500 was a pleasant break in their daily routine. They all took a degree of perverse pleasure in noting the mistakes before passing their observations on to those involved via the chain of command.
However, it was a fairly democratic process. The subaltern mounting the guard, the orderly sergeant, and everyone on the guard all suffered together and irrespective of rank, they all got the flak afterwards.
Like most things in the army, there was a bit of a carrot.
If you were lucky enough to be picked as the ‘stick man,’ you had it made.
The stick man was the soldier selected because he was the best turned out on the guard. Technically, the winner was to be the commanding officer’s orderly but that never happened so he got off free and clear for the next twenty-four hours.
It was pretty much an open competition but getting to the position of stick man involved a great deal of preparation – cleaning, pressing, whitening spats, spit shining boots, scrubbing web belts and bayonet frogs, polishing brass and cleaning weapons plus a lot of praying that the orderly officer would grant the ultimate reward.
The corporal of the guard approached his personal appearance with equal vigor to prevent a rocket from his company sergeant major or worse still from the regimental sergeant major. In Wainwright, when The Black Watch battalion was training prior to their departure for Korea, one took the somewhat unusual step of being carried from the quarters on a six foot table to ensure he arrived on the square in pristine condition.
The younger orderly officers were usually in a state of constant terror. Frequently, the guard was given the wrong order or none at all during a crucial time in the ceremony of the guard mount. It was not unusual for a panicked subaltern to march the guard off the square without giving the order to fix bayonets or slope arms.
When the orderly officer was required to mount the guard wearing a sword, his life became a little more complicated. On one occasion, the orderly officer drew it to discover he was holding half a claymore. The other half was hidden in the quarters after his batman managed to cleave it in two while engaging in a ‘sword fight ’with another batman earlier that day.
The good news was that being on the guard didn’t involve a great deal once the guard mount was finished. Stay in the guard room, keep the prisoners secure in the cells, check vehicles going in and out, stand in a sentry box an hour at a time or man the gate barrier. There wasn’t a lot more to do other than keeping the guard room tidy, falling out for a visiting general escorting the prisoners to meals and standing ready in the event of an emergency. Emergencies didn’t happen often and those that did were usually of a relatively minor nature including on one occasion when the guard was called out to help clear the canteen.
Manning the gate barrier, however, could be a bit of a chore.
Technically, it was balanced but that was never the case. Holding it with one hand while standing properly to attention presented something of a challenge, especially if the soldier happened to be a little on the small side.
The more sensible officers and non commissioned officers turned a blind eye to those cases when the soldier had no option but to hold the barrier up with both hands.
But there was one memorable exception…
A sergeant, who was not much loved in the battalion, stopped his car under the barrier and confronted the gate keeper who was about five foot two.
To keep it upright, the soldier was applying all of his one hundred and twenty pounds to the barrier with both hands.
“You,” the sergeant shouted out of the window of his car. “You bloody well stand properly to attention or by God I’ll throw you in your own guard room.”
The terrified soldier reacted instantly.
As ordered, he came promptly to attention.
He let the barrier go and, probably with a very high level of satisfaction, watched as it crashed down on the roof of the sergeant’s shiny, two day old, Chevrolet.
One of the subalterns had a small sports car which he drove at great speed under the barrier which did not amuse the corporal of the guard nor the sentries who had to check the license plates of all vehicles coming and going.
The officer in question was at best a bit eccentric or, more accurately, as described by one of the soldiers in his platoon….
“He was as crazy as a shithouse rat!!”
Despite the daily complaint of the corporal of the guard, he continued to drive under the barrier, only slowing down enough to safely complete the left turn on his way to Kentville.
Finally, one exasperated corporal recommended the barrier be lowered six inches.
This, he concluded would have the result of both removing the windshield of the sports car and the head of the driver if he continued the practice of driving under the barrier.
No one is quite sure if the barrier was actually lowered those six inches but the possibility was enough to convince the subaltern to follow the rules to the letter.
In the hope the barrier had been lowered, the other officers encouraged him to try to zip under it one more time. They shared the view of the corporal of the guard that a great service would be done to the regiment if both the windshield of the car and a large portion of the subaltern’s head would be damaged beyond repair.
The quarter guards on the gate of the camp might be gone now, but they are certainly not forgotten.
That simple daily ritual of mounting the guard in Aldershot is now part of our history.