Week Nine

Week nine comes directly after an academy weekend. The importance of this is that on this weekend, the division is even greater between civvy life and our new lives – most definitely more so than week five. I would not say that there was an immediate urge to get back to Sandhurst, after all, not much can compete with home cooking and being able to sleep for as long as possible. Nevertheless, there was somewhat a feeling of comfort of returning to order and to your friends, military of course! Dare I say some of us even mentioned how, when at home, we had noticed that we may have acquired acute OCD when looking at our civvy homes.

A continuous pattern that you’ll observe in this blog is that at the start of every week we notice the subjects become more intellectually stimulating. This week we spent a hefty amount of time in Faraday Hall, where we do our academics. We cover subjects such as social psychology, behavioural science, politics, international relations and history, but all with a military application. This is backed by the idea of what is known as the ‘agile edge’. The British Army, small as it may be, maintains a high reputation due to the intellect of its Soldiers and Officers, we are what the ‘agile edge’ is. Therefore, Faraday Hall lectures are a pinnacle to our development, and as such, the Academy acquires the finest academics in their respective fields, something that is evident in seminars.

However, three other things stand out in week nine: Ex First Attack; Tactical Command; and Old College Sunday. Ex First Attack is a remind and revise of Self Reliance, going over a very basic section attack, for this I think our Colour Sergeant would agree that the heart and determination is there, we’re just somewhat lacking in skill. Then came the tactical command tasks, for those of you currently at AOSB, do not mistake these for the quiet fields at Westbury; they were essentially a day of pushing each other through water-submerged tunnels, bogs which can submerge a six-foot male and objectives which must be completed. Whether it be a casualty evacuation, moving ammunition or trying to get a local populous to aid in your task, you were guaranteed to get drenched and submerged. It was, as we would say, ‘type-two fun’… not very fun when partaking but terrific to look back on.

At the end of the week though comes Remembrance Sunday and Academy Sunday. In regards to Remembrance Sunday I think one word would suffice: Powerful. Stood in the Royal Memorial Chapel, surrounded by the names on the walls of the Officers who had once stood in our stalls and who had paid the ultimate sacrifice. This with the fateful words ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ above our heads on the walls. It really makes you think about what has happened before and what ‘you’ are expected to do in the future. Afterwards though we have Academy Sunday; this is where your family and friends come to visit and see what you have been up to. The Academy sets up stands and we get an opportunity to show people around our kit and general life at Sandhurst. I was particularly nervous, as my family are not a military family. However, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience, if not finding it a tad bizarre. There is also the somewhat comical factor of watching the staff talk to our families. No-one is stood at attention, and my brain just could not compute why!

Week Eight

When civilians hear ‘Exercise Long Reach’, the emotions that are brought forth are not nearly the same as any Army Officer. Long Reach is one of the exercises that has transferred from the old commissioning course to the revised course. The reason why, I can only assume, is that it is a result of what Long Reach entails: a thirty-six hour race across the Black Mountains of Wales, upon which you can acquire extra points by completing certain command tasks along the way.

The weather and terrain are unforgiving and we are told that this is the same area Special Forces conduct training and selection. It started for us on Tuesday evening, being set forth from our release point. Our first conquest was an unmanned checkpoint – there are four of these, X, Y, Z and V, they are horrendous climbs and there is nothing at the top except for an EMIT marker, so you can ‘tag-in’. The best advice was once at the top of an unmanned checkpoint, some seven-hundred metres above sea level, to get down as soon as possible to protect yourself from the elements.

All of the other checkpoints were manned with various command tasks to be completed, similar to those you experience at AOSB Westbury, but just a bit more ‘military’ and more is expected from you; for example, at AOSB you may be given a scenario of a river crossing, whereas on Long Reach there will actually be a river to cross. Needless to say, neither my patrol nor myself were too keen on getting in the lovely Welsh streams at five in the morning.

There were some injuries along the way, but our PTI staff had prepared us to the best of our ability – the majority is undoubtedly a mind game, telling yourself that you are fine and that this is actually a rather pleasant experience, especially on the sixtieth kilometre of an ascent.

There is not really too much to talk about in regards to the actual exercise, it is just a case of putting your kit on, strapping your boots up, getting your compass out and going for a long, long walk. You do everything to stop that little voice in your head coming to the front of your thoughts telling you that this hurts. And, if you can distract yourself from the shoulder pain, leg pain, feet pain, lack of brainpower due to no sleep and constant nav, it was actually rather enjoyable.

I got to see what my leadership is like under physical and mental stress, to see my patrol in the same way, and it was also a great bonding time. All this does make it sound like some ‘boy scout’ adventure across the hills, but anyone with any knowledge of the area will understand that the Black Mountains are possibly some of the most unforgiving terrain there is. We only had two notable injuries but they were easily mitigated and by dividing their kit on certain parts of the patrol, we got the entire patrol round.

Ultimately, Long Reach can be summarised by wet, cold, fog, lost, highs, lows, long marches, wet, climbing, falling over, a bit more wet, finishing. I learnt a lot about myself and did thoroughly enjoy it. I may have been one of the few smiling faces throughout!

Week Seven

This week we focused heavily on the academic part of the commissioning course. It can be easy to move to a mentality of just ‘fitness’ and ‘leadership by example’ and forget the mental and agile edge, which has, for centuries, provided our army with the battle-winning components. However, this was rectified with a week of psychology, history and international relations; it was also rather liberating to think outside of the military framework. One regret that transgressed for me was noticing how hard I can work now I have been pushed. I was always the student at university who approached pre-reading half-heartedly. But, through everything we have done here, you learn to organise and push yourself. Thus, preparing for lectures was very easy. They’re not like university lectures however, they start at eight in the morning and finish at six at night, with a lunch break. We also still continue with our primary military training and physical development so it is easy to understand how confusing all of this can be, switching mind-sets from the reserved academic to the aggressive and highly competitive boxer.

Nevertheless, we cannot escape the elephant in the room; next week is Exercise Long Reach. It is, as the permanent staff and every officer would say, “a bit of a lick”, AKA not very fun! However, I am keeping quietly confident, tabbing with weight is what I am good at, and so far my nav has been at a good and confident level. I am lying to myself, however, by saying in my head “they’re only hills, not like the Alps or Everest” and then I remember that Special Forces use these hills!

Taking all of this into consideration, there is one thing that probably will dwarf this entire term for me. That was the visit to Brookwood Military Cemetery. This for me was the realisation that not only am I expected to sacrifice my life, if needed, but more daunting for me is that, as an Officer, I have the command to move my soldiers into a position where they risk making the ultimate sacrifice. Walking around the cemetery, you realise that every soldier, sailor and aircrew had their own story, their own life and family. I prayed that they had made their way into heaven, but I wanted to know how their commanders felt. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of a young platoon commander at a funeral watching a family destroyed by a decision he or she had made. I do not think any amount of training will prepare me for that, I just hope that it will prepare me to minimise the chance of it happening. But one thought still remains from the trip to the cemetery: the army becomes caught up in this notion of paying the ultimate sacrifice – at Sandhurst we are surrounded by statues and portraits of Officers who took that step for their country – that I often think we forget that our job is ‘not’ to die for our country, but ensure that as many people as possible live for it. Nevertheless, it was very comforting to know that if anything were to happen to me or my soldiers, then they would be well looked after and loved by the staff who do a terrific job!