WEEK 23: “Digging in”

Week 23. It’s awful. I will never say that about Sandhurst, but if I found something good about this week then there would seriously be something wrong with me. It is pure and utter hell. I hated every second and never want to relive it.

Ok, maybe I would re-show it if I had to, but I would not look forward to it. We counted 87 hours of no sleep, then we had 3 hours sleep, then we carried on for a further 20 hours roughly. We all hallucinated at some point. Not because Bob Marley was serving us our rations, but because when your body has lacked so much sleep, but you are still pumping in thousands of calories a day, your body stays awake, but your mind falls asleep. This results in your dreams encroaching in your waking life. I saw the Lady of the Lake from King Arthur walking around our defensive position, she turned to me and told me that the King requires a finer thread. Heaven knows what was happening, I just took another slurp of coffee, took a bite of a sausage and carried on digging. In hindsight it is all very funny, but at the time it is bloody horrific.

The exercise starts with “digging in” every four man pair needs a fighting trench, 1.5m deep and 7m wide, the trench needs supporting by another trench behind for administration. This needs to be built on a company basis. But they are not just like the trenches you would see in the Great War, they are the pièces de résistance of the trench war-fighting world. They’ve got sleeping quarters, which have over-head protection, firing steps, range cards, supportive banks. They are magnificent. But my gosh does it take a lot of blood, sweat and hallucinations to make one!

Once the trenches are made, which takes in excess of 48 hours, an obstacle plan needs to be built, so out comes barbed wire, trip flares, and standing patrols. Now, a trip flare contains phosphorus, and let me tell you, setting one of them up, whilst you have not slept in days, is probably one of the most nerve wracking things I have done to date.

Earlier I may have made a tad of a white lie, when I said 87 hours without sleep. I am not taking into consideration the accidental sleeping that happens, this isn’t bunking off or anything, this is falling asleep whilst digging, which is pretty funny to watch I must admit. I personally spent one digging rotation constantly falling over where I was just falling asleep during a dig. It does make time go fast however.

Once the defensive position is complete as a battlegroup, yes battlegroup not company! The fun really starts, Gurkhas begin to probe our position, then they launch a full on attack on my platoon. They’re pretty scary to be frank. I have a feeling now of how the tommies felt in their trenches. Then we come under a gas attack. Usually you should be able to don your Gas Mask in about 9 seconds, on no sleep it takes more like 9 hours! Then we come under attack again, the company commander decides that it is time for us to leave, still in full CBRN kit we begin our extraction TAB. It is snowing, but whilst wearing your CBRN kit and carrying all of your kit, your body temperature feels more like you are in the Sahara desert.

On this extraction march I noticed one thing going through my head. I deployed on Ex Slims Stand with a chest infection, I kind of jacked on myself a bit by not going to the med centre to get antibiotics, but I did not want to jack on my mates. If I had been told that I couldn’t deploy, there would be one less body to dig, cook, mount sentry and basically a lot more work to do amongst an already dwindling platoon. Our company Sergeant Major had told us a few weeks ago that as a Platoon Commander we need to be able to lead in every situation, not just geographical, but when we are at our lowest, our Soldiers will still expect us to lead. I wanted to see if I could still lead when I was less than 100%. And, I found the CBRN extraction tab hellish, I was struggling to breathe without a respirator on, but with one on it was nigh-on impossible.

In my head I was battling with a voice telling me that there is no shame to drop out, indeed the staff all pointed out throughout the week how awful I looked, my Platoon Commander kept on joking with me that I need more vitamins. So I was thinking, actually, I am ill, why shouldn’t I just admit it? But then I thought about my friends, and I didn’t want to let them down/be the first to drop, so in my head I told myself that I would only drop out when I black out. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a mentality that Sandhurst has nurtured in me.

At the end of the TAB we had 3 hours rest, it felt like 3 seconds. The second I got in my doss bag I was getting out of it! I now know why Soldiers call it a time machine. We then began a battle group attack on an urban area. This draws every gram of energy that you have left, because there are no two ways of putting it, throwing grenades into building and storming through windows is bloody cool! Endex was then called and now I have a long weekend to recover/sleep/sleep/sleep…

Next things next, Ex Normandy Scholar and Regimental Selection Boards, at the end of this month I will know what Beret I shall be wearing for the rest of my career!