22: BREAKING OR MAKING
The little chief-instructor again took us for P.T., quietly and kindly, despite the Commandant's malevolent eye upon his back. His orders came as though he liked us; and gently, as a man talking. We had to behave ourselves to hear him. Whilst he was making us jump and flap our arms at once, one clumsy fellow failed to synchronise the rhythm and sequence of his limbs - arms came down while legs went up, or both waved wildly together, as though he was trying to 'take off'. A laugh started at the sight. Sergeant Cunninghame marched out to the front (yet in all good-humour) those who laughed, not the failure. Every other instructor would have laughed at me with the majority. Did the grim Commandant, propped away against his wall, learn anything?
Our fatigue today was in the gymnasium. They were making a sports ground and our job was to wire-brush and repaint a lot of salvaged sheeting with which to fence the running track. A good job, it looked. Six of us and six wire brushes: but these were mangy things, with half their bristles missing and half broken-short. Whilst the corporal sent for new ones we watched the squads on the bars, or boxing, or vaulting the horse. Our athletes rejoiced at the plays of muscle awaiting us. Alas, how cheerfully would I for ever forgo all play!
There were no other brushes. We must carry on slabbing the paint over the rust and scale. The useless labour demoralised us into unwilling frauds: and went to confirm the suspicion that they were desperately finding pretexts to keep us busy. We bitterly feel that in this dragged month has been spilled the zeal of our new-coming, which might have carried us over the drudgery of drill and square, into service. An ill-directed zeal, course. Our raw hands in their eagerness try to clean both inside and out: and therefore fail in speed and are cursed for laziness. But old soldiers who never waste a minute or a hand's turn on the parts that do no show, achieve both praise and economy of means.
So far we get only the curses, defencelessly. Here in Depot are four hundred recruits, sixty officers, a hundred sergeants and corporals. So every third man has the power to change our courses. Most of them do. We are tossed through the day, haphazardly from hand to hand like the golden balls of a juggler: and with some of the apprehension of the balls, lest we be dropped suddenly and bruised. Bruised, not broken: and that makes part of the sorrow. We can be half-killed, not killed: punished but not capitally. There is no thrill of a real danger to graze and avoid: only the certainty of minor accident, and no way of escape - From a self built prison? How can we? It induces an expedient truckling: for it is lighter to bear injustice than to explain.
I think the sudden barking of sergeants and sergeant major on parade always denotes a miscarriage of authority, wanting to spread blind terror. They have transformed us fifty civilians into very frightened troops in a few days. Our squadron leader put it well at office to two of us who were 'up' for having dirty boots on fire-picket, the evening of their turn at shit-cart. He said, I'd not want to have your excuses. You are not here on trial, nor am I judging you. My duty is to support the authority of the sergeant who has thought fit to run you before me. Three days to barracks. If only they were all so honest. It is the pretence (or broken hope) of justice which hurts.
We recruits are counselled always the road of least resistance, to dodge everything earned or unearned - except our pay. At the end of every such exhortation we remind one another, 'Let's remember we are soldiers': to be corrected by yells of 'Airmen', or if the Corporal's gone 'Royal Airmen', in derision. Day and night the distinction between airmen and soldiers is dinned into us by all comers: and we learn it the more willingly for that it consoles us against our pains of fatigue or drill to think that there exist fellow for whom these military futilities are a whole profession.
We identify the army with its manner of life and already sincerely despise and detest it. 'Fuck the military' cat-calls China. 'All prick and no money.' Soldiers are parts of a machine and their virtue is in subordinating themselves within their great company. Airmen are lords and masters, when not slaves, of their machines, which the officers indeed own in the air but which belong to us individually for the longer hours they are on earth. Not here of course in the Depot. Here we cannot get away from the degrading drill which in our after-life as serving airmen will be only punitive, a part of jankers.
It is perhaps a pity they have no sign in the Depot of the R.A.F.'s proper business - no sign other than the Bristol Fighter moulting behind bars in the Transport Yard. The sight of flying would hearten us, as a reminder of our profession - to help conquer the air. We are vowed to this enterprise (a corporate effort in which no more names can be pre-eminent: but success will visit the joined hands of a million obscure) to win the freehold of the upper element in as full measure as man's licence on land, or a sailor's liberty at sea. After which I should note that only one other in the hut has wished aloud to go up in the air. Several have hoped they will not have the chance.
Yet, whether keen to fly or not, we are airmen, with the new character the new force is making for itself. About the R.A.F. there is nothing military except the intelligence of some of its officers. Airmen go scatty when the public call them 'Privates in the Air Force'. Deliberately, punctiliously, to the point of folly, the Air Ministry has made its service unlike either Army or Navy. Look at our ranks! Aircraftmen second-class (all of us now), ditto first-class, leading aircraftmen. Unwieldy stupidities of names! Ourselves we shorten them to LAC, AC I, AC II, and speak of ourselves as 'ack-emmas' (the air mechanic of the Great War) or 'irks'. Irk corresponds with matlow or swaddy, the fellows' own name for their serving condition.