June 11, 2012
We”d reach forward with our forearms, bring our legs up, and make our way. Sometimes a friend would be crawling next to you and you”d catch a smile, a few words of encouragement, or giggle quietly at how much it hurt.
Soldiering wasn”t easy, but there was something about the struggle that appealed to me. It felt religious and made me think about religion in the military and how the chaplain would give talks about God, of how suffering seemed almost something to be celebrated. Here we suffered for our goals”to get to the training area, to please our corporals, and to become Royal Engineers.
The cap badge read, “HONI SOIT Q MAL Y PENSE,” a French phrase which meant “SHAME ON HIM WHO THINKS THIS EVIL.” Crawling across stones that dug into us, we”d think the corporal was evil for making us do this when we could have walked on our feet. He”d tell us this was for our own good. One of the lads disagreed a little too loudly, and the corporal told him to stand. When he stood, the corporal floored him with a single punch. The soldier then crawled and never said another word. With angry eyes, he just grunted through his busted lip. Others sniggered but most kept quiet and crawled. An officer passing by saw this, and the corporal was hauled into his superiors for a grilling. He defended himself saying we weren’t here for a holiday”he was making soldiers. He got disciplined heavily for it and was told that wasn”t how the Army made soldiers anymore.
It took a few months for us to finish the training where we learned how to lay mines, how to clear them, how to build bridges, and how to blow them up. Explosives training was fun and made us feel special. We knew how to blow things up from doors to mines to bridges, and it was always satisfying to see something explode. By the time we had become Royal Engineers we”d run for miles with logs and stretchers, filled our plates with punishment, eaten it all up, and come up from it fighting.
We eventually received our stable belts, which were red and blue with a silver buckle. We learned the song “Hurrah for the CRE,” which came from the Engineers” time in the Boer Wars. Young soldiers would sing “Hurrah to the Corps of Royal Engineers” when they were drunk, stamping fists on tables and hugging each other as if they”d just returned from fighting in Africa.
They wanted to be the soldiers from the past and were seduced by those old stories. I thought about that corporal once we”d finished and looked around at these tough young men who”d built heavy bridges under the hardest conditions and agreed he had made soldiers of us.