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The Laws Of The Medes And Persians

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One's first days as a newly-joined subaltern are very like one's first days at school. The feeling is just the same. There is the same natural shyness, the same reverence for people who afterwards turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever, and the same fear of transgressing the Laws of the Medes and Persians--regimental traditions and conventions--which alter not.

Dress, for instance. "Does one wear a sword on parade?" asks the tyro of himself his first morning. "I'll put it on, and chance it." He invests himself in a monstrous claymore and steps on to the barrack square. Not an officer in sight is carrying anything more lethal than a light cane. There is just time to scuttle back to quarters and disarm.

Again, where should one sit at meal-times? We had supposed that the C.O. would be enthroned at the head of the table, with a major sitting on his right and left, like Cherubim and Seraphim; while the rest disposed themselves in a descending scale of greatness until it came down to persons like ourselves at the very foot. But the C.O. has a disconcerting habit of sitting absolutely anywhere. He appears to be just as happy between two Second Lieutenants as between Cherubim and Seraphim. Again, we note that at breakfast each officer upon entering sits down and shouts loudly, to a being concealed behind a screen, for food, which is speedily forthcoming. Are we entitled to clamour in this peremptory fashion too? Or should we creep round behind the screen and take what we can get? Or should we sit still, and wait till we are served? We try the last expedient first, and get nothing. Then we try the second, and are speedily convinced, by the demeanour of the gentleman behind the screen, that we have committed the worst error of which we have yet been guilty.

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There are other problems--saluting, for instance. On the parade ground this is a simple matter enough; for there the golden rule appears to be--When in doubt, salute! The Colonel calls up his four Company Commanders. They salute. He instructs them to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The Company Commanders salute, and retire to their Companies, and call up their subalterns, who salute. They instruct these to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The sixteen subalterns salute, and retire to their platoons. Here they call up their Platoon Sergeants, who salute. They instruct these to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The Platoon Sergeants salute, and issue commands to the rank and file. The rank and file, having no instructions to salute sergeants, are compelled, as a last resort, to carry on with the coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing themselves. You see, on parade saluting is simplicity itself.

But we are not always on parade; and then more subtle problems arise. Some of those were discussed one day by four junior officers, who sat upon a damp and slippery bank by a muddy roadside during a "fall-out" in a route-march. The four ("reading from left to right," as they say in high journalistic society) were Second Lieutenant Little, Second Lieutenant Waddell, Second Lieutenant Cockerell, and Lieutenant Struthers, surnamed "Highbrow." Bobby we know. Waddell was a slow-moving but pertinacious student of the science of war from the kingdom of Fife. Cockerell came straight from a crack public-school corps, where he had been a cadet officer; so nothing in the heaven above or the earth beneath was hid from him. Struthers owed his superior rank to the fact that in the far back ages, before the days of the O.T.C., he had held a commission in a University Corps. He was a scholar of his College, and was an expert in the art of accumulating masses of knowledge in quick time for examination purposes. He knew all the little red manuals by heart, was an infallible authority on buttons and badges, and would dip into the King's Regulations or the Field Service Pocket-book as another man might dip into the "Sporting Times." Strange to say, he was not very good at drilling a platoon. We all know him.

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The First Hundred Thousand
Ian Hay

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