Best Ever Sandhurst Joke
It is December 1979; we newly commissioned second lieutenants of the British Army, having just completed Standard Military Course 21 at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, are clearing out our rooms and gathering items of uniform and equipment to be returned to stores. Some items will be kept, to follow us through our army career: these are largely the soldier issue received by any recruit into the army, such as camouflage battle dress, khaki flannel (‘KF’ - wool, itchy) shirts, boots (‘DMS’ - Directly Moulded Soul - thin leather, poor quality, leaky), red PT T-shirt, etc; then, in the arcane but endearing way of the army, there were items of officer’s attire, such as the little-worn ‘Number 1’ dress uniform, issued at Sandhurst, which could be purchased for regimental use (the day-to-day ‘Service Dress’ khaki uniform, in which officers of the British Army are often to be seen when in barracks, had to be ordered from an approved tailor, and may or may not already have been obtained). Some items however are peculiar to the Sandhurst training regime, and have to be handed back to stores: prime among these are the drill boots. These are old-fashioned army boots: black, ankle-length, toe-capped, with steel-studded leather soles. Upon these boots many hours of polishing have been expended by each officer cadet, with the aim of bringing them to a high gloss - an activity known as ‘bulling’. It is fair to say these boots were an icon: a gleaming sign of the smartly turned-out cadet; a distillation of the discipline whose inculcation was a pillar of Sandhurst training; and the centre-piece of the immaculate shrine which was the officer cadet’s bedroom (!).
The rooms were set out in platoon corridors: on weekly platoon commander’s inspections, or monthly company commander’s inspections, every item of uniform was displayed perfectly in position, folded or polished, on the bank of storage shelves at one end of the room, with boots in pride of place. The boots would likely be picked up during inspections and turned and examined, as if by a collector examining an antique; various deficiencies in the expected level of perfection might be indicated, at which the cadet would receive a disappointed or condemning look from the platoon sergeant; or occasional praise given such as ‘boots not too bad’, at which the platoon sergeant would allow a slight nod to the fortunate cadet. If an admonishment had been given then a redress, a punishment effectively, of attendance at a ‘show parade’ might be the outcome - this was an extra parade at a late or early hour, at which the offending item must be presented for further inspection.
Every evening when in camp an hour was spent on ‘shining parade’: all members of the platoon would gather in a class room with boots, polish and cloths, and, well, bull their boots - this after an already full day of physical activity and lectures. Actually it was not an arduous duty: shining parade gave an opportunity for a period of calm reflection, amid an atmosphere of gentle platoon socialising, and giving out of notices by the platoon sergeant or platoon commander.
Aside from these inspections, the boots would be subject to scrutiny during daily drill parades taken by the platoon sergeant. Army drill was a mainstay of the training programme at Sandhurst and shiny boots were inherent to drill, as drill was inherent to discipline. Boots - Drill - Discipline: self-discipline to understand one’s self, so to be able to provide the example to the men you will lead. Discipline to achieve smartness and efficiency and pride in your unit, your regiment. But ABOVE ALL, discipline to overcome fear in battle! Disciplined men will be used to obeying orders without thinking, and will still react to orders when it is all going bang around them.
Polishing the boots involved a particular skill: the boots required the shiniest of shiny toe-caps, but had to be bulled all over, too. This was achieved by applying black shoe polish with a soft yellow cloth, in small circular motions all over, accompanied by regular wetting with spit - literally spit-and-polish. Never use a brush. There is one secret tip you might do at the end with cotton wool and water.
But that is not all. The boots are made of dimpled leather. Dimpled leather cannot easily be bulled, so has to be flattened out by ironing with a spoon, heated over a candle; and molten polish, also heated over a candle, is applied in the same manner, to provide a base, or priming, layer. Witness these young men, around 19 years old, hardly having left home, only just taught by the platoon sergeant how to iron a shirt and make a proper bed, now tackling the alchemy of ironing and ingraining leather with polish by crude means, on an evening early in their military careers - witness shouts of ‘My polish is on fire!’ and attendant hasty extinctions, relief, laughter.
This preparation having been carried out, the spit-and-polish bulling would continue throughout the officer cadets’ careers at Sandhurst. By the time of the Sovereign’s Parade, when the successful cadets passed out to become commissioned officers, the boots were (for most cadets - a few unfortunates never really got the knack) a gleaming badge of the blood, sweat and tears you had expended over the previous six months.
The mood in the platoon lines was lighter after the Sovereign’s Parade, suffused with a natural sense of anti-climax, relief the course is over, and anticipation of the posting to come. Parents and girlfriends have been welcomed and departed. There is to be a party later.
Amongst the activity and hubbub of clearing rooms someone asked, “What happens to the boots now?” - a natural question perhaps, of these precious items. Would we keep them? Hand them back? Would they be thrown away?
Up pipes Sandy: “They get sent back to the factory to have the dimples put back on, then get issued to the next course!”