Thursday, 4 September 2008

A dog pen would be a nice place to spend the night

One thing the infantry taught me is that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's likely that you will spend at least a few nights being wet, cold and miserable. It's the nature of the places where you operate, the jobs that the infantry has to do and the way the infantry has to operate.

To start with, whilst it was very common in Napoleonic times for the army to accomodate itself in private houses (a practice very much in use during WWII), it doesn't seem to happen much these days. A small unit (such as a squad or a section) might run an OP (observation post) from a private dwelling, but they are only in that dwelling for the purpose of observation, or to use it as a fighting position. They are not using it as a place to cook, wash, eat and sleep.

The most luxurious accommodation I ever had during an exercise was a school hall, which meant that I got to sleep on concrete covered in a very thin layer of the cheapest carpet that the education department could buy. Which of course was then worn to a crisp by years of abuse by thousands of kids.

But it had a roof, which kept the rain off, and walls which stopped the wind whistling in. It had a floor, which whilst hard, was not made up of lumpy rocks and sticks mixed in with mud, and it lacked the creeping and crawling insects and other things that usually found their way into my sleeping bag during the night.

That's because we generally spent the entire exercise living out in the open. We had a few 10x10 tents, but they were not for sleeping in. One of two would be occupied by headquarters and the signallers, another by the RAP (Regimental Aid Post, which housed the medics) and another two by the Q store (quartermaster) and transport (the truckies). If we had some engineers or mechanics, they might rate another tent as well.

The reason those groups had tents is because they had stuff that had to be kept out of the weather, and that stuff was not people. Radios work better when dry. Paperwork is easier to do at night when you have light to work with (and that requires working in a tent that keeps the light in). Stores are less likely to be nicked if they can be held in an enclosed tent. Even though the CO had a tent to work in, he slept like we did - under a hootchie, or in warmer weather, maybe on the ground wrapped in a large plastic garbage bag.

We were light infantry, which meant we walked everywhere, and everything we owned was carried on our backs. We carried as much as possible, but as little of everything as possible. Toothbrush handles were cut down to save weight. A two week exercise would be done wearing one set of clothes, with a spare set in the rucksack. The spares might only be worn at night (because it is more comfortable to sleep in clean clothes), or when the regular set got wet and muddy. When we were issued with rat packs (rations), we'd go through them before packing them away and strip out anything nonessential to save weight.

This of course meant no luxuries, because luxuries meant weight, and too much weight could kill. It meant spending your own money on a good, lightweight sleeping bag, because the army issue ones were bulky and heavy. It meant buying your own lightweight self inflating ground mat, because the army issued inflatable mattresses were a joke. In summer, a sleeping bag might be dispensed with entirely, with the rougher types simply using a few Glad garbage bags as insulation, because garbage bags are lighter to carry than even an expensive lightweight sleeping bag.

Can you imagine going out into your backyard tonight and sleeping in your garden, wrapped only in two garbage bags? You put your legs into one, and cut a hole in the bottom of the other, put your head through the hole and use that to cover your torso. And I don't mean sleeping on your nice soft lawn - I mean sleeping in amongst the plants, in the dirt. Perhaps on the bark or woodchips that you use to keep the weeds down. Your pillow will be the bumpack or waterbottle on your webbing. And don't even think about taking your boots off. If the ground is not too hard, you can dig a small hole for your hip, making lying on your side more comfortable. But you'll be rolling over constantly, because bits of your body will fall asleep as the rough ground cuts off circulation to one part or another.

If it's really cold, you'll be wearing both your clean uniform and your dirty uniform to provide two layers of warmth. You might even have your rifle in your sleeping bag in order to keep it warm and dry. Ever slept with 5 kilos of metal and wood with all sorts of protruding edges? Ever slept for two weeks with your boots on every night? You get to rotate your socks every few days, but you're sleeping with boots over socks that have been worn on and off for two weeks with maybe the odd rinse here and there.

Depending on where you are, there might be clouds of mosquitoes. They army issues you with an incredibly nasty insect repellant, which can also be used as a gun lubricant in a pinch, but it never seems to keep the little biting bastards away. Sleeping with a balaklava pulled right over the head can help to keep them away, but then they just bite you on your eyelids and lips.

If it rains, it's just tough. Gun piquet still has to be done, even if the temperature is just above freezing and the rain is pouring down. We never had time to really dig in properly, so our fighting positions never had overhead cover to keep the rain out. If we were in one place for a few days, we might manage to dig a U-shaped gun pit that was deep enough to stand in and fight from. If we were really lucky, and were supplied with corrugated iron and star pickets and fencing wire, we might get to line the walls with tin (to stop the dirt from caving in) and to put some overhead protection on the arms of the U (ie, a roof to keep out shrapnel from mortars and the like). But the bit where we stood and fought from was never covered due to a lack of time, so we simply stood in the rain like drenched sentinels, willing our two hour stag to be over.

I spent quite a few nights on gun piquet with my upper body draped in empty sandbags, because the hessian cover was reasonably good at keeping the water out and the body heat in. The sandbags had all been filled with sand at some point, so although they kept most of the water out, it meant that I finished the two hour stag covered in a fine layer of mud if it was raining. And of course the bottom of the gun pit would have a few inches of water or mud in it, which would mean absolute misery if your boots leaked.

In short, life in the light infantry could be tough and miserable and cold and nasty. It was not a life for the faint hearted or the weak. I have slept in a shallow trench, wrapped in nothing but sandbags and lying in a couple of inches of cold mud with the rain falling on my face. I have had the misfortune to bed down in a slight hollow for the night and discovered in the morning that it was a kangaroo nest, meaning that it was full of kangaroo ticks, which meant I spent an hour with a mate burning ticks out of my skin. I've slept on the ground in places crawling with leeches, and had to salt them off my skin in the morning. I watched our section commander gently remove one from the end of his cock one morning, much to the amusement of everyone around him.

My experiences of sleeping rough in the bush have conditioned me to sleep just about anywhere. I have slept on a pile of rucksacks in the back of a truck bumping along rough bush tracks. I have slept on the bare metal of a tray ute under a tornau cover (in order to stay out of the rain). I have slept on hay bales in shearing sheds. I can sleep happily on just about any form of couch in anyone's loungeroom. A mattress to crash on in a mate's living room floor is luxury. In my youth, I have made it halfway home from the pub after a few too many drinks and slept the night in the odd garden, happily wrapped in newspapers gathered from neighbouring lawns. I have cuddled dogs for comfort. I have made it home from the pub as a batchelor, only to be greeted by an unmade bed and the sheets in the washing machine, and slept on the bare mattress under a pile of dirty laundry.

Which is why I viewed the whole "dog pen" story with such disdain. If that wanker Bob Brown had actually spent some time serving his country in any of the combat arms, he'd know what it can be like at the pointy end of military service. The infantry do it tough, so their prisoners have to do it tough too, because there is no comfortable place for anyone to spend the night. A patrol base is not a 5 star B&B. Even the homeless bums stumbling drunkenly around Sydney can find a better place to sleep tonight than some of our servicemen in Afghanistan.

That's not because of pennypinching or bastardry on the part of the army - it's because that's what operational conditions dictate, and it's because a good infantryman will sleep anywhere at anytime. I'd rather sleep in a dog pen, which is warm and dry and offers some protection from rockets and mortars, than in a location which is cold and wet and exposed to fire. Any sane person would. Only softcocks who have never spent weeks sleeping rough would fail to understand that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

u r a choc clown, get a life!!