It wasn’t a lot of fun being duty officer. On call during weekday nights or whole weekends, we spent our evenings sitting alone at a desk in the adjutant’s office, and sleeping near a phone, fully-dressed, on a camp bed in a room that was often as cozy and commodious as a broom closet or a kennel. It’s no wonder that the duty officer was nicknamed duty dog.
On a quiet night you might handle a routine phone call from brigade headquarters, or deal with a minor fire caused by a drunken soldier falling asleep while smoking in bed. But on one occasion I had to confront an abusive street-walker who was causing a scene at the barrack gate, complaining she’d been wronged by one of our troops.
Among the duty officer’s routines was keeping the sentries on their toes. Once every night, some time between midnight and six in the morning, we’d make a surprise visit to the eight soldiers who, woken while snatching a nap in the guard house between their turns on sentry duty, would tumble out under the dim yellow lights, yawning and tousled, their weapons ready for inspection.
An even less popular function as duty dog was accompanying the duty sergeant-major to the cookhouse, to inspect the mens’ meals and invite complaints. The food was terrible, yet this routine of asking for complaints had been a tradition in the British Army since long before the battle of Waterloo, and both officers and men knew it was a pointless exercise. But it did give even the most lowly ranking soldier an opportunity for a joke at a junior officer’s expense. The duty officer would approach each table and ask: “Any complaints?” Normally, old soldiers, knowing the score, would grin and shake their heads, but from time to time some barrack-room comedian would say “Well, since you asked, Sir, the caviar’s not too fresh today.” The sergeant-major would growl something on the lines of “That’s enough from you, you cheeky young bugger!” and we’d pass on.
But some nights there were real dramas. One of my first spells as duty officer was at Ballykinlar camp in Northern Ireland, a remote spot where the Mountains of Mourrne really do sweep down to the sea as it’s said in the song. I had a call from a corporal’s wife in the battalion’s married quarters. Her husband was away on a posting somewhere, and she was bellowing with pain, calling for a breast pump. I was a few weeks short of my twenty-first birthday, and had no idea what a breast-pump was, nor why she’d ever ask for such a thing, but her need was clearly desperate, and I dispatched a driver the twenty or thirty miles to the nearest hospital. Meanwhile, her voice growing more hysterical, the unhappy woman called me every few minutes until the mysterious gadget arrived.
In a more poignant episode in the British Zone in occupied Germany, I had a phone call from the adjutant at our regimental depot back in England.
“Tricky job, John,” he said. “Corporal Randall’s mother’s died. Heart attack. ‘Fraid you’ll have to see the chap and give him the bad news.”
It was about seven in the evening on a Friday nightt, and the camp was deserted. I went down to Randall’s barrack room, where I found a lone soldier lying on his bed, reading a newspaper.
“Have you seen Corporal Randall?”
The man jumped up and shuffled to attention.
“They’re all out, sir. It’s pay day, see?”
“All right,” I said. “When he gets back, tell him to see the duty officer, will you?”
It was past midnight when there was a knock at the door of my room.
“I’m Randall, sir. You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, I said. “Come inside for a moment.”
There were several hundred men in the battalion, and we’d never seen each other before. He entered a little hesitantly, removing his beret. I offered him a seat, clearing my tunic and belt from the only chair in the cramped little room.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Randall.”
I held out an open pack of cigarettes. He took one and I lit it for him.
“Bad news, sir?”
“Yes. I . . . I had a call from the depot tonight.” I told him. “It seems your mother was taken ill. They asked me to tell you she . . . well . . . she died this afternoon. I’m very sorry.”
Randall said nothing. He lowered his eyes and took a deep drag on his cigarette. Then he said “She ‘ad one of them attacks before, See? We was always afraid she might ‘ave another one.”
We talked for a while about his family, and then he stood up, preparing to leave. A little self-consciously I put an arm round his shoulder. “Listen, it’s late,” I said. “Try to get some sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make out a travel warrant and send you home. OK?”
The next morning, just as I was going off-duty, I had another call from England.
“Morning, John,” the adjutant said. “I say . . . awfully embarrassing thing . . . turns out it wasn’t Randall’s mother who died.”
I found it hard to hide my incredulity.
“Well, who was it?”
“It’s an odd business. Seems it was his girl-friend’s mother. Not quite the same thing, what? Awfully, sorry, old boy.”
It was just before seven in the morning, and I sent someone to fetch Randall. Again, he knocked on the door.
“I hardly know how to tell you this,” I said.
But to my astonishment, he actually grinned when I told him the true story.
“I didn’t like her a lot, to tell the truth, sir” he said. “And she’d have been a freakin’ awful mother-in-law.”
There was a genuinely tragic incident a year or two later, when I was duty officer on the island of Cyprus. This time my visitor was another corporal, but unlike Randall – who’d been a fresh-faced draftee of about twenty years old – this man, with two rows of campaign medals on his chest, was a sun-shriveled veteran in his late forties, or older.
Corporal Benson was an armorer in one of the rifle companies. Each company had its own armory, where its weapons and ammunition were stored. The armories were stone buildings without windows, whose doors, like those in stables, were in two halves, so that the top section could be opened independently. Each armorer slept in his own dingy store room.
Benson was shaking with emotion when he came to see me. As he told it, a few evenings earlier he’d been sitting alone, naked on his bed doing something to himself that it’s impossible to define with any delicacy. While he was engaged in this solitary act, and unaware that he had an audience, some of his comrades had apparently peered into his shadowy quarters and taken a photo of him.
“They took a picture of you?”
“They did, sir.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“They’re showing pictures of me . . . well . . . doin’ it, around the canteen.”
“Have you seen these pictures? Actually seen them?”
“Well, no, sir. Not the pictures themselves.”
“Tell me this,” I said. “Did you see a flash go off when they took the pictures?”
Benson thought for a moment. “No. There wasn’t no flash. Not as I noticed. But I did look up and see them there.”
“Did you see the camera?”
“No, Sir. Can’t say I did.”
As I had done with Randall, I offered the man a cigarette. I weighed-up the story in my mind. The armories were dark inside and, by his account, Corporal Benson had been all of twenty feet from the doorway. Without a flash bulb it would have been impossible – absolutely impossible – to take a picture. I was convinced that he was being fooled by his comrades, and I told him so.
We talked for a while, and slowly Benson seemed to become as sure as I was that, embarrassing though his situation was, he’d been the victim of a mean practical joke, and no photographs were really being passed round to shame him further. He returned to his armory relaxed and encouraged. Or so I supposed.
But back in his room, Benson took a revolver, inserted a single round in the drum, stuck the weapon in his mouth, and killed himself.
At the subsequent enquiry it turned out that there had, indeed, been no photographs. But even now, even more than half a century later, I can still see the anguish in Benson’s tired old eyes, and I can’t help asking myself what else I might have said to him, and what further comfort I might have offered.