Army trials highlight the best of our youth

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

‘Are you sure, red one? Think carefully, red one.’ The Group Leader’s unflinching gaze bore into the nervous-looking young man stood in front of an audience of six of his peers and three high-ranking Army officers who looked on impassively while scribbling on large, white noteboards.

The other candidates sat in mute sympathy in a semi-circle with their backs to me, clad in all-in-one green jump suits – distinguishable only by the numbers on their red bibs.

You could have heard a pin drop in the briefing room as the lad shuffled uncomfortably, looked to the ceiling for inspiration and then replied: ‘1500 hours, sir?’, more in hope than anything.

‘You’re making it up, red one,’ replied the emotionless young Rifles officer from behind his desk. ‘Does anyone else know the answer? How about you, red three?’

And so it went on for two hours as each member of ‘red group’ was put under the spotlight during the planning exercise element of their three-day assessment at the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) at Westbury in Wiltshire.

You may have heard of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – the British Army’s initial training centre for officers. Well, to get to Sandhurst you have to graduate, for want of a better phrase, from AOSB.

In order to be selected for officer training, a candidate – male or female – has to prove themselves mentally and physically able to cope with the rigours of one of the toughest jobs in the world.

There is no hiding place for candidates at Westbury: It isn’t just a matter of how academically gifted you are; It isn’t just a matter of how fit you are; It certainly doesn’t matter if you have a relative who was or is a serving officer. There are no ‘jobs for the boys’. Or girls, for that matter.

At Westbury all young men and women are equal. It matters not whether you attended a state or private school or whether you have a plummy accent or grew up on a rough northern council estate. AOSB is a genuine leveller.

Referred to only by the colour of their bib and a randomly-assigned number, over several days candidates are put through a complex series of assessments designed to expose any weaknesses and character flaws.

I was shown a picture of His Royal Highness Prince Harry, taken during his time at AOSB. “He was Blue 13,” said one of the officers with clear pride. “He was treated no differently to anyone else. The truth is, first and foremost, Harry’s a very good soldier.”

If he hadn’t of been, HRH simply wouldn’t have made it through Westbury. As one Lieutenant Colonel told me: “I’ve just returned from Afghan, so I’m fairly ‘current’. There’s nothing like an operational tour to reinforce the fact that we can’t afford to have weak leaders for our soldiers because they could get people killed.”

Amen.

It is a fascinating and, at times, emotionally draining experience to watch these young people give their all to join Sandhurst’s elite.

You can’t help but feel for them. Indeed, at times it’s human nature for a civilian observer like me to even root for them – if only to alleviate the awful, awkward silence as they grapple with a complex equation or struggle desperately on an outdoor obstacle. Bear in mind the candidates receive no affirmation. They are given no positive or negative feedback during the process.

They have no idea how they are being scored on those ubiquitous white boards the assessors carry around.

During their time at AOSB the candidates live together, eat together and endure together a series of tests which will, ultimately, result in almost half of them being rejected – or ‘not selected’ in kinder phraseology. They can apply for selection once more, but AOSB operates a strict ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy – and it’s worth saying that 20 per cent more candidates pass at the second attempt.

Set in the beautiful grounds of an impressive country house, Westbury immediately sets a tone which is aspirational.

Candidates are not competing against each other. Instead they are competing against the minimum standard expected of an Army officer.

That could be, for example, completing X number of obstacles on the individual assault course in three minutes. Or it could be how they score when briefing their peers on a command task. Or it could be displaying a degree of empathy or the integrity expected of someone who may one day lead troops into a fire-fight or represent his or her country in a battle for hearts and minds.

At every point during the three-day process the candidates are observed by a number of officers who are themselves being monitored by an assessor whose job it is to ensure that standards are maintained across the board and that each candidate is given the same opportunity and undergoes the same level of scrutiny as their peers.

The officers who will ultimately make the decision on who is selected (and who isn’t) do not compare notes during the assessment. They focus solely on their part of the process. Some have limited knowledge of a candidate’s background and academic prowess – others do not even know a candidate’s name throughout the testing.

On Friday morning the officers come together as a ‘board’ to discuss each young person in depth and score them according to a remarkably scientific yet flexible grading system.

As someone who takes great interest in the military and is exceptionally proud of this newspaper’s long links with the Armed Forces and our local units, what was so reassuring about my visit to Westbury was that so much time and resource was devoted to each individual. The system is fair and robust. Nothing is left to chance when choosing the officers to lead our boys (and girls) into battle.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter which part of the country you’re from, what school you attended or what your parents do for a living. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The bottom line is: Anyone can earn a place at Sandhurst – if they’re made of the right stuff.

What was also life-affirming is that by the end of the week even those candidates who were patently struggling by all AOSB measures had been accepted into their ‘team’ and were receiving the same sort of help, support and encouragement from their peers that one would expect from a platoon commander: The kind of support they can expect from the Army ‘family’.

If you’re wondering what happened to ‘red one’, he passed. Bright as a button, extremely likeable and with good leadership potential he has been identified as having the raw potential for being a fine officer one day.

He received his congratulatory letter this week and will be at Sandhurst in a few months.

All the young people I saw were the best of their generation. Exposed to the stress of thorough interviews, tough physical assessments, academic trials and mental aptitude tests they were pushed to their limits without complaint.

I came away with nothing but admiration for both those who were selected for Sandhurst and those who weren’t but who, during their time at Westbury, learned an awful lot about themselves in what is, effectively, an intensive three-day job interview.

It underlined for me the importance of looking for the potential in all young people and the dangers of judging any book by its cover.

For more information about applying to become an Army officer, visit: http://www.army.mod.uk/join

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Don’t celebrate, but be proud of what our lads achieved during the Great War

British Tommies in a shallow trench during the Battle of the Somme.

British Tommies in a shallow trench during the Battle of the Somme.

This week the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War has been brought sharply into focus with the revealing of digitised British Army war diaries by the National Archives.

My gaffer here at The Sentinel downloaded the diary for the battalion which my great grandfather Private William Tansey served with (1st North Staffs) and it provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily activities, stories and battles of his unit.

Sometimes history can seem foggy, irrelevant and difficult to grasp – with our knowledge of what has gone before often based on best guesses and assumptions.

But the First World War is recent enough to be within emotional touching distance. Farmers in France and Belgium continue to plough up the detritus of this monumental conflict. Archaeologists are working hard in fields once criss-crossed with trenches and barbed wire under which tunnels unexplored for the best part of a century still lie.

The last combat veteran of the First World War, Royal Navy man Claude Choules, died in Australia aged 110 less than three years ago.

Wonderful books like The Last Fighting Tommy – which tell the story of Harry Patch – have reawakened our collective consciousness to the heroism, sacrifice and suffering of a generation still remembered by their sons, daughters and grandchildren. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend doing so.

It was a war unlike any other defined by senseless slaughter and brutal attritional conflict – occasionally tempered by the simple, common humanity of the ordinary men from both sides on the front lines of muddy trenches on the Western Front.

Over the last 20 or 30 years much of the focus of historians has been on the unnecessary loss of life. The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ is bandied around as accepted wisdom by people who know little or nothing about the Great War.

At present there’s great angst and hand-wringing going on over how we as a nation should mark the centenary of the start of the ‘War To End All Wars’ – not least because of a strange notion that we shouldn’t upset our friends on the continent.

Some have labelled The Great War ‘celebration’ a political football and Plaid Cymru candidate Dai Lloyd proved them right this week by making headlines when he called for the Royal Mint’s commemorative coin featuring a likeness of Lord Kitchener and the iconic ‘Your country needs you’ slogan to be scrapped.

Of course, the word ‘celebration’ is misplaced in the context of the First World War centenary. I don’t think anyone is actually advocating a celebration. I’ve always believed that with regard to the conflict we should pay due respect to the people who lived through it by reflecting their feelings and opinions towards it.

To that end The Sentinel is planning a series of souvenir supplements this year and I’ve been trawling through our archives to see exactly what we have by way of Great War articles and images.

It turns out we have a lot and you can expect letters from the front, brilliantly-detailed archive articles and evocative first-hand accounts from local soldiers from your Sentinel in the coming months.

In 1968, 50 years after the conflict ended, Sentinel reporter Dave Leake interviewed veterans who were by then in their seventies and eighties.

Time and again they would tell him ‘Don’t make me out to be a bloody hero – I was just doing my job’. They spoke about the ‘grand lads’ they went to war with – many of whom never returned.

They didn’t complain or obsess about the conditions in which battles were fought because these were hard men, many of whom had worked down pits or were well used to heavy manual labour.

What began as a great adventure for many turned into a fight for survival and their tales of individual bravery, gut-wrenching loss and bizarre blind luck make for compelling reading.

But what also comes across is the undeniable sense that they believed the cause they were fighting for was just. That they had a sense of duty to their King and country and that it was right to take on the Kaiser’s men.

When victory, and it was a victory, was at last achieved – thanks in no small part to the men of the British 46th (North Midlands) Division which included the North and South Staffords – the combatants saw it as such.

They had won and forced the German High Command to inform Kaiser Wilhelm II that his Army’s position was hopeless. It was, to our lads, an achievement – a victory paid for in blood and with hard graft over several years.

We don’t have to celebrate this but we should at least acknowledge these facts because they were important to the men who returned home to Britain.

It is a sobering thought when you learn that 12,410 men from the North and South Staffords – the predecessor of our local regiment The Staffords (now 3Mercian) were listed as killed or missing during the Great War.

The scale of the conflict is underlined by the fact that by the end of 1918 more men had worn the Staffordshire knot emblem during the previous four years than are serving in the entire regular British Army today.

Thousands more, of course, from our neck of the woods were killed or wounded while serving with other units across all three branches of our Armed Forces.

These staggering statistics bring home to us that it was a war which touched almost every family across all communities.

We all have relatives who fought during the Great War and this therefore connects us all to the conflict in a very personal way.

I see the centenary as a one-off opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifices our ancestors made and to educate current and future generations about the First World War and the mistakes that were made in order that we are able to learn from them.

It isn’t a celebration but that doesn’t mean we should not be rightly proud of the men from our area who fought on battleships, flew with the fledgling RAF or smashed through the Hindenberg Line in September 1918 – helping to shorten the war and, in doing so, saved countless lives.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Pay our brave soldiers the respect they deserve

It is a sad fact that the veterans of World War II won’t be with us for much longer to mark cataclysmic events such as the D-Day Landings.

This weekend’s incredibly poignant commemorations of the invasion which spelt the beginning of the end for the Nazi war machine involved old soldiers who are now in their mid to late eighties.

It is 65 years since they joined 160,000 allied troops in the largest ever, single day amphibious assault and, one by one, the last of that great generation are making their final salutes.

When you read their memories of that momentous time in history it is incredibly humbling.

None of them consider themselves heroes. They just “had a job to do”, as one Fenton veteran put it last week.

This statement seems patently ridiculous to most of us and is one which, perhaps, only servicemen and women can truly understand.

Suffice to say that it is because of such individuals that people like myself are able to sit around pontificating the rights and wrongs of major world events such as the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We may not always believe that the actions of our Armed Forces are justified.

However, the truth is that most of us have family or friends who have, at some point, risked their lives for Queen (or King) and country.

Take my own family, for instance. The bloke on the end of the bottom row on the picture above is my great grandfather, William Tansey. Or should I say, private William Tansey, of B Company, 1st Battalion, the North Staffs Regiment.

He died forty odd years before I was born.

However, his First World War medals – the 1914-18 ‘Mons Star’, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – came into my possession when my nan died a few years ago.

They, and the picture of him with his comrades, taken before they shipped out to France, are among my most treasured possessions.

I never knew William Tansey but I have very fond recollections of another ex-serviceman in my family.

My mum’s brother, David Colclough, who lived in Cobridge all his life, was – to borrow a quaint phrase – one of the nicest men ever to put on a pair of shoes.

To me, he was just uncle Dave – the man who made me bacon and potato pie, let me watch The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings while my mum was out shopping (back when Burslem had shops and an indoor market) and taught me to recite all the ranks in the British Army off by heart.

He never spoke of his war service but I know his glass eye was the result of a shrapnel wound and that he was held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Uncle Dave died in 1994 but my grandfather’s brother – my great uncle Dennis Tideswell – is still going strong.

Dennis, who lives in Bucknall, is a veteran of the Malayan Emergency, when he fought in the jungle with the Worcestershire Regiment, and he often speaks with great fondness of his old pals in the forces.

He has an infectious enthusiasm which he channels into organising reunions for ‘the lads’, as he calls them, and is involved in organising the annual veterans’ celebrations in the city.

Dennis is a true gentleman and, like my great-grandfather and my uncle Dave, I am extremely proud of him.

As you read this, many of our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives in the heat of the Middle East.

It is in recognition of these brave men and women, as well as all those before them who have fought for us in various wars and conflicts around the globe, that the Armed Forces Day parades will take place across the country later this month.

So, on June 27, let us pay them the respect they deserve and show them just how grateful we are.

Moreover, when you next visit Morrison’s supermarket at Festival Park, rather than being solely focused on your shopping list, make a point of clocking the roundabout and say a little prayer of thanks for our own Victoria Cross winner, Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, whose bravery at Arnhem is immortalised with that impressive statue.

And, when you next see a soldier, smile at him or her or, better still, buy them a drink.

They are special people for special circumstances and, irrespective of the passing of time, this is something we must never forget.