army cadet corps… and remembrance

I was in town first thing yesterday morning… I was outside our city centre church (Saint Stephen’s), just a stone’s throw from the crowds gathering for the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. An army officer rode past on a white horse… and it immediately took me back to my school days at Handsworth Grammar in Birmingham.

Each year, the school’s cadet corps had a large parade – they marched (complete with a full band of drummers and buglers) from the school to the sports ground off Wood Lane, two miles away… and they were always led by the Divinity master (and Army officer, of course!) who rode a huge white horse.
Our school was ‘big’ on the Army Cadet Corps… it had its own fully-equipped armoury on school premises (complete with rifles, bayonets and bullets!) and its own firing range (set up next to the woodwork block!). The firing range consisted of a high brick wall, with battered earth in front to house the targets. We used the firing range as one of our playground ‘goalmouths’, of course!
There was something of an expectation for all boys to sign up for the Cadet Corps and I think most did. But NOT our Form. I was in the ‘Remove Stream’ at school – we were in the ‘fast stream’ earmarked to take our ‘O’ Levels in 4 years instead of 5. When it came to the time for signing up (in 1962/63, when we were perhaps 14 years old?), absolutely NO ONE in our class volunteered to ‘join up’. The assigned ‘Cadet Corps Masters’ were incredulous… “never in the history of the school has this ever happened” (or words to that effect). I recall the ‘Top Dog’ Corps Master coming to lecture us… it was our DUTY… we were the school’s future Cadet Corps OFFICERS for goodness sake (implying that, as the ‘bright’ ones, we were required to pull the others ‘into shape’). It had absolutely no effect… none of us joined up. It’s something I look back on with a certain pride… you might think our actions were inappropriate, unwarranted or misguided but, like the climate change school pupils of today, I think we were making our own small statement… and, naïve as it might be, I’m very pleased that we did.
Why was this?
Well, I think we were making a collective statement. I don’t think it happened because we’d got together to discuss whether or not we should join the ‘Corps’. I think it was just a gut feeling that a number of us had and others joined as things developed.

Crucially, I think it was our instinctive reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October 1962).
People forget what an incredibly frightening time it was. To many of us, it felt as if we were on the brink of a nuclear war. I can still recall a recurring nightmare I used to have… watching a nuclear bomb falling from the sky from red aeroplane flying above our house. I can also recall pupils at school (me included) having conversations with masters and asking them what was the point of us learning stuff if we’re all going to die!
I have huge respect for those who have fought for their countries in wars, but I also despair for the innocent victims. I think it’s vitally important that we remember those millions who have died fighting these wars. Each year I wear my poppy… but, like you no doubt, I long for a world without conflict… and, instinctively, I’m in favour of nuclear disarmament. I think the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 coloured my thinking about conflict… and has continued to do so for the past 55 years or so.

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