As we’ve a rare snowy day on the Isle of Man, I thought I’d share a wintery excerpt from An Unconventional Officer although snow in Yorkshire is a bit more common…
Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry is in temporary charge of the 115th Yorkshire foot, a regiment in chaos. His attempts to impose some discipline haven’t been popular resulting in one of the men throwing a rock at his head and causing him to be thrown in a blizzard. In addition, he hasn’t had any breakfast…
He arrived in barracks over an hour later, having given Rufus an easy ride, careful of his legs in the snow. The horse was surprisingly well for his night’s ordeal, and acting on instinct Paul followed his hoof prints in the snow to find out where he had been. The results were interesting. He rode into the stable and dismounted, handing the reins to a groom with a pleasant nod. There was no sign of life out on the pure white snow of the parade ground. Paul walked over and tested the depth. It was a pleasing eight or nine inches with an underlying layer of ice.
He walked over to the stores, nodded to the elderly sergeant who acted as store master, and walked through to the back. He was aware of the old man’s puzzled regard as he lifted a rifle down from the rack, and checked it, then collected some ammunition. Standing in the doorway he loaded swiftly, observing the surprised expression on the store master’s face at the speed. Carter or any one of his rifles would have considered it slow, but for an officer who did not practice regularly it was impressive. Nodding again, he walked out of the store and across to the mess. It was warm inside. Paul leaned the rifle up against the inside of the door and surveyed his officers benignly.
There were seven of them. Lieutenant Carlyon was not present, presumably at home still suffering from the after effects of having a tooth drawn. Paul was glad, as it absolved him of any possible hint of favouritism. Captain Moore was lounging closest to the fire, with his boots on the fender. Beside him sat Lieutenants Bagnall, Walsh and Hendry. A pack of cards was strewn across the table before them. The three young ensigns were sitting further away from the fire. As Paul entered, all heads turned.
“Don’t get up,” he said gently, and every man scrambled reluctantly to his feet, Moore taking the longest. Paul waved them to their seats. Ensign Franklin’s eyes widened. “What happened to your head, sir?” he asked.
“An accident on my way here yesterday.”
“Were you caught in that storm?” Moore said casually.
“In a manner of speaking. Somebody threw a rock at my head on my way here and I ended up decorating the road with a twisted knee and no horse. I rather imagined that Rufus would have made his way back here, but I’m guessing not. Or you’d have sent somebody out to look for me.”
Walsh looked at the others. “No, sir. Was he…did you get him back?”
“Oh yes. He must have been running loose all night in that storm, and then made his way back to find me. Fortunately I found a shepherd’s hut to spend the night in, because I couldn’t have walked that far in that weather.”
“Thank God for that, sir,” Bagnall said heartily. Paul looked around at the seven men, noticing the obvious discomfort of the three ensigns.
“No drill this morning?” Paul asked, still pleasantly.
“No, sir. Parade ground snowed under.”
“Ah, yes. Never mind.” Paul allowed his eyes to wander from one face to another. Ensign Franklin, who seemed to be the most perceptive, was looking terrified. “I expect it won’t take too long to clear.”
They stared at him owlishly, and Paul smiled. He picked up the rifle.
“Anyone load one of these?” he enquired.
“I know how, sir,” Hendry said. “Not often had to do it.”
“I’ve found it useful to learn. Keeps the men on their toes. I’ve half a dozen riflemen in the light company, and they’d laugh themselves silly at how slow I am. Nevertheless, I think I can probably engage to reload fast enough to put a ball through every one of you fucking liars before any of you could get out of the room. Who wants to go first?”
He lifted the rifle and aimed it squarely at Walsh’s knee. Walsh gave a nervous laugh.
“Shouldn’t wave that thing around in here, sir. I mean I know it’s not loaded, but…”
Paul lowered the rifle slightly and fired. The shot hit the floor between Walsh’s feet and the man yelled and leaped backwards, almost stumbling into the fire in his haste. Paul reloaded. Nobody else moved.
“Rufus’ saddle and tack were bone dry this morning when he turned up looking for me,” he said quietly. “So I followed his tracks. Of course the ones he made yesterday would have been covered up. But this morning they led all the way from his stable. He turned up here yesterday, just as I thought, and you all decided to have a jolly good laugh about me getting thrown on the road, and stuck out in that storm. And if I’d frozen to death in a ditch, you’d have shaken your heads and silently thanked God that there was nobody here to kick your lazy, useless arses into action any further! And you know what? That is not what has pissed me off! What has really made me fucking angry is that this morning you saddled my horse and sent him off on his own to God knows where, in weather likely to cause him to break his legs just so that I wouldn’t be able to work out what you’d done! You are so bloody lucky that he’s got more brain than you have and managed to get to me in one piece, because if I’d had to shoot him with a broken leg, I’d have shot you as well! You take it out on me and I can hit back and we’re even! But when you turn on my animals, I am going to make your lives a bloody misery from now until they either post me somewhere else or you sell out!”
He turned, opened the door, and roared:
There was a scramble in the nearest barracks and Sergeant Holland appeared, stuffing his feet into his boots and pulling up his trousers. “Sir?” he said, sounding incredulous.
“Battalion on the parade ground, Sergeant. Now!”
The sergeant stared out at the pure white expanse. “But sir…”
“Ten minutes, Sergeant! And you ought to be able to do it in five! You’re a bloody disgrace!”
Holland saluted. “Yes, sir.”
He jogged off. Paul turned to find a private standing before him, obviously dressed for sentry duty. He saluted and handed Paul a letter. “This just came for you, sir.”
“Thank you.” Paul gave a brief smile, and opened the letter. He scanned it and gave an appreciative grin. It was a very civil note from Lady Howard, thanking him for his assistance in getting her step-daughter to shelter during the storm and inviting him to dine before the ball on Thursday.
He looked up. “Will you wait a moment, Private? I’d like to reply immediately, and you can send one of the grooms with it.”
Paul looked back at his officers. They were still frozen to the spot, staring at him. “I want that parade ground cleared,” he said. “From barracks wall to barracks wall. And when you get to the bottom of the snow, I want the ice chipped away as well. It will be fit for use by tomorrow, I imagine, and you’ll all be nice and warm by then.”
“Sir?” Bagnall stammered.
“Yes, Lieutenant. You. Each and every one of you. Set your men a good example for once in your lives, go and get a spade each and get digging alongside them. And if I see you stop for anything longer than a piss, I’m going to shoot you for mutiny. And before you open your mouth, Walsh, I know your father is high up at Horse Guards, and if he turns up here whining about it, I’ll shoot him as well! Don’t worry, I can make it look like a training accident. I’ve done it before!” He surveyed the seven men with merciless blue eyes. “The reason you’ve got four companies of lazy useless gobshites is because they’re led by lazy useless gobshites! I intend to amend that, starting from now. Get moving!”
(From an Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)