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All Sewn Up

by Tom Probert

1. Somewhere in Yorkshire.

“Always carry a housewife; you never know when it will come in handy”.

Cold and wet in deepest, darkest Yorkshire the advice splashed out my ear and found that gap between neck and collar. Instead I was meditating on the subtle differences of discomfort. My conclusion that cold was bad, wet was bad and cold and wet was very bad, was not ground breaking. They say the trick is to think about something else. One of the blokes would carry a picture of a fire with him and stare at it to keep warm. Zen master or madman I’ll leave up to you but we all worried about the smoke giving our position away.

That same bloke went off to selection a couple of years later and the story came back that he was out on an exercise one night and had to dig in. He was getting on with it when from the darkness came an angry whisper that he was making too much noise. His solution was simple, every time his shovel hit the ground he let out a nice round cough.

To the unregimented, a “housewife” is a small customized sewing kit carried everywhere, air, land and sea, to break out in an emergency and make running repairs to your personal kit and equipment, hence “housewife”.

Like the Boy Scouts, the Army loves a merit badge. So along with bayonet fighting and the correct way to set an ambush, sewing is one of the essential survival skills you pick up. Generally, the officers like to collect the pips and crown badges while the enlisted men like to collect the chevron badges. Everyone likes to get the special badges. The Commandos run around strangling chickens to get their badge. The extra special flying boat service like to pretend to be the scenery to get theirs and the Para’s risk everything on, to be fair, a beautiful bit of RAF sewing to get theirs.

As mentioned then, the problem is that all of these badges have to be sewn on to all of your uniforms. The officers as in most things pay someone else to do it and the old soldiers get their wives to do it. However, for many, a new badge usually means ten minutes of stabbing yourself in the thumb, thigh and forefinger, followed by ripping it off again to sew it on in the right place.

The second problem with all the running and jumping you have to do to get the badge is that it inevitably leads to ripped uniforms. This second problem contains a further problem, like when you’re a kid and you’ve ripped your going out trousers and don’t want to tell your mum, when you’ve ripped your fatigues you don’t particularly want to go and tell your Colourman. The Colourman or Colour Sergeant is traditionally a very angry man and will jealously guard his stores like the gold crazed cowboys of the Sunday afternoon westerns. In fact the colour man is someone to be avoided at all costs. As mentioned the colour man is responsible for the companies kit and equipment which means he’s responsible for the cleaning of the company’s kit and equipment. The colour man will not clean his treasure himself and as such is a man to be avoided. Inevitably then you end up trying to repair your favourite trousers yourself, you know, the ones in the style of an impressionist forest scene.

After the field craft or arts and craft lesson we broke for a “cat’s arse”, the nom de guerre of the issued sausage rolls, because from the end they look like a cat’s arse. And after that I went on guard. This time next year I’d be on guard in the desert watching for insurgents and glow in the dark scorpions.

Today, though, it was back to the camp to keep an eye on the locals and imagine airstrikes on the town below.

For those who have been in it, the British Army is as much Monty Python as A Bridge Too Far. I’ll give you a for instance, for instance, when faced with a speeding car bomb or true believer with bulging waistline, the action on is basically to ask him to go away. The order, and I mean that in the important printed out and stuck up in the guard room sense of the word, was to direct the said bomber away from the front gate toward the car park where the blast would cause less damage. If I was a more intelligent soldier I would have debated the illogical nature of that instruction. But instead I resolved that if that situation came about I would do a big Hollywood dive into the concrete bunker behind me. Perhaps I was an intelligent soldier after all.

2. Mining in southern Iraq.

Featureless, I never appreciated that phrase until we lived out our amateur production of Beau Geste. Features are what soldiers call hills and other interesting things. Soldiers like features because they make navigation easier and you can hide behind them. What soldiers don’t like is open ground. The only option then was to get below the ground. So we did we dug fire trenches and shell scrapes set out in big triangles called harbour areas.

Vast was another phrase I never quite grasped until the desert. Somehow though in the vastness of the southern badlands we managed to build our harbour area around one single solitary mine. Mines usually come in fields so I’m not sure what the logic was in setting up just the one. What did we do about it? We tied some mine tape to it, of course. The next lonely mine we came across was hidden in a pile of discarded uniforms and it almost killed the man in front of me.

From our little holes in the desert we watched the bombs fall on Basra and our holes start to fill up with water. We found out when it rains in the desert it comes in the torrential variety. We also found out we were supposed to stay in the holes even as they filled up, bringing about the strange possibility of drowning in the desert.

3. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

The company was using an old Ba’ath party building on the outskirts of town as a forward operating base. Think of an FOB as the hotel on your budget mini break. When you get there you say something like “It’ll do for a couple of nights,” being brave for your girlfriend, but you’re really thinking something like “I’m not leaving my passport here.” So when you arrive you stay just long enough to throw your bag down and realise it’s a shithole, but by the end of the day, getting annoyed with other tourists stopping in the middle of the pavement for no reason, or to get off that analogy, after a foot patrol downtown, it starts to look pretty good.

Standing outside looking in, what you saw then was wall, little hole, wall, big hole, wall. Then some genius decided to park the ambulance across one of the broken bits of wall. Now what you saw when outside looking in was wall, little hole, wall, big red cross, wall. Now the Red Cross is like a dollar sign, everyone knows what it means. In the Islamic world they use the Red Crescent but the difference is something like raising the tomato-potato debate with a hungry man. Anyway, because of that everything from scraped knees to partially dismembered body parts came limping towards us down the main road. And guess who was on the gate? No, it was me.

4. Baghdad.

We the British riflemen are amiable by nature. When not presenting ourselves for inspection we like to present ourselves as targets. As targets we come in two varieties, static and moving. The static role has also been known as guard duty while the moving role tends to be called patrols. In the moving role the philosophy is to dominate the ground, denying it to your enemy. This role can also include grey ops like Operation Sightseeing and Operation Scrounge off the Locals. The objective of Op Sightseeing is to see the sights. In Baghdad these included massive swords over piles of Iranian helmets. More helmets were set into concrete, rumoured to contain Iranian skulls, so the Iraqi military could march over them. Next on the itinerary came a visit to some massive palaces decorated in the much celebrated dictator chic. Another tourist favourite was the various thematic paintings of big tash himself, Saddam-when-in-doubt-get-the-chemical-weapons-out Hussein. For example, the Ministry of Education had a nice big painting of the man looking studious reading a book. While the Ministry of Defence had him looking stern and heroic wearing a chest, arm and belly full of medals.

Op Scrounge off the Locals amounted to trying to swap rations for actual food. Of course they were never interested, why would they be, and what it came down to was the cold, hard, de facto currency, the omnipotent, omnipresent Dollar. Our Dollars tended to go on chickens that looked like angry little dinosaurs and Woodbines that fell apart before you could smoke ’em. The Iraqi cigarettes reminded me of those old loading musket comedy routines. The ones where the silly soldier doesn’t load his ball right so as he levels it to shoot the ball rolls out the end. By the time you’re ready to fire up the lighter the tobacco’s on your brown suede shoes. But I bet there’s still a fine painting of a smoking Saddam outside the tobacco factory.

The only good thing about being a static target for the Iraqi hot shots to aim their pot shots at is they can’t shoot. Strange, really, considering they’re all supposed to be the products of Iraqi national service. If I didn’t know better I’d say it’s almost like they didn’t want to hit us.

One night while guarding another hole in the wall we came under fire from across the river. Picture the scene, there was me and my buddy sitting in a little summer house by the river when the rounds started zipping over our heads. We got down into a bit more of a professional position but from that distance it was nervous giggles more than nervous resolutions. After the initial excitement we heard an angry but sheepish voice call out from above, “They’re shooting at you know”. While we had been relaxing in our little rotunda the sneaky snipers had set up a sneaky position on the roof. So there’s a bit of Iraq war irony for you, they miss the targets they can see and nearly get the ones they can’t.

5. Back down south.

The medics tried but the man died and the now-dead body represented a bit of a problem. If he was British, he’d be sent back through the lines and eventually repatriated. But perhaps realising he wouldn’t get quite the same reception on his way through Wooten Bassett there was a slight apprehensiveness about what should happen next. However something did need to be done. It was a temporary position and leaving dead and still bleeding bodies lying around didn’t seem the way to win hearts and minds. In the end, I should mention, we left it under the stairs with the extra rations for the incoming company to deal with. But before our clever resolution a certain plucky Brit reckoned there was work to be done.

Perhaps sensing a future career in medicine, one of the blokes whipped out his housewife and started sewing up the holes. This man was no stranger to a needle and thread. This man was a veteran of battles against rips and tears and a hundred unattached badges. He finished the first hole with a neat little knot but you can’t just leave a bit of thread hanging down because it looks untidy. Ignoring the suture scissors next to him he bent over the body and bit the loose end off. He looked happy enough with the job and thought even the Colourman would approve.

Maybe because he looked happy for the first time in weeks or maybe because everyone was trying to hold back laughter, nobody wanted to tell him his face was covered in rapidly congealing blood. He was just about to attack another hole when an officer wandered in with a couple of medics to pick up the body.
An awkward silence came next when the still proud but slightly less sure of himself soldier looked up at the officer. And the always proud but slightly bemused officer looked down at the soldier who now looked, at best, like a messy eater. The silence was broken when someone let out the kind of
strange sound that can only happen when you try and stop yourself laughing. That for the rest of us was the final strange straw in our increasingly strange situation. Still, they say it’s the best medicine.

I couldn’t help thinking to myself he was right about the housewife, you do never know when it will come in handy.

Tom Probert served with the British Parachute Regiment during the Iraq War. He is currently a graduate student in London, studying Psychological Science.

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