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'Christmas Selection' (gone wrong)


Dateline: Weekend prior to Christmas 1971

Place: Royal Engineers Regiment – ‘Assaye Barracks’

Nienburg - West Germany



I had occasion between “Rufty Tufty” assignments overseas, to rest my weary bones (upon my Army issue steel framed bed). This was one such time, when normally as a rule I would be off with my “Brothers in Arms” enjoying the sights and sounds of neighbouring Amsterdam (Holland).

Most weekends would see a re-enactment of “A Bridge too far” as hundreds of “Squaddies” descended upon the unsuspecting inhabitants.



Whether I was feeling a little melancholy (with thoughts of home) or just worn out by our weekly sojourn o’er the border; I shall forever ponder.

Whilst I was wrapping my head around “Collective Unconsciousness” (by Carl Jung) – usual soldier fare – I was jolted back to reality by the approaching sound of doors slamming. I then heard the unmistakable ‘boot plant’ of our Squadron Sgt. Major as he drew ever closer. At least he paid me the courtesy of a knock on the door before piling through and standing in his ‘Awesomeness’ before me.

“Well, well, well, just the man I am looking for” he bellowed; as if his prayers (not mine) had been answered.



It transpired that the usual orderly NCO for the ‘Officers Mess’ had ‘thrown a sickie’ and I was the only available NCO on camp, (available for what, I asked myself).

Although Her Majesty had invested some considerable time and money in finely honing my ‘Engineering and Fighting’ skills; here was I being drafted in (at the last minute) to oversee the annual ‘Christmas Banquet’ which was being held at ‘The Mess’.

At this juncture I must confess that I would have much rather been “up to my neck in muck and bullets” than anywhere near ‘The Officers Mess’ (especially at Christmas). My plea by way of mitigation (“No experience whatsoever”) fell on deaf ears as I was hastened into my ‘Best Blues’ uniform.

The Sgt. Major (Bless him) attempted to reassure me that the ‘Mess Staff’ were all highly trained, with vast experience of social occasions such as this. In mounting trepidation I accompanied him to ‘The Mess’ whereupon I was introduced to the Chef and all members of staff. They too reassured me of their vast experience and reiterated that I was only there as the ‘token’ NCO in charge of proceedings.



Perhaps I was overreacting a little and my fears were completely unfounded; just then one of the staff members also began to feel ill and it was decided he had to be replaced. I broke out in a cold sweat when realising the only possible source of recruitment at this time, would be one of the raw recruits propping up the ‘NAFFI’ bar.

Time was of the essence when a search party sallied forth. It was then that I made my first acquaintance with Sapper ‘Jock’ McBride (a Big Braw Scot made of girders) who was the poor unfortunate selected for the task.



The Mess team decided that Jock would be best placed in serving the ‘Soup Starter’ (“if that’s OK with you Corporal?”) followed in turn by the more experienced staff members serving each course.

I nodded my tentative agreement before requesting a ‘Dummy Run’ with Jock being put through his paces.

I watched closely as he pushed the ‘soup tureen’ trolley through the (saloon like) swing doors which provided entrance to the ‘Banqueting Room’. He was shown how to serve one ladle full of soup over the right hand shoulder of each officer in turn, before exiting by way of said swing doors.

I must relate that I was impressed by how quickly Jock had grasped the technique and my only concern centred around the strongly hinged ‘swing doors’. As the Officers and guests assembled, the Sgt. Major paid a final visit to make sure all was well; he also by way of an aside, mentioned that the guest of honour was related to ‘The Queen’ (Oh Joy).

The ‘Wine Steward’ had filled all glasses when a ‘tinkle’ was heard, then the toast to "Her Majesty” was offered by our Regimental Colonel (more joy).

I awaited the signal from our Sgt. Major whilst peering over the swing doors; who knows, perhaps he will be forever in my debt (did fleetingly cross my mind). Then came the predetermined sign; I turned to see all the staff members at the ready, “OK Jock you’re on”.

With eyes screwed tight I watched as he pushed through the ‘swinging doors’ to emerge unscathed on the other side (what a relief). It was then that I noticed he had stopped dead in his tracks; a murmur broke out amongst the diners as they slowly turned their heads in Jock’s direction.

My heart was pounding as I urged him to do something, anything but stand there; ‘tis the subject of a recurring nightmare, as Jock called out to the assembled throng

“Hands up, who wants soup.”

The repercussions and resulting fall out of this ‘incident’ I will leave to your own imagination; suffice to say neither Jock nor I received a Christmas card from the Sgt. Major that year.



Merry Christmas All




Richard Gildea