By Alex Rhodes
On February 28 eleven intrepid journalist students spent a night and a day with the British Army Reserves as they competed against each other in one of the largest training events of the year. This is a first hand account of their time there.
The roar of a tank engine jolted me out of my light sleep. I stared around the room fearfully as my vision adjusted to the gloom. My eyes settled on the source of the unholy cacophony, not a tank as it turns out but a slumbering squaddie. Glancing at my course mates tossing and turning it looked like I wasn’t the only one who’d been woken up by the downright impressive din. I checked my phone, three in the morning, a merciful two hours until we all had to be up and out of the barracks. This is how I woke up on the day of Exercise Merlin Warrior.
The awesomely named event was a gruelling weekend long competition for the British Army Reserves to complete and compete against each other over a variety of different obstacles and challenges, or ‘stands’ as they called them. All set against the gigantic backdrop of Catterick Garrison.
So what had led our squadron of weak and pasty journalist students to one of the biggest Army Reserve competitions in the calendar at one of the biggest military bases in the country? Believe it or not, we were actually helping to train them. No, not military tactics and certainly not physical fitness (I’m less of a press-up guy and more of a lie-down guy) but media training. In the age of the iPhone a simple slip of the tongue by a squaddie can lead to front page headlines and worldwide news within minutes so it’s kind of important that troopers know exactly what they can and can’t say. After all these days a single tweet can launch a thousand ships. They were all given a brief and had to answer our questions accordingly. In this scenario the reserves had been dispatched to the fictional country of Vike *cough Afghanistan cough* where they were helping to train local forces following instability in the region.
On the way to Catterick I was worried, when we found out that we’d be sleeping in the barracks with the squaddies themselves I made silent farewells to my eyebrows. These guys and girls are at peak physical fitness not to mention trained to kill. I, on the other hand, am an out of shape student whose only experience of war comes from movies and occasionally pretending umbrellas are machine guns. When we got chatting to one of them (the owner of the impressive snore) and mentioned what we were doing he said: “I know how to deal with f-ing journalists.” Ah.
Journalists and the army don’t always get along. Their trade relies on following orders without question, respecting authority and knowing when to keep their mouth shut, our trade tends to rely on precisely the opposite. To them we can be a bit of a nuisance, getting in the way and sticking our noses where they don’t belong whilst they’re risking their lives for a country we sometimes make a living out of criticising.
As a result I expected our reception to be frosty at best. Especially as many of the units would have slogged over miles of countryside through various obstacles before we popped out on them, notebooks in hand. However the reaction we actually got surprised me. They were nervous.
Units would arrive and the leader would sheepishly come forward either alone or with another squad member. We’d then do our best to give them the authentic press experience and promptly jump down their throats. We’d ask a barrage of questions, trying to get as much information out of them as we could, they on the other hand would have to avoid saying things they shouldn’t whilst toeing the party line. For example they weren’t allowed to confirm or deny whether Special Forces were in the area but were supposed to promote the training of local forces. Some did very well, firm but polite, they didn’t fall for any of our dirty tricks (I practically winced when we attempted to bait them by asking if the Reserves were as good as the regular Army). Others either said too much or nothing at all, one team even refused to tell us how old they were.
Despite what some people think journalists are not the enemy, light needs to be shone on war zones and the military to keep the public informed of what their country is doing abroad. The more you try and keep a lid on things and freeze the media out, the harder they’ll dig and the more people will think the military is trying to cover something up.
When not carrying out our “orders” we also got the chance to tour around the base itself and visit some of the other stands. One thing that struck me was the level of realism, this wasn’t a game, this was serious and everything was geared to make the whole experience as close to a real combat situation as possible.
At one stand, there would be a planned explosion as soon as a unit arrived. They would then rush to a nearby bunker where they would be greeted by a grizzly sight. Two soldiers screaming in agony, bloody stumps where their legs had once been. We’d been told that reactions to this stand had varied immensely over the years, some had dealt with it calmly and efficiently, some had fainted or been sick, once someone had ran out and rung 999. Although the blood and gore wasn’t real (the bloodpack that squirted all over the walls was a nice touch) the lack of limbs certainly was. The wounded soldiers were being played by Will Scott and Ray Bays, two members of Amputees in Action. These guys are an extraordinary group of people who offer their services to the military and entertainment industry. As Will remarked: “If you’ve ever seen an amputee in a film or a TV show, chances are they’re one of us.”
Other stands required soldiers to wade through pools, upturn vehicles, cross bridges whilst under fire and save hostages. The obstacle course was certainly interesting, it was set in a sort of model village built to emulate West Berlin back when the cold war looked like it might start heating up at any moment. Somewhat out of date now that most British campaigns tend to take pale in the Middle East but with tensions rising in Crimea perhaps it may start getting a bit more relevant. Soldiers were first taken through the course slowly before attempting to complete it as fast as they could, ironically for health and safety reasons.
Bureaucracy had seeped into other parts of the Armed Forces as well, when soldiers captured an enemy there were strict procedures they had to follow to the letter when it came to processing and categorising possessions. It was abundantly clear that not everybody appreciated this update. Our guide and driver, looked positively wistful when he remarked that soldiers didn’t used to even have to be able to read to join up in the past.
So who makes up the Reserves? They certainly weren’t illiterate, quite the opposite. They came from all walks of life, Sergeant Coles told us how they’d had a lecturers, engineers and a surprising number of chefs apparently. It seems that a fair few of those who had signed up were used to giving orders in their normal life, not following them. Maybe for them the Reserves offered an escape from the stresses of their normal routine, where they don’t necessarily have to make the decisions. Some get a massage when they want to unwind, some have a cigarette, some go for a long walk and perhaps some go and join the army.
Even me, a self confessed sitting enthusiast, can see the appeal. The primal joy of getting covered in mud, wearing yourself out and living in the moment with a group of people you have to rely on. You could see it in every face of every Reserve on Operation Merlin. Would I ever sign up? To be honest I highly doubt they’d have me, but for a second… just for one second… I have to admit I was tempted. Whilst I’m not quite lacing up the boots and shaving my head just yet I don’t think I’ll ever forget my weekend in Catterick. I gained a lot of respect for the Reserves and with a bit of luck maybe some of the Reserves gained a bit of respect for journalists too.