Like most men, I should expect, I always wanted to be a soldier. And, likewise, I probably still do. But at this time of year the realities of a career engaged in professional combat are sharply evident, giving us all abundant reason for a little sad reflection.
When I was 16 or 17, had I joined the Army I would more than likely have ended up in Northern Ireland as soon as my training was over – do not pass Go; do not collect £200; go straight to the Crumlin Road. Before the shine was lost from my new boots, I could have been in the grateful crosshairs of an IRA sniper.
Nowadays, young men and women joining up will find themselves on a plane straight to Afghanistan, possibly within weeks of finishing basic training; in a very short space of time getting shot at, frozen in winter, melted in summer, and enduring the perpetual terror of IEDs – for a starting salary of £17,514. Not really a fortune.
Fair enough. No soldier joins up with the intention of getting rich, but it does elicit a certain chill up the back for those of us at home, whose salary isn't quite so hard-won. It's not a lot of reward for risking your life or ability to walk for whichever cause the Government uses to justify your deployment.
But this is hardly a new disparity between the pay of those people fighting for "freedom" and those back home enjoying it; only aware there's actually a war on when the news tells us about more dead soldiers and how their relatives have been informed.
In the First World War, records attest to the fact that your typical trench-bound Tommy was paid 1s 6d (one shilling and sixpence) a day. In today's money, that equates to a spending power of some £3.23 per day. That's £22.61 a week. If you were a good shot, you got an extra sixpence a day as a sniper. Even better, machine-gunners got 2s 9d a day, which is £5.92 or £41.44 a week.
It's all relative, of course. I'm perfectly sure that when those doomed, gallant lads were up to their knees in the freezing mud of Passchendaele or the Somme, their threadbare pay packet was not the foremost concern on their minds. Similarly, our men and women currently struggling through a perishing cold Afghan winter have got other things to worry about than whether or not they are being adequately reimbursed for their activities. But it does bring home to those of us in our warmth and safety the never-ending cheapness of soldiers' lives down the years. It's a fact worth recalling. Especially tomorrow.
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