'Right, you lovely little man ...' sergeants launch a charm offensive

The Army is short of recruits - 5,000 under strength. This week it will launch a new drive to attract and keep its troops. Instructors have been ordered to adopt a less "hectoring" approach moments from his training days at Sandhurst
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"You blokes are rubbish, physically! Rubbish! I will wipe the floor with any one of you! You are shit! If you think you're going to be on a passing-out parade next week with your girlfriend looking at you ... [the next bit is not printable] You have got another think coming, gentlemen!"

Twenty years on, I remember it well. We had been at Sandhurst for six months and were already commissioned as second lieutenants in "P" Company, the Paras' selection course which is to basic army training what a postgraduate degree is to a GCSE. - the lowest grade of officer life - on probation at Sandhurst.

The test was mental, as well as physical. Diplomacy, cunning, survival. It was January 1977, the hardest winter in 30 years in the Brecon Beacons, and we had been in the field for 10 days on the final exercise. A couple of guys had already gone down with exposure. One of our number, a Royal Engineer and a rower took the bait the staff sergeant offered. "I'll race you, staff", he said. "And I bet you 10 quid I win".

Some time later, each carrying the same amount of equipment, machine guns and 200 rounds of ammunition, they disappeared up the snowy trail.

Hours later, Ian came back. "I won". That evening, steaming and smelly, tucking into our food in the canteen at Sennybridge, the staff sergeant approached our table: "Here's that 10 quid I owe you."

That was Sandhurst. You expect that as a soldier in 11 weeks of basic training. You expect that as an officer cadet beginning 15 months' training, though I am told it is all much more "grown up" now. We got it, from instructors who were technically our subordinates. The instructors were supposed to be "firm but tactful". Can you imagine what some soldier recruits go through?

The Army will this week launch a new drive. It is short of recruits, about 5,000 under strength, and wants to try to keep the people it gets. Instructors have been ordered to adopt a less "hectoring" approach. But Brigadier Andrew Cumming, the Army's Director of Recruiting, who commanded the first British United Nations forces in Bosnia, said "we are not going to lower our standards. We are merely going to build them up more gently".

The Army's new policy will be explained on Wednesday at the launch of the newly amalgamated Army Training and Recruitment Agency (ATRA) commanded by Major General Christopher Elliott. As if to underline its efforts to overcome the problem, the launch will be at Pirbright, near Aldershot in Surrey, one of the Army's five training regiments. Pirbright used to be the Guards' training depot with a reputation for extreme toughness. In the Seventies, a visiting team of United States Marines was invited to go over the Guards' depot assault course but refused - because it was "too dangerous".

Since then, the Army, like the other services, has adapted to changed social conditions. But, Brig Cumming said, "a few of the instructors still worry me. They need to better understand how you control a mixed-gender, mixed race bunch of kids. It doesn't take much for one person to bring the most awful brown stuff on the Army".

The new approach will allow soldiers to be trained at their own speed. But the Army also has to adjust its psychological approach to cope with recruits, some of whom have good academic qualifications and have never failed anything or been told what to do.

"The approach now will be more 'follow me' rather than 'do this because I say so'," Brig Cumming said.

Last year, the Army introduced "pre-training" to bring recruits up to the level of fitness needed to survive the basic course and extended the latter from 10 to 11 weeks. Before that, only 60 per cent of recruits were passing the course first time, and 25 per cent were lost to the Army altogether. Since pre-training began, wastage has fallen to 17 per cent.

The British Army's approach relies heavily on robust humour. Twenty years ago, one recruit was pushing hard at a door marked "pull".

"P-U-L-L, sir" said the sergeant-major, with a contemptuous smile.

"Don't tell me." he continued. "You must be one of the graduate entrants."