In a recession, the Army looks like a safe employer. So what's the training like? Liz Lightfoot reports from a muddy field on a new recruitment drive at Sandhurst

It's cold and muddy as we try to tie together two slippery planks and bridge a make-believe river. Lt-Col Mark Pomroy says that if we think this is tough, there is worse to come in the afternoon. "We've had people burst into tears, faint and even wet themselves under the pressure," he says helpfully.

We are a group of seven journalists aged from twentysomething to late 50s. Below, a much larger and younger group is running the beep test as part of the fitness assessment they must pass before being chosen as trainee officers for the British Army.

The number applying for officer rank has risen during the recession but the quality has apparently declined, both in terms of academic ability and fitness, which is perhaps why the Army has invited journalists in.

Unlike careers where people progress up the ranks to become managers, the Army has separate entry schemes for combat soldiers and officers. Those wanting to be officers – even serving soldiers – must undertake a three-and-a-half day selection board at Leighton House in Westbury, Wiltshire. Only half of those who attend the boards, which run all year round, are selected to train as officers at Sandhurst.

Set in 40 acres of land with an assault course containing 112 different command tests, Leighton House is a gigantic adventure playground for those who enjoy physical challenges. But 35 miles away there is a reminder of the commitment the trainees are taking on: hundreds of people are lining the streets in Wootton Bassett to pay their respects to the bodies of six dead soldiers brought back from Afghanistan.

Of the 37 main board candidates, five are women, four are non-white, five are making a second attempt and two are serving soldiers. Their ages span the recruitment limits of 18 to 28 and 30 of them have been – or plan to go – to university. Twenty-eight went to state schools and 12 have a professional parent.

For the journalists the day had started quietly with short verbal, arithmetical and non-verbal tests similar to those taken by candidates on the briefing session – a one-and-a-half day series of challenges that candidates take in advance of the main selection board.

Around 97 per cent get through briefing, which is designed as a "toe in the water" for potential recruits to learn more about the Army and get a taste of the activities they will face at the main board. There is a timed round of obstacles in the gym, then a practical exercise outside when our group has to find a way of transporting the team plus a heavy ammunitions box across a ravine.

"This is when we begin to see the group dynamics," says Lt-Col Pomroy. "We start to see courage and determination and to identify leaders."

But it's the planning exercise that engenders most fear, he says. Candidates are given a written report and a map and must come up with a tactical solution. This is presented orally, without notes, as questions are barked out at the candidates by a senior officer.

Our challenge is to get a small party, including a man with malaria, through the jungle to hospital, and catch the weekly plane out. If he doesn't get to hospital within 14 hours he will die and if we don't get to the airport in 14 hours 15 minutes, we will be stuck for another seven days.

The first journalist forgets which country he is in, the second underestimates the length of time a person can walk through the jungle carrying a stretcher. I can't work it out either and in desperation I plan to abandon the sick man at a first-aid station so the rest of us can catch our plane home.

How did I do? "Trainable," says Lt-Col Pomroy diplomatically. He adds: "Don't call us, we'll call you." And that's not likely to be any time soon.

How to sign up

*How do I become an army officer?

Around 2,000 candidates a year apply for officer training. Half are selected and offered places at Sandhurst. You have to be aged 18 to 28.

*Will I get financial help?

Successful candidates can put off the training until they have finished their university courses. They can apply for a bursary of up to £7,000. Sixth formers can apply for a scholarship of £3,000.

*How long does it take?

The course at Sandhurst is divided into three 14-week terms and contains adventurous and demanding training activities. Those joining as professionally qualified officers – medical, dental or nursing officer, lawyer, veterinary surgeon or chaplain – do a shorter course.

*How about pay and career prospects?

Officers are given their first command as Second Lieutenants on a salary of £24,000 in the regiment or corps of their choice. The first commission is for three years. It can be extended to eight years or converted into a regular commission that allows officers to serve for up to 18 years, after which they can leave with an annual pension of at least £7,000. Officers can also apply for a regular commission until retirement at 60 or after 35 years.

*What's the hierarchy?

There is a clear promotion route from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel and beyond. Most officers reach the rank of Major (£45,549 to £54,551) which is seen as a natural stage to leave the service. The ranks of Lt Colonel and Colonel earn from £63,927 to £85,268. A Brigadier can earn £100,000.

*Are there any perks?

Six weeks' annual leave, postgraduate study on full pay, a final salary pension scheme, free medical and dental care, subsidised food and army housing.