The Army has a reputation for being a slippery employer, drawing in recruits with the promise of training and then packing them off to the front line. This hasn't been helped by a report funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and published in January that accused the Army of downplaying the risks of signing up.

There was nothing disingenuous about the recruitment fair set up for journalists at Catterick Garrison last month, however: recruits and hacks could try their hands at different rifles, and a computer game took them through battle scenarios in which enemies were killed and allies and civilians were defended.

"The infantry is the purest form of soldiering," says Colonel Paul Farrar, who is the second in command when it comes to Army recruiting. "It's the noble art of closing with the enemy." At the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick, no bones are made about what recruits are being trained to do.

In the ruins of former married quarters, soldiers were on manoeuvres to clear a village of enemy combatants one house at a time – smoke was billowing, grenades were exploding and there was a constant cacophony of gunfire. In foul conditions, recruits made an assault on a hill, charging through burning barrels and bayoneting straw enemies, with an NCO (non-commissioned officer) screaming: "In the face!"

One-third of the Army is infantry, comprising armoured, mechanised, light, and air assault. Despite the new technology, its job is the same as it was at Sebastopol and Waterloo. Bayonet training seems quaint, but this kind of fighting is still a key element of modern warfare – in combat, it is, as one old hand put it, a dirty, grisly business.

If you are interested in the business of fighting, you can join at 16 through the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, or from 17 for the infantry proper. All soldiers are given 24 weeks' training at Catterick before being sent on operations or on to further training exercises. Privates earn from just more than £16,000 a year. Once you have committed, you have to stay for four years' service.

Many recruits leave after this period, and recruiters maintain that they got what they joined up for. Others suspect that poor pay, poor housing and poor conditions are to blame, but until the Army publishes the soldiers' reasons, it is hard to say.

Army life is gruelling, and recruits must be aware that they are putting themselves in harm's way, risking death and injury. In training, 15 per cent of recruits, and many more paratroopers, sustain injuries. Fortunately for the Army, there are enough adventurers out there to keep infantry recruitment healthy.

Private Jack Marshman from south Wales is one new recruit. "I enjoy it," he says. "I was getting into trouble where I lived, so I joined up." At first, Marshman considered joining the Royal Horse Guards, but the élite reputation of the Parachute Regiment drew him in. "We're always first in," he says. "Out in the field is where you want to be."

Marshman could become an NCO, but his chances are slim. The potential officer development course exists to recruit officers from the ranks, but only 5 per cent are recruited this way.

Some in the Army talk of adopting the French model of recruiting NCOs directly, others of following the German model and making officers spend time in the ranks, but these plans are a long way off.

Meanwhile, most officers will continue to be university graduates or public- school leavers recruited directly to Sandhurst. Capt Henry Willi joined up in September 2003 after leaving Newcastle University, and finished Sandhurst in 2004.

"From one day to the next, I'll be in Wales and then Kenya on exercises," he says. Willi has seen operations in Iraq, and trained in Oman, France and the US, and he is thrilled by the prospect of real combat. "It's a buzz jumping out of aircraft and helicopters," he says. "There's a huge sense of achievement and reward. You learn a lot about yourself and push yourself to the limit in a way you wouldn't think possible."