When it was announced that Prince Harry, a 2nd lieutenant in the Blues and Royals, would be guarding Windsor Castle over Christmas, a republican-minded friend of mine snorted that at least he would be living it up at his grandmother's house.
I made the same assumption until I visited another young officer there. What magnificent history! What tradition, with famous initials such as those of Tim Collins carved into the oak walls! What unbelievable squalor - peeling worktops, grimy old toilet, your sleeping bag a merciful buffer between you and the flea-ridden mattress.
The officers' rooms at Windsor Castle are luxurious compared to some of the family accommodation photographed last week. What looked like Communist, Romanian orphanages turned out to be homes in Wiltshire. How did the Joseph Rowntree Trust miss such slum housing in our midst? Well, because it was occupied by soldiers and different rules apply to them. There are no votes in defence spending, for a start.
Every prime minister wants to visit a spanking new school or hospital, but none would boast about cascading investment into garrisons. The armed forces have long been the Government's dirty little secret. The desire to play down defence has been advanced by the military code of honour. Soldiers do not want to be pitied but admired. When I asked a front-line soldier about accommodation he said: "Does it sound as if we are whingeing?" Soldiers do not demand civilian levels of comfort. What they value is cleanliness, order and efficiency. The camps in Iraq and Afghanistan are brilliantly run, the field hospitals boasting a better record on infection than the NHS.
If you look at soldiers' letters home they tend to be breezy and humorous about their own situations. But they sound anxious about the well-being of their families. If there are problems, these strong, cheerful men feel the rage of impotence.
Wives have learned to be uncomplaining, so as not to worry their husbands. One woman last week described sitting in the car outside her home with her young baby to avoid mysterious gas emissions in the kitchen and telling her husband brightly on the mobile phone that the family were all safely tucked up in bed. The woman declined to be named because she did not want to embarrass her husband.
Why have the army chiefs such as Adjutant-General Sir Freddie Viggers chosen to start " whingeing" about conditions? There has been a generation of bearing it. Our soldiers may be busier now than at any time since the Second World War, but the teaching prevails that good soldiers make do with what they have. Money must go where it is most needed - to the front line.
Accommodation has become urgent because it is harder to retain soldiers. At the end of tougher, longer tours of duty men dream of proper beds, hot baths and cold beer. Instead, they return to dilapidated housing and wives at their wits' end. Wouldn't you think of quitting? One economically minded acquaintance of mine suggests employing only single young men in the armed forces. Can we manage without experience and judgement? The Army is full of father figures, both at home and on operations.
And if your young son were fighting, wouldn't he be grateful for the steady guidance and reassurance of a wise old soldier? Ah, says my amateur economist, why must the army have rented accommodation at all? Why can't soldiers buy their own homes? Because you would be buying and selling houses every few months, as your regiment moved about.
The MOD is getting round to refurbishing the worst barracks and family accommodation. By 2014, houses should be fit for human habitation. Whether there will be enough soldiers left to occupy it is another question.Reuse content