The story of National Serviceman, Corporal Seymour Jennings, Aldershot 1957 - 1959
I was trained as an art teacher, and had started working in schools in 1957. After about three months teaching, I received notice that I was to report to Blenheim Barracks, Farnborough on the 8 December, 1957, to start my National Service.
When I arrived at Farnborough North, an army truck awaited us, and an energetic, razor-sharp NCO herded us into the back for the short drive to Blenheim Barracks. Here we were issued with our army equipment, made to parcel up our civilian clothes for posting home, and introduced to our accommodation. We were billeted in long, low brick built Victorian huts, with integral washing and lavatory facilities.
My first day at Blenheim was bewildering, but not at all as intimidating as I had been warned it would be. The groups of men drilling on the squares, shouting out numbers, was a revelation: I had never witnessed anything like it before, having come from a quiet backwater on the Kent coast.
The companionship was good, and from the very beginning I settled into Army life well. The story at Blenheim was supposed to last (I think) six weeks, in which time we were supposed to have mastered the elements of dress, drill, and the niceties of who to call 'Sir', who to salute, who to call 'Staff' and so forth.
Regrettably for me, after about a week at Blenheim I succumbed to 'Asian Flu', which was sweeping the country, in no time I was running a temperature and was put in the sick-bay, along with many others.
I became quite seriously ill, and my high temperature made me delirious: infection spread to my eyes, temporarily closing them. I was then transferred to military hospital at Aldershot itself, and spent my first Christmas in the army in the capable hand of the QARANCS.
After leaving hospital, I was then 'back squadded' at Blenheim, and joined a later intake - because of this I missed a large part of my initial training, and also became disengaged from any discussion of how my time in the army was to be organised.
How is was decided, but decided it was, I do not know - but I was transferred to Willems Barracks to train as a clerk. Lists were compiled, and to Willems, in the back of the ubiquitous army lorry, I went.
Willems in the cold winters of the 50s, was not comfortable. We got up before sunrise, and shivered on parade in biting pre-dawn winds. My main memories of the early weeks were of drill on the gravelled squares, and guard duty at night amongst decaying Victorian buildings.
Many of the horror stories I had been fed, both by my father (who was a Lieutenant Colonel in WWII) and by my friends who had already been drafted, proved quite untrue.
All my companions were friendly and sociable, and laughed a lot at what they saw as communal adversity, and coped well with the demands of army discipline. I never witnessed any bullying or deliberate nastiness in my whole time at Willems.
After a course in general clerical duties, where I learned to type, I was sent on another course, run within the Willems camp, in 'Tactical Sketching and Air-Photo Reading'.
This course trained recruits in the skills of map-making, road-route planning, and so forth. The air-photo reading component was the translation of photographs into maps for drivers to follow. Model making was also taught, so that aerial photographs could be used as the basis for three dimensional models of terrain.
After completing this course, I was ready to be 'posted' to the work and location which would fill the next two years. To my great surprise (but not unhappiness!) I was posted to Aldershot to take charge of the course I had just attended.
As a person trained in art schools in many of the skills the course demanded, such a posting made intelligent use of any abilities I had. I was then sent to attend an advanced course held at Uckfield, Maresfield Camp, by the Intelligence Corps in air-photo reading, made up to 'Corporal' and kept at that exalted rank for the rest of my service.
One could write a great deal about responses to Willems. I wish now I knew more about the history of the camp than I did then. The huge Victoria complex was extraordinarily interesting. Most of it by 1957-59 was out of use, with row upon row of locked buildings with dirty, obscured windows. The main 'veranda' blocks were still imposing, symbols of the certainty of the Victoria age.
Although everything was run-down and dilapidated, the feeling of imperial power still hung over the site. It took me sometime to realise many of the buildings were the stables for the horses of the old Army Service Corps (or was it then the Corps of Transport?).
One summer weekend, when I was staying 'in Barracks', I managed to find one empire block near to the town-side guardroom, unlocked. Inside I began to realise that these blocks had once been living quarters for the soldiers in charge of the stables beneath.
I remember finding a whole wall covered with the signatures of men, and long, badly written accounts of their various sexual exploits and fantasies.
Had I bothered to photograph them, a fascinating aspect of social and military life would have been preserved. I expect they were all obliterated by the bulldozers to come.
Salvation Army Mobile Canteen, outside Willems Barracks, c1958
I left Aldershot in December 1959, when I had completed my two years, and remember much of my time there very fondly. I met very little abuse of power amongst the permanent officers or NCOs only on one occasion was I embarrassed by a blatant misuse of authority.
Many of them were fundamentally good natured, although the 'regulars' (who most of the permanent staff were) had developed the language and style of the drill squares.
Many of these men knew, and understood, that their language and behaviour was merely a stylised charade, and so did we. To be called 'maggots' when on parade, was entertaining, not degrading. Many were wise well beyond their rank.
I particularly remember C S M Gilmore (or Gilmour?), a man with natural authority and wisdom, which, had he had the social background then thought necessary to hold commissioned rank, would have led to him holding a much higher officer.
After leaving Aldershot, I went back to teaching, I didn't revisit the Barracks until the late '90s. I was saddened by what I found. The stately rows of Victoria buildings had gone, the avenues of horse-chestnut trees which fringed the squares had been cut down, no men were to be seen drilling in front of the barracks.
The whole town plan of Aldershot, rendered coherent by the serried ranks of orderly buildings, had vanished. What should have been an architectural site of national interest had been swept away by municipal short sightedness.
I was particularly depressed when I saw the area where Blenheim Barracks had stood. The destruction of the Officers' Messes, with their neo-classical facades and stone pediments inscribed with the names celebrating the country's' military campaigns, was an awful act. No doubt, in our more enlightened times, such pieces of architecture would be retained as reminders of our national heritage.
Self portrait:Corporal Seymour Jennings, no.23440536