Delving still deeper into the past, and the counterfactual imaginings are getting all the more murky.
When I was studying at the Rijksuniversiteit of Ghent, I had to postpone my calling up for the national service for every year that I was due to study. So when I finally completed my studies in July 1979, I had a call-up date somewhere in the autumn of 1981 – just making sure that I had indeed passed and not having to endure the ignominy of having to resit my last year.
When I had the confirmation that I had indeed passed I could have have revoked my delayed call-up, but in the end didn’t and went to work for nearly two years at the laboratory of professor Dilewijns. What if I had decided to forego temporary employment and get my military service out of the way straight after leaving university?
It would have meant leaving the army in June 1980 rather June 1982. Would the economic situation have been better to find a job as a metallurgist? Would I ever have worked as a researcher at the university? After all this time it’s very hard to gauge which way the dice would have rolled. What’s certain is that I would have entered the job market without any practical experience (even though my job at the university didn’t seem to count for much anyway), and it’s really a toss of a coin whether I would have managed to get my foot on the first rung of the job ladder at all.
I also wouldn’t have gone on holiday to Iceland in 1981 and wouldn’t have met my wife. If I had a job in 1983 I wouldn’t have applied for a job with Iscor, and chances are that I would have stayed in Belgium. In short, this counterfactual really would have changed everything that happened later on in my life.
I saw the following gas mask in the Imperial War museum in a Manchester, and it made me think of the time in the army when we were taught about chemical and biological weapons.
And also about the quote saying that generals always try to fight the last war.
After all, here we were taught about weapons that were last used in this part of the world about a century ago. And although it’s not totally impossible that in future wars chemical weapons would be used again, it seems to me highly unlikely. Not because their use is internationally banned, or because there’s no stockpiles of it across the globe, but mainly because, unless delivered with sufficient precision, their use and effectiveness is highly dependent on the weather conditions.
Also, compared to other weapons of mass destruction, they’re probably less lethal on a grand scale than nuclear weapons or even carpet bombing. As for biological weapons, they strike me more as a potential weapon for terrorists than for regular armies. After all, viruses are not that selective about who they kill, and any army using it is always in danger of falling on its own sword.
I suppose it can’t hurt knowing what to do with a gas mask, but I never was under the impression that I would ever have to use it in real life. And I didn’t.
Some time ago, I saw the following replica of a soldier’s biscuit in the Imperial War museum in Manchester :
with the message “King and country need you and this is how they feed you”.
This reminded me of my time in the army, and the one occasion when we had to spend the night in our tent, left to our own devices. We were handed a “survival” pack, containing (amongst other things) a biscuit like the one above, and virtually the only edible item, which was a bar of chocolate. Imagine if this type of food was all you could rely on day after day. I suppose that in the end you would find a way to make the bone-hard biscuit edible.
Mind you, the quality of the food in the canteen was only marginally better. Sometimes, if you saw the menu for the evening, and you totally disliked it, you could always arrive late, hope the kitchen had run out of the regular supply of the evening’s menu and if you were lucky they might throw a couple of steaks on the drier to make up for running out of the scheduled item.
Or otherwise you went outside the barracks and found something more edible in one of the cheap restaurants there. They clearly were catering for the fed-up soldier, since they even had mussels done the Flemish way on the menu.
Still, part of the problem with the food was not necessarily the food on the menu, but the people manning the kitchen. Burnt food was not unusual, just because no-one was paying attention, or sometimes the people serving were fooling around, and ladling gravy into the soup or something like it.
That’s why it paid to stay friendly with the kitchen guys : if you did, the worst contamination could be avoided, and who knows maybe your pal would put a nicer portion aside for you.
Something I didn’t know about the army before I joined, but which they told us from the start, was that any misdemeanour serious enough to go into custody (known as the “cachotte”) while in the army would end up giving you a criminal record. Which clearly is not a good thing to have for young people who still have to find their way in the job market.
This is probably intended to make sure that discipline in the army is taken seriously. So things like insubordination, violent behaviour or in general not following the rules (e.g. when you’re supposed to be on patrol, or inside the barracks, or in bed after lights out) could result in disciplinary action. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, or even a high frequency of lesser offences, this could lead to spending one or more nights in solitary confinement, and an entry on your criminal record.
So, to be clear: this is the type of offence that in civilian life might cause a ticking off by the police, but would not land you in jail. It’s only the type of offence plus the fact that it was done in a military environment that made it a crime.
Fortunately I was never in danger of a criminal record, but I’ve seen someone get a night of solitary confinement because he reacted to someone egging him on. And since he already had a record of not following the rules that religiously, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Fortunately for him his job was doing the rounds of the markets, which he was already doing anyway and where an entry on his criminal record didn’t matter all that much.
Still, it adds to the feeling that you keep your head down in the army and wait it all out until you’re discharged.
Most of the time there was no transport to concern yourself about in the Belgian army. On the times that you were allowed to leave the barracks, you went on foot, either into town, to the army shop or the nearby pubs and restaurants.
On a number of occasions we were transported in the back of an army lorry, usually to places like the firing range, or twice to exercises with the artillery pieces, once in the Ardennes, another time on the Lüneburger Heide. The first I had made the mistake of leaving my sleeping with the equipment in another lorry, and even though the sun was shining and it felt warm outside the lorry, it was freezing once the lorry started driving – the canvas obviously not giving much protection against any draughty created by the moving lorry.
The other major type of transport was the military train going from Düsseldorf to Brussels, which we used to on leave and come back from it. Whilst the train going from Brussels left and arrived at a reasonable time, the reverse journey started somewhere in the middle of the night.
So on the evening prior to the start of our leave we went to bed at the standard time of 11pm, only to be woken a few hours later for transport to the train station. You then tried to get a few hours sleep on the train that obviously had seen better days. One winter journey turned out be on a train with no heating, and one time when I woke from a nap, I found that my clothing had frozen against the window.
Obviously comfort was for sissies, and not something the army would condone if it could help it. Still, I survived, and it makes for a decent yarn to the grandchildren.