The Cambridge University Officer Training Corps (CUOTC)
In my second year at university, I decided to join the Officer Training Corps. Not because I was necessarily interested in joining the Army. but because it is a unique opportunity to learn different skills, be part of an incredibly close community, and get out of the town at the weekends into the fields and mud. There is no long-term commitment, and as a Group B unit there is no chance of being mobilised for operations.
The things I learnt over the next two years will definitely stay with me, and I think being a member of the Territorial Army definitely taught me many important things.
Commitment: even when it’s 2am, your sleeping bag in stiff with frost, and you can’t feel your fingers after kipping down in a muddy ditch, getting up to join the night patrol was something you couldn’t escape. Every other weekend we were taken to a training ground and put through our paces, sleeping outside come rain, shine, or (memorably) lots and lots of snow, building fires for cooking, and dens for watching, I’m by no means pretending what we did was anything like what the Army soldiers experience for real, but it was tough, and it was tiring, and there were times when we just looked at each other and though “WHAT are we doing here when we could be curled up in bed with a nice book!”. But at the end of a weekend, when, exhausted, scratched, and dirty, we piled onto a coach and fell into varying degrees of sleep, there was a definite sense of accomplishment. And every weekend, you get drawn back, the aches and the smiles are magnetic.
Testing your limits: running through the mud, weighed down with backpack and rifle, and with very little sleep, the drills and exercises we were put through tested our bodies and minds to the limit. It taught endurance and perseverance… and the value of a hot cup of tea!
Friendship: as a member of the OTC you are never alone. There is always someone to help bouy you up when you need it, to give you an understanding nod of encouragement. Friendships formed incredibly quickly, and they are bonds that will last. You march at the pace of the slowest, the one with the most equipment and the most to think about, you sleep and patrol and eat and drink and run together, and that creates something special.
Confidence: both in yourself and in those around you. You have to learn to make quick decisions, and believe in them, leading the rest of your section with calmness and certainty. Although there was a section commander, we all had to rely on each other at different times, to trust that we knew what we were doing. Leadership is an incredibly important and useful skill, and one that is absolutely learnt with the OTC. When you are having instructions and information thrown at you from all angles, you have to be able to keep a cool head and filter out unnecessary distractions, and you need to lead.
As well as these, it’s also just really quite fun. Riding tanks, firing flares, all dressed up in camouflage, the epitome of childhood adventures in the forest cranked up a notch. I know there is a serious element, and that being in the Army and being soldier is no joking matter, but somehow the OTC manages to instil a sense of light-heartedness alongside the recognition of the importance of what soldiers all around the world do for their country.
What surprised me the most was the room for individuality. Yes, you are expected to do what is asked of you, and yes there are certain standards that should be reached. But within all of that is also room to shine, room to have your own thoughts, your own suggestions, room to be yourself. For one, I’m not that good at following rules and regulations, and I’m not that fond of being told what to do. But as a member of the OTC, I somehow managed to overcome that stubborn streak in my personality, perhaps because I knew that I following rules and orders that were considered and necessary. And because we had a fantastic Commander, Colonel Sebastian Pollington, who saw us each as individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses, who are there to grow into shape, not to be bent into shape.
The saying “work hard, play hard” has never been more apt! And the social life of the OTC was another thing that drew me to it. The mess is full of squashy old sofas and armchairs, a lovely (and incredibly cheap) bar, and inevitably several other soldiers lounging, chatting, laughing, and teasing. We had fancy dress Christmas, and an Annual Dinner at St. John’s College, Cambridge – both of which were, in very different ways, amazing.
As well the qualities that the Army is so proud of nurturing in it’s soldiers, we learnt many practical things – weapons handling, battle tactics, first aid, physical training – and whilst they may not all be necessary over the coming years, learning about something so completely different from anything else is very satisfying, it makes you think that no matter what you are faced with, you can do it, you can learn, and you can adapt, and you can do it.
Having recently finished the autobiographies of Ranulph Fiennes, Ben Fogle, and Bear Grylls, all of whom, at one time or another, were part of the elite SAS squad, it struck me that the Army can put it’s name to nurturing in so many adventurers and explorers a desire to be more than you’d imagined you could be, an ability to know your limits but understand how to push them, and an appreciation for the importance of a team that works closely to get things done. The Army as a whole has, over the years and for various reasons, received it’s fair share of bad press. I’m not absolving it of any sins it may or may not have committed, nor am I ignoring any of the bad things that comes with being a soldier. All I can really speak of is my experience, which has been unforgettable.