Guard Duty

Guard duties take up most of my life. Two hours on and four hours off throughout the night and it comes round with monotonous regularity. Prior to guard-mounting parade, I clean and check my rifle and that makes sense to me. What follows does not! Webbing equipment has to be scrubbed and bleached white and sometimes even made whiter with Blanco, which makes me more visible! The noise made by my metal-studded boots sounds good on the parade ground but announces my comings and goings. Brasses and leather 'bulled up' like mirrors reflect the light. All very nice at Buckingham Palace but this is Palestine! In the Army, orders are obeyed, not questioned, as I found to my cost some months ago. We scrub and polish trying to outshine each other for the reward of being selected as 'stick man'.

After inspection, orders are read out. "Keep alert at all times. Follow the correct procedure for challenging anyone who approaches. Do not fire unless fired upon. Under no circumstances do you fire on women and children."

"Halt, who goes there?"

"Orderly officer!"

"Advance and be recognised!"

"All quiet?" he asked, looking relieved when I shouldered the rifle that had been pointing at his chest.

"Yes sir."

"Nothing to report?"

"No sir."

"Good man. Carry on, gunner."

From past experience I know that my spirit is at its lowest ebb between midnight and 4 am. Unwelcome is the moon that bathes me and my beat in its light. Meshed fence and broad belt of barbed wire reflect a dull metallic gleam.

Ready for anything
Photo: Leif Thomsen

On the other side the moonlight plays among the topmost branches of the dense grove, but does not penetrate the dark depths beneath. In there, less than thirty yards away, could be danger, a danger that fingers and racks every nerve in my body.Just after half-past two the whole world seems asleep, but up and down this 'Holy Land' many hundreds like me are on sentry-go. Vulnerable in the moonlight, hamstrung by orders and procedures, all of us know that both the 1st Div and the 6th Airborne Div are taking casualties. Who among us will lose his life to the terrorist bullet or bomb before cockcrow?

My ears strain for a tell-tale sound; my eyes are unblinking. At the flutter of a moth my arsehole tightens to the size of a shirt button. I hold my breath, let it out and take air in again silently, I think of our numbers, I think of our casualties, the odds should be long enough to give me comfort but they don't, and every stride I take my boots crunch.

"Down!" the voice and the thrust came together, as I went sideways and down, the whip crack of a bullet passed my left ear. Hitting the ground I instinctively fired in the direction of the flash I had seen in the darkness of the grove. Rifles and Bren guns opened fire, the guard turned out, the camp was awake.

"Cease firing!" came the shouted command. "Who fired first?" If I said "Me, sir" the next question would be "Why?" My reply would have to be "Because I was fired at but wasn't hit, thanks to the Galilean (who seemingly only I can hear) shouting a warning and pushing me out of harm's way."

"Who fired first?" the orderly officer asked again and once more his question went unanswered. It was made clear to all of us that any more indiscriminate firing would incure severe punishment.

The events relieved the monotony and provided a talking point for all.

"Sure, there's nothing eases the tension like the kick of a rifle in the shoulder," and few would disagree with Paddy about that.

From 'Enduring the Hour' by Trevor Hall.