For Queen and Country - Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
PUBLISHED: 18:05 26 September 2011 | UPDATED: 11:58 28 February 2013
Writer and local resident Keiron Fennelly was given exclusive access behind the scenes at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst...
These days, British forces are rarely out of the news. The Iraq war and the long campaign in Afghanistan have meant that in the first decade of the 21st century, the Army has been consistently more in demand than at any time since the Second World War. And unlike what we used to call conventional warfare, fighting a largely invisible enemy has placed very public strains on the military. As we regularly see in television reports, the Afghan campaign has become one of the most intractable struggles the British Army has ever been engaged in and it means that rarely has the role of the Royal Military Academy, the officers training college and one of Britains most venerable institutions, been more vital.
Discreetly hidden behind woodland near Sandhurst, on the outskirts of Camberley, the RMA does not cultivate a high profile. Established almost 200 years ago and effectively giving rise to the settlements around it, the locals all know its there, but the Academy gets very little attention apart from the Sovereigns Parade, the graduation ceremony for newly-commissioned officers. Otherwise, the self-contained Academy goes about its business undemonstratively. That business is a training course widely acknowledged to be more challenging than anything comparable offered by any other nation. And one which has to evolve as fast as the theatres of war in which its officers are involved.
Although running courses for professionally qualified officers, doctors or lawyers, the core activity at Sandhurst is training the officer cadets. There are always many more applicants than places, but the Armys rigorous selection board identifies those with leadership potential and this talented minority enrols at Sandhurst for the three-term commissioning course. There follow 10 highly intensive months which will stretch the cadets intellectual and physical capacities as well as their characters. Private industry has long been fascinated by Sandhursts training techniques, which is one reason why outward bound type management training has become so popular.
Term one concentrates on military skills. Its straight in at the deep end: applicants have already had to prove they are pretty fit, but at Sandhurst they will have to get a lot fitter and fast! A sustained exercise regime and running to be able to pass the exacting drill test which comes a mere five weeks after the start.
The cadets eat their way through 5,000 calories a day, explains Lieutenant Colonel Roy Parkinson, spokesman for the Academy, but they have such an exhausting timetable that they still lose weight. Its all about building character at this stage as the officer cadets usually find themselves drawing on physical reserves they never knew they had. When your first major challenge is a 30-mile forced route march in terrain as inhospitable as the Brecon Beacons with a 20 kg backpack, being able to count on those reserves suddenly becomes essential. And in the modern Army, concessions for what used to be called the fair sex are few: the women march the same distance as the men. If the first term transforms the raw recruit into a physically competent and confident individual, then the second term looks more at leadership and military aspects.
In breaks from the physical training which by now should have turned joggers into runners and the best runners into county standard athletes, cadets study war strategy, international affairs and the psychology of leadership. At this stage they also decide on the regiment they will join after Sandhurst.
It says something for the Armys ability to recognise potential that the drop out rate is so low an average of 86 per cent of each intake is commissioned. Such is their progress that by the third term, cadet officers are already expected to take responsibility for planning and directing their training missions and in the class room, the emphasis shifts to counter insurgency and the intelligence war. It means that a 19 or 20 year-old can have levels or responsibility unimaginable in any other walk of life.
Discovering how to be an effective peacekeeper is a key component too, learning to keep their judgement and resist the most extreme provocation. Officer cadets also have to do the basic soldier stuff too: thorough personal organisation, as exemplified by that traditional favourite of the British Army, the kit inspection, is no mere time honoured ritual: self discipline and assiduous attention to detail are the difference between death and survival and even saving the lives of others. The sartorially immaculate officer cadet, marching at his passing out parade, knows infinitely more than just looking the part.
The role of the military has changed enormously in recent years. I was commissioned in 1978, says Lt Colonel Parkinson. In those days, it was the perpetual waiting for something to happen during the long decades of the Cold War, which never did, interspersed with tours in Northern Ireland. Now youre straight into the action in Afghanistan.
The reality is indeed harsh: only a week after arriving at Sandhurst this year, one officer cadet found himself at the funeral of his friend, killed in action in Kandahar. Few experiences can instil a greater sense of purpose than this. If certain applicants, particularly from overseas, once regarded Sandhurst as a kind of finishing school, that is a notion that has long bitten the dust. Many of us like to think of ourselves as professionals, but few of us would deny that a Sandhurst commissioned officer is a true professional.
Until 1800 there was no formal military training: officers bought commissions (or their fathers did) and it was assumed that a gentlemans education sufficed to be an army officer. In the days of Empire, when often as not opponents were spear-hurling natives, this was perhaps the case, but in the wars against Napoleon, the British Army was pitted against a foe of comparable sophistication and technology. The sudden need for trained officers led to the founding of the Royal Military Academy in 1812. The site at Sandhurst was chosen because, at 30 miles from Hyde Park Corner, it was considered close enough to London, but far enough away to prevent the officer cadets being exposed to the distractions and temptations of the capital!
The disastrous early defeats suffered by the British Army at the hands of a few thousand Boer farmers during the Boer War (1899 1902) shocked the public and led to a rapid expansion at Sandhurst. More recently, amalgamation with military colleges at Woolwich, which specialised in engineers and Camberley, where female officers were commissioned, has centralised training at Sandhurst. Many candidates have attended from overseas and the RMAS has strong links with many royal families, not least the House of Windsor: Princess Annes first married home was at Sandhurst and in 2006, Princes William and Harry were commissioned.
Life at Sandhurst
At any one time, the RMAS is training about 800 officer cadets. Graduation takes place three times a year as each batch of approximately 260 passes out. In the September 2010 intake, 269 officer cadets are of UK nationality with a further 23 from other countries as diverse as Afghanistan and the United States. Two are from China. Traditionally, the largest body of foreign cadets has come from former Commonwealth countries; more recently applicants have begun to arrive from Eastern Europe and the new states of Central Asia.
'The fairer sex'
Women first began training at Sandhurst in 1972 and gradually their courses were completely integrated with the mens. Thirty of Septembers new recruits are women, though none come from outside Great Britain. They train every bit as rigorously as the men and concessions and rare for example on forced marches, they are allowed to carry 15kg instead of 20kg, but they have to march just as far. And they would expect nothing less.
Sandhurst old boys constitute a veritable Whos Who of world leaders. Best known, of course, is Sir Winston Churchill and from overseas, King Hussein of Jordan, whose son King Abdullah, the present ruler, also attended; amongst non political figures are Dhodi Fayed, who was at Sandhurst in 1974, the actor David Niven and author Ian Fleming.