serge cloth

We shall Remember them.

We shall Remember them.

As the dust settles on the Remembrance season for another year and we lay to rest the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I have a story of personal struggle and personal triumph to tell.

How did we end up here?

It is 10:50 on Friday November 11th. I have just delivered the second of six sessions I am due to deliver today but already my brain has moved on and is focussing on the next appointment of the day.

When I say focus, I mean a laser sharp, all-encompassing focus on what I am about to deliver.

I am not going to lie to you: I am feeling the pressure. I am about to deliver a one-off, single-take, no second chances, must be perfect first time session.

I am definitely nervous.

Why am I feeling so much strain? Let me take you back in time a little.

Of course I can…

When I made the booking to visit a school on November 10th and 11th, away back in May, I was really excited to be delivering Remembrance sessions to an entire school. I love the opportunity to make an impact and to leave a lasting impression. Talking about Remembrance on Armistice day is just such an opportunity.



Part of the booking was that I would deliver an assembly to the school on both days. No problem, I could do a session teaching drill. It’s a great wee session that works better the more people you have.

Then, a month or so before the visit, the teacher asked me if I would do an assembly on the Thursday and lead the school Remembrance assembly on the Friday.

“Of course I can.”  The enormity of what I had offered hit as soon as I pressed send.

I was offering to lead a service of Remembrance for an entire school. Some things are important. Some things have a very precise, correct way of doing things. Some things you are morally and ethically obliged to get perfectly right. A Remembrance service is all three of these things.

I have attended many services over the years, I have formed up groups of students for the 2 minutes silence, but I had never actually led the service. This was new territory. This is not the time to be hoisted on my own petard.

There is no wriggle room, no chance to improvise. This needs to be perfect. First time. With no notes.

So I set about memorising the order of service. I set about memorising the Exhortation. I set about knowing the whole of the Last Post and I practised my bosun’s call.

All in all it’s a lot to remember. Especially when you slot it into the middle of a day where I had to deliver six sessions about D Day.

Back to the present

So that’s why I’m feeling nervous. I am acutely aware of everywhere my Second World War uniform is not sitting quite right. Every pace it’s digging in. I am abundantly aware of how hot the school is and I am beginning to get sweaty palms.



“I can do this, and I can do it right.”

I walk into the hall to be met by hundreds of small faces and the entire school staff looking at me. Also I am greeted by a Corporal from the REME who has offered to attend the service. I suddenly feel that my battledress is very out of place for this service, but there is no time to change and therefore I must focus and get this right.

Everyone sits down.

The lights go down.

I nod to the teacher with the laptop and the Last Post sounds from the PA.

It takes an eternity to finish.

Deep breath. Commit

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning:
We shall Remember them.”


Announce the two minutes silence.

Sound the call. Glance at my watch and remember the time.


Think about all the things I ask the children to remember. Think about the people who I talk about in my remembrance sessions. Think about the people I have known who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Glance at my watch.

Sound the call to end the silence.



Now back into my comfort zone

And then finish the service by taking the children through their drill before dismissing them.

They were absolutely brilliant. They managed to be silent and, relatively, still for the whole two minutes. Their drill was perfect.

I have never felt such a wave of relief and pleasure at having successfully completed something.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right, because it was important. It was important to me to make sure I did this properly and it’s important to other people that I did this right.

I’m not kidding myself. Compared to being involved in a conflict, I was risking very little apart from opprobrium. Compared to the fear that soldiers feel going into combat, I felt very little. However, I had done my bit to remember their experiences and to help others remember them. I had treated the occasion with the respect it deserved.

I had done my bit to remember and to keep the memories alive.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uniforms, 0 comments
The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

Remembering Remembrance

Last week I was delivering drill sessions in Portsmouth schools. I was in the playground in the baking heat of an Indian Summer. In layers of wool and cotton I was beyond toasty warm. I was sweating buckets marching around playground suntraps.

Looking stern

Looking stern

It’s easy in such conditions to kid yourself that it’s still summer and not the last week of September. It’s easy to revel in the warmth of the moment and ignore the inevitable fact that the year is turning.

September. The turn of the seasons means one thing here at Past Participants: it’s time to start gearing up for November. It’s time to start gearing up for Remembrance.

It’s the best of times

I apologise for paraphrasing one of Portsmouth’s most famous sons.

I love Remembrance season. It’s a subject that really seems to connect with teachers and students alike. It’s a subject where I feel I really make an impact. It’s a subject that’s important.

It’s also the busiest time of the year because of all of that.

I shall spend most of November visiting the schools of Hampshire delivering Remembrance sessions. More often than not that also means delivering drill sessions in their playgrounds. The same playgrounds that, in September, were dappled in late summer sun are now blasted by a freezing wind. They really give an immersive feel to the whole Remembrance experience. It can also be really cold so the children are wrapped up against it while muggins is in the same kit that he was wearing back in September. It’s thick wool so it’s warm and, to a certain extent, waterproof but it’s not windproof.

I can live with that, it’s what I signed up for.

The stories we tell in our remembrance sessions are really powerful. Some are from the Great War discovering the experience of soldiers on the front line. Some are from the Second World War where we find out about the crews of Landing Craft as well as the soldiers on the beach.

It’s the worst of times

Not all of the stories turn out well for those concerned. That only makes them more powerful. Telling them properly and doing them justice means putting everything into it. It’s only fair.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Think about it for a moment. Every time I deliver a Remembrance session, I introduce the group to a person who, I know, isn’t going to make it to the end of the session. Every session, I put myself through the emotional wringer to make sure I’m doing it properly. Every single session. There’s no shortcut, no way of insulating myself from it: it’s got to be done properly.

What that means for me is that the season really takes its toll on me emotionally. It’s important and I don’t begrudge it but, by the end of it, I am pretty wrung out from going through that process so often.

Am I looking forward to it?

Of course I am.

The effect that the sessions have on students and teachers alike make all the hard work, the cold, the emotional challenges all worthwhile. The fact that students remember these people years after they’ve taken part tells me this is worth doing.

I get a huge reward out of teaching Remembrance and from feeling that I am making a small but positive difference to the world.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Drill in the rain: serge cloth really cuts the mustard

Drill in the rain: serge cloth really cuts the mustard

The week before last I took part in an event where, to cut a long story short, I spent the entire day doing drill sessions for teenagers.

I am really comfortable delivering drill sessions, I’ve been doing it for years with all age groups from Reception right the way up to University students. It almost always goes down a storm so I look forward to it. There is a bunch of reasons why it works. Not least of them is that everyone buys into the semi-roleplay of the situation: they expect the drill leader to do shouting, to be picky and for them to make a mess of it to begin with. I oblige on all counts, albeit with good humour so that everyone gets a chance to shine. It also requires a level of mindfulness, something that is very du jour. Above all, it’s an opportunity to succeed at something new: I want them to do well, the instructions are delivered in a way that encourages success and I heap praise on them when they get it right (which they do). It’s lots of fun for everyone.

WW2 drill

Second World War drill without arms

It’s been a while, though, since I’ve delivered six back-to-back sessions in a day. It’s been even longer since I’ve delivered sessions teaching drill at arms. Drill at arms is doing drill but with a weapon. Here’s an example of modern Royal Marines on their Pass Out Parade doing some display drill at arms.

It’s potentially complicated and confusing as well as me being a little rusty, so I spent the days before practicing at home with a broom handle (which works very well). By the night before I was pretty confident I could lead twenty recalcitrant teenagers through some simple drill movements.

The sound of wheels coming off…

Everything was going well (apart from a slight navigational stramash en route). We arrived at the incredibly scenic Fort Purbrook on top of Portsdown Hill. We got ourselves set up in the middle of the parade ground. All was good.

Then I was presented with the replica rifles they’d be using for the drill. Jono and myself were in full Second World War kit with Second World War rifle. When I was presented with the replicas they were modern SA80 replicas. If you want to know why this might cause problems, compare these two images:

The Lee Enfield is 110cm long and the SA80 is 78cm. Not only are they completely wrong for the uniforms we were wearing but the drill is completely different. This was not going to work as planned. Time for a spot of re-tooling then…

…By the time we received our first group we had a plan and knew what we were doing. We were good to go and raring to get on with it.

The only thing between us and a hog-roast was 6 iterations of drill in the open air on top of a hill with no shelter.

Blame it on the weatherman

And then the heavens opened. At first it was just a little bit, the odd spot here and there. Then it became a steady downpour. The group all ran for their waterproofs, leaving myself and Jono standing there in our serge cloth uniforms. We could have followed them but somehow a modern waterproof would have looked utterly silly. We had one option: to put up with it with good grace and a smile. Otherwise, how could we expect the children to carry on? We gave each other the “no choice but to man up” look and cracked on.

There was nowhere to hide. Literally.

Serge cloth is made of felted wool. The benefits and drawbacks are more than adequately explained here. The thing that was really bothering me, as I stood in the rain, was the “holds up to twice its own weight in water”. After years of pointing out how much fun Marines had on D Day wading in through the sea I was about to get a taste of my own medicine.

We got through each session, one by one. My face was ringing wet. My hands were soaked. Handling the rifle had become like catching an eel. Stay on target. At the end of each session we let them hide under the gazebo we’d brought. They seemed to be enjoying the silliness of the whole affair.

Wait for it…

All the way through the morning I was waiting for that moment when the uniform wetted through. That moment when you feel the cold water seeping onto your skin. The moment when the first dribble goes down your back.

I kept waiting for it.

It never happened. When we stopped for lunch and hung up our blouses, our undershirts were clearly wet but there wasn’t that feeling of drowning I’d expected. They were soaking on the outside, but inside we were still snug and warm.

The same was true when the next wave of rain came in during the afternoon.

Day out at Fort Purbrook

Fort Purbrook Day

It turns out that the sheer amount of lanolin in the cloth makes it pretty water resistant. We were certainly much more comfortable than the lady in her modern outdoor gear running the assault course. I wouldn’t say we were dry but we were definitely still happy.

After years of waxing lyrical about how rubbish serge is and how much of a pain it is to wear, it suddenly makes sense. I see it now. No, it’s not waterproof, but it does shrug off much of the rain. It doesn’t dry quickly (the blouses were still wet the following morning) but it’s not awful to wear when it’s damp.

Serge really cuts the mustard sometimes.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 0 comments
“Serge cloth is an amazing material”

“Serge cloth is an amazing material”

I never used to get tired of this spiel when working at the museum.

Day in, day out I’d tell children how amazing serge cloth is. It’s all coming back to haunt me now as I sit here typing wearing a uniform made of serge cloth.

To begin at the beginning, serge is a kind of woollen twill cloth commonly used in military uniforms until cotton took over in the latter part of the 20th century. In particular British uniforms of the two world wars were made of serge, but you don’t see it much any more. Which is why I talk about it a lot in classes: it’s a real tactile representation of how different things are now. I believe it’s also a really great way to engage with the difficulties of life as a soldier.

I say serge is amazing with more than a hint of sarcasm but there is a lot to recommend it. It’s hard-wearing and robust: the uniform I use for myself in D Day school sessions is over seventy years old and going strong. It’s remarkably insulating being made of wool. It also looks the business. In fact, it’s the perfect natural material for making military uniforms out of.

It is, however, not without its drawbacks.

Anecdotally, it will absorb several times its own weight in water. So I’m not keen to be standing in the rain for too long wearing it as I know how long it’ll take to dry out. I have absolutely no desire to be taking part in an amphibious landing wearing it. Oh, and it gets really cold when it’s wet too. Double the fun.

The real clincher is that it’s itchy. It’s off the scale tickly next to the skin. Imagine the most tickly of woollen jumpers and you’re in the right ballpark. That’s annoying when you have to put it on in a classroom for five minutes or so, but imagine what it’s like at the end of a long day.

One thing I learned very quickly about living in serge is that your choice of base layer is crucial. Get it right and all the positives of serge come to the fore. Get it wrong and you’re heading for a world of misery. Just look at my face in the main picture: how convinced do I look?

Serge trousers
The old days, with a cotton t shirt underneath. The fireman look?

Which is why, right now, I am putting careful thought into sourcing exactly the right new woollen undershirts for my uniforms. It’s vital for my future comfort that I get this right.

In the Great War that undershirt would be blue/grey flannel, which can be quite nice. In the Second World War it’s a woollen undershirt, so under my D Day woollen uniform I’ll have a woollen shirt. There’s no wonder Tommies looked at the American T shirt with envy. I know I would. It also explains why I used to wear a cotton T shirt under my uniform.

So, when you see me in my uniform in school, spare a thought for how amazing serge cloth is and remember why we don’t use it in the field any more.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, Uniforms, 0 comments