The Man Who Wore Three Hats—DOUBLE ROLE

By Frank Robb
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 1, January 1954
[Reprinted by courtesy of Commando (South Africa).- Editor.]

The new Commanding Officer settled himself in his chair, rearranged the inkwells and blotter to his satisfaction, surveyed the little panel of bell-pushes screwed to the table. After some consideration he pushed one marked "2 i/c". Captain Bolt, the Second in Command, entered.

"Good morning, sir."

"Good-morning, Capt. Bolt. Pull up a chair, will you? I want to—ah—get acquainted with matters, as it were. Pick up the threads, so to speak. Eh?"

"Certainly, sir."

"I went through most of the stuff last night. Must say everything seemed pretty well in order—all tied up nicely, what? There was one matter I'm not quite clear on. Whacking fat file involving some dispute between this office and Don Battery—some barney about underpants or something."

"You'll find that is satisfactorily adjusted now, sir." Capt. Bolt said smoothly. "Shouldn't have any further trouble with it."

"I hope not. Put me in the picture will you? What was it all about?"

"As it happens, sir, I was personally involved to some extent, and quite familiar with the details. As you know, some weeks elapsed between the departure of your predecessor and your taking over yesterday, and during that period I was Acting O.C. and handled this end of the affair."

"I see. Go on."

"It was basically an argument with the Battery Commander of Don Battery about the issue—or, rather non-issue of Combinations Long Woollen Sets One Per Man. Some time back Quartermaster Section authorized this issue, and it was duly promulgated in orders. B.C., Don Beer indented accordingly."

"And apparently didn't get them?"

"Correct, sir. You see, the issue was subsequently cancelled."

"Well, what was the argument about? Didn't you tell B.C., Don Beer about the cancellation?"

"Frequently, sir. But owing to some administration mix-up on a higher level, the cancellation never appeared in orders, and Don Beer Battery Commander adopted the attitude that unless and until the cancellation order was promulgated he was entitled to be issued. As I had only received verbal advice of the cancellation—unofficial notice, as it were—his argument was difficult to combat. He was most insistent. At a later stage the matter got somewhat out of hand, and I was forced to be pretty sharp with him."

"Shot him down in flames, eh? He sounds like an obstinate fellow. I'd better have a look at him." Capt. Bolt coughed deprecatingly. "It becomes a little complicated now, sir. We were very short of officers at the time—the O.C. away, two on courses, one on leave and so on—and most of us had to double up on various duties. It so happened that at this time I was also Acting Battery Commander of Don Battery." The Colonel blinked. "Wassat? Do you mean to tell me you carried out all this correspondence with yourself?"

"I suppose you could put it that way, sir, but officially it didn't signify who signed the correspondence. It amounted in essence to a difference of opinion between this H.Q. and Don Battery, and the fact that I happened to be temporarily in command of both was purely coincidental." The Colonel gnawed his moustache thoughtfully. "Er—yes, I can see that, in a way. But in that case how come all the argument?"

"In my capacity as Battery Commander of Don Battery," Capt. Bolt explained earnestly, "I had applied under stated authority for an issue of these garments. As my indent was turned down without official authorization I considered that I was within my rights in pressing the matter." The Colonel sampled his moustache again. "But you'd been told—and by no less a person than yourself, dammit—that the Q.M. had scrubbed the whole business out."

"That information was not official, sir. In my capacity as O.C. I happened to know—through unrecognized sources—that there was to be no issue of Combinations Long Woollen. But as B.C., Don Beer I was not entitled to take cognizance of an unpromulgated order. As far as I was concerned the original order still stood."

"So you argued the toss about it?"

"I pressed my claim, sir."

"But what was the use when you knew dam' well that you hadn't a hope of getting the things?"

"I had my duty to my men, sir." Capt. Bolt said primly. "What with winter coming on and … "

"Skip that," said the Colonel shortly. "What did you do then?"

"As O.C. or B.C., Don Beer, sir?"

"Er—as O.C. for a start."

"After a fair amount of correspondence had passed, I eventually wrote stating flatly that there would be no issue of Combinations Woollen and that the matter was to be considered closed. I should explain, sir, that I used to spend mornings at Don Battery and afternoons here, and to expedite matters I didn't post the letters at all, but carried them about in my pocket until I had arrived at the right address, when I opened them."

"But for Heaven's sake why write letters at all? You knew all along what was going on in your own mind."

Capt. Bolt was shocked. "Sir! We couldn't possibly carry out internal administration by a series of verbal agreements. It would create chaos. The matter had to go on record."

"All right, have it your own way," the Colonel said sulkily. "Go on."

"Well, when I opened this letter at Don Battery the following morning I took great exception to it and … "

"So you took exception to a letter that you wrote to yourself, hey?"

"As I've explained, sir," Capt. Bolt said patiently, "that was just an incidental—er—coincidence. In effect it was a letter from H.Q. duly signed by an officer entitled so to sign—the name of the officer being immaterial. As Don Beer Battery Commander I considered that my legitimate indent for Combinations Long Woollen had been refused without authority, and my reasonable request for an explanation had been met by this letter which was, in effect, simply an order to shut up."

"Why didn't you shut up, then? What about discipline, damme?"

"There was no question of indiscipline, sir. This was a matter affecting efficiency, the comfort of the men, internal administration, office routine, indent procedure and practically the entire structure of Army organization. I should have been neglecting my duty if I had failed to take the matter up. So I wrote a pretty firm letter in reply, more or less insisting that either the issue be made or the cancellation be promulgated through the proper channels. I came here after lunch and opened the letter as Acting O.C. On reading it I was very angry."

The Colonel leaned back in his chair and looked very hard at Capt. Bolt, who returned his stare with an innocent gaze.

"So you became angry—with yourself?" the Colonel said in a grating voice.

"Very angry," Capt. Bolt agreed. His brow darkened at the recollection; he rose and fetched a file from the cabinet. "If you'll read the letter in question, sir, you'll notice a definite sort of undercurrent of disrespect—almost of insubordination. Mind you, I was still in a difficult position, being unable to justify my actions by normal procedure, but I wasn't going to tolerate being told my business by a mere Battery Commander. Bad for discipline, for one thing," said Capt. Bolt virtuously. "My reply was of necessity very sharp indeed."

"Is that so? Sharp, eh? And why was it necessary … Oh, go on, go on."

"I'm afraid both sides lost their tempers at this stage, sir, and the correspondence degenerated badly. In fact, it lapsed into personalities, many of them completely unconnected with the matter in hand."

The Colonel riffled through the file. "So it would seem," he said. He read out a few passages—"blind insistence on the letter of the law … " "positively startling inefficiency … " "—a little brief authority … "—"jumped-up jack-in-office … " "- speedy enough at Dunkirk." He looked up with a dazed air. "What the hell has Dunkirk got to do with Woollen Combinations?"

"That," said Capt. Bolt with some heat, "is an offensive, malicious reference to a certain incident in which I was involved at Dunkirk. I was admittedly hurrying, but on Army business, and to distort the occurrence into a reflection on my courage was the act of a … Well, anyway, it shows the level of the correspondence at this stage. As a matter of fact it was that very phase that brought matters to a head. When an O.C. (even if only Acting) calls a brother officer's courage into question the time has plainly come to take matters further. As Battery Commander I was not prepared to tolerate deliberate insult, and as O.C. I had ample grounds for making an example of B.C. Don Beer for impertinence and crass stupidity."

"And just what did you propose to do about it? Tear a strip off yourself, or fight a duel with yourself?"

"I see you appreciate the difficulty, sir. It was an unusual situation—almost a deadlock. And there were other considerations which made the matter even more tricky. For instance suppose I decided to make a disciplinary matter out of the affair. And then, suppose, for argument's sake, that as B.C. Don Beer I was found to be in the wrong—possibly demoted to Lieutenant. As O.C., of course, I would retain the rank of Captain, or even," he cleared his throat modestly, "be promoted to Major. You can see that it would have been a confusing situation. The question of pay, for example; changing badges of rank every few minutes, precedence in … "

"Don't even talk about it," the Colonel shuddered. "When I think of the red tape it would involve—pensions—letters from the Headquarters … ! It would be an appalling catastrophe."

"I agree, sir. And that was the state of affairs up to the day before your arrival here."

"If this Jekyll-and-Hyde business is still going on … " the Colonel began grimly. "No, sir. I am happy to be able to say that the matter was eventually settled by the intervention of the Adjutant, who was au fait with the position of both parties. He suggested that as the cause of the argument was fairly trivial, and that as equally strong—er—personalities were involved on either side, a friendly agreement might be arrived at. Through his good services a rapprochement was arrived at and the matter was dropped. And no hard feelings."

"So I suppose that you shook hands with yourself and stood yourself a drink in the Mess?"

"More or less, sir. But two drinks, of course?"

"Well, thank Heaven the Adjutant seems to be one officer at least with some sense. Who is he?" For the first time during the interview Capt. Bolt seemed nervous. "As a matter of fact, sir," he said warily, "owing to the shortage of officers referred to, the duties of Adjutant at the time were being carried out by me."