P Company – Milling and Battle March
P Company is a test in life that can make or break you. The first event was milling or sixty seconds of controlled aggression against an opponent of similar height and weight. The rules were punch to the head and get punched. No defence allowed. This has been described as the longest minute of your life. On the parade square, we were organised into two long lines facing each other, ascending in height order. I was toward the middle and stood on the same side as my mate Rog, so at least I wouldn’t be fighting him. The three people opposite comprised two weedy-looking blokes and someone who glared under sinister eyebrows and looked like an animal, complete with flaring nostrils. The Corporals shuffled us about and I ended up opposite one of the thinner ones. This was looking okay. The Corporals brought us to a left turn and, just before we marched off, a last minute switch was made and I saw Animal beside me. I thought, Oh shit.
As we entered a hall, one line went left, the other right. At the centre I could see some wooden benches arranged into a square around some matting. The place was buzzing and the Corporals were looking forward to this event, grinning away. The recruits wore a mixture of brash smiles, nervousness and downright fear. My line was designated the ‘skins,’ so we were ordered to take our T-shirts off. The other line kept their T-shirts on. We all sat on the benches, except for the first two up, who had the sixteen ounce boxing gloves laced on by Corporals. These gloves were heavy, especially when they would be slamming into an opponent for a full minute. No head guards were worn.
The bigger blokes went first. It was vicious. Many recruits were bloodied. As each bout finished, we shuffled along the line toward the corner of the benches where we would put boxing gloves on. When it was Rog’s turn, he took on one of the weedy blokes and did well, dominating the bout from the start and earned an easy win. People were dropping like flies. Some failed for lack of aggression. Others were battered, but passed.
I was apprehensive as my turn neared. The bout before mine was on. I don’t recall it, but tried to compose myself. We gloved up, stood in our corners and my heart was trying to jump out of my chest. The bell clanged loudly. I tore across the mats and punched Animal as hard as I could in the face. Although he didn’t even manage to take a step forward when I hit him, he didn’t flinch either. He struck me hard in the head and I hit the floor. Now I only had about fifty-nine seconds to go.
I got up and stuck back in, swinging punches wildly. I lasted at least fifteen seconds this time before being decked. I was taking some big punches. Up again, a bit groggier this time, but I went for it anyway. Another ten seconds or so and I was knocked to the ground again. I was hurt this time.
I looked around the floor and a Corporal yanked me back to my unsteady feet. He grabbed both my gloves, looked me over and asked, “You good to go on?” I nodded and turned to face Animal. He looked tired – not surprising, given how hard he’d been pounding my head for the last thirty seconds. I raised my gloves and the Corporal shouted, “Mill!!”
I hit Animal with a right fist as hard as I could in the face and he staggered backwards. I moved forward, punching him in the head repeatedly. He fell against the seated recruits, who pushed him back toward me. I hit him again and again in the face. He collapsed backwards. I couldn’t hear the shouting anymore. To the sound of my heartbeat and breathing, the pain had gone. It was no effort to swing my arms anymore. He’d punched himself out and couldn’t even raise his hands to cover his head. In the corner, with nowhere to go, I smashed him in the head. He flailed about drunkenly until the bell echoed a halt to the proceedings. Everything rushed into focus and I could hear properly again. The shouting died down. I smelled sweat and leather boxing gloves as we both stood to attention in front of the Sergeant. I could taste blood. After a moment, Animal’s hand was raised in the air. Fair enough. I had hit the deck many a time. The Sergeant looked at me.
“You showed enough aggression to pass.”
After an all too brief time to sort ourselves and our kit out for the ten mile battle march, we were lined up on the parade square. This was the big one because ‘tabbing’ – tactical advance to battle – was the bread and butter of the Paras and you were expected to do well. We were to tab as a squad over undulating terrain, each carrying thirty-five pounds of kit in a webbing belt. Added to this the weight was water, helmet and weapon held in your hands with the sling removed. In all, we would carry about fifty pounds. The battle march must be completed within one hour and fifty minutes for a pass. A Corporal grabbed my webbing and weighed it on some hand-held spring scales. He noted thirty-nine pounds against my name on his clipboard. I put the webbing straps back over my shoulders. My knee twinged, but it was holding up. And the milling had done me good because my head was hurting worse than my knee.
The parade square was lined on all sides by barracks and I looked around at the crowd of recruits. My stomach churned. I was about to go into the hardest test of my life. Patrick asked if I was okay. I’m not sure what I replied because I was so nervous. Rog came over and hit me in the shoulder. I smiled back.
“Come on you fuckers, get into line!!” a Corporal shouted.
I shuffled into some sort of formation. We were shouted to the start line and I was paired up with Dane. We looked at each other briefly. No time to think as we were brought to a run. It was an electrifying pace as we left the Aldershot depot and followed the Sergeant on a designated route. I felt the speed was too fast. The Sergeant shouted mockingly at us.
“Do you see the chalk we’re passing?”
I looked down and saw some yellow chalk lines disappearing under my boots.
“That’s the one mile mark. The end is in sight!”
I looked over at Dane, who raised his eyebrows and, without a word, we both dropped back down the line. I needed to get on a pace I was comfortable with and intermittently walked and ran as and when I could.
About forty-five minutes in, I lost Dane and found myself in a group of stragglers, which included some of the less fit recruits in our cadre. This wasn’t going well and I hit a low ebb. The weather was cool and cloudy, and the light rain made it perfect conditions to do well. There was no excuse for being this crap. I’d hit the pain barrier. Sergeant Hunter ran up to us.
“Stanford!! What the fuck are you doing back here with these shitheads?” he screamed.
There wasn’t anything I could say, so I put my head down and just kept going, with Corporal Steele slagging us off. We were brought to a run for a few hundred metres and then told to walk again. I knew I had to do something different to pass this test so, instead of slowing to a walk, I ran faster. Sometimes in life you’ve just got to push through the pain and this was one of those times. With eyes closed and through gritted teeth, I continued running. The Corporal shouted.
“That’s more like it Stanford! Keep fucking going!!”
I took the pain. My legs burned. I don’t know how long I ran for. But, when I slowed to an unsteady walk, I looked behind and my old group was well in the distance. Now I was getting somewhere. The only problem was that I was by myself now, which made it difficult to maintain a good pace. But I’d got my second wind. I drew some slow, long breaths and forced myself into a run. Stabbing pains alternated between my legs and lungs.
I had no idea how long I ran for, but my rest periods were getting shorter each time. I would not allow myself to fall short. Then I saw the lead group and sprinted to meet them. I figured we must be at about the eight or nine mile mark. Unfortunately, as I reached the group, they were brought to a run and I couldn’t keep up with them. My timing was out of sync so, when they ran, I walked and vice versa. I kept catching them just as they began to pull away.
As I caught the group one last time, I saw the barrack blocks. Gritting my teeth, I stuck with them and came in at the back of the lead group. I felt pleased enough with the way I’d rallied. The official time was noted down and my webbing was weighed again. I formed up in ranks with the other finishers until we were individually dismissed. The cramps had taken hold of my legs and moved up to my chest, so I was standing in agony. We were told they’d taken us all on a half marathon and we were still expected to finish within the set time limit. If we didn’t, we would fail. I think they were bullshitting, but I was too tired to care. As I turned to march the few paces away, I just fell and some mates dragged me over to the edge of the tarmac. I lay on my webbing next to a wall, gulped down cold water from my black plastic water bottle and sobbed in pain. I’d finished and was sure it was within the time set, although no one would confirm this.