An Unexpected Incident

Sergeant Major Mick Withers was born into a Yorkshire coal mining family where he was expected to follow previous generations and work in the pit. However, by the time he was 14 he was over 6 feet (1m 83cm) tall whilst developing a very solid frame. It was clear that he would simply be too big for the back breaking work in the narrow confines of a mine shaft and so in due course he took the only other option the family believed open to him. At the age of 17 years he joined the army. 

In later years he would say that his first eight weeks in the army were the worst he could remember. He had been warned by his family but it was still a great shock. For the first time in his life he had people who were bigger and stronger than him screaming in his face purposely trying to make his life a misery. He knew this was a test of character but by the fourth week he just wanted to go home. The only reason he stayed was because he was terrified of his sergeant major who would shout, full volume, into his face something like:

 “Withers, you are a horrible man and I’m going to make your life a misery but if you think you’re getting out of the army forget it. You have to come through me to leave and I know you could be a soldier. Any time you’re ready, just come and see me about going home. I’ll enjoy persuading you to stay. Please come and ask me. Just see what happens. Go on, try it!

So Mick Withers made it through the army’s testing time and he never forgot that sergeant major. The army started to make something of him and taught him how to drive but could not immediately seem to find anything he was particularly good at. That is until, as part of his training, he was given the role of “Team Lead Soldier” in a problem solving and physical exercise. The senior officers watched as Mick Wither’s team carried out every task exactly as he ordered. There were no questions or arguments amongst them, even though before and after the training they were all equal. By working together so efficiently they easily came top in the exercise and soon after that Mick Withers received his first promotion. It seemed that Private Mick Withers was good at being in charge. In fact it was only five years before he became Sergeant Major Withers and in charge of all new recruits.
He now had to combine putting them through the hell of that first 8 weeks whilst also trying to get them to succeed. After all it was his job to weed out the weakest characters and it turned out that  most of those had been bullies at school who were used to getting their own way. Now, they met Mick Withers who had learnt a big lesson in the army and was determined to carry it forward.

We must now jump forward many years to find Sergeant Major Mick Withers in his final year before retiring and just receiving his very last new recruits. Over time he has gained the most successful record in the army for producing top quality soldiers, whilst also getting a high percentage through. Indeed it was not uncommon for officers from other regions to particularly request soldiers that had been “Wither’s Trained”.

For what happens next you must try and picture the final scene in our story. It is mid-January and Mick Withers has eyed up his final batch of raw recruits. Earlier, he had terrified them and pointed out how they were going to go through the most extreme conditions and that he would enjoy seeing the pain on their faces. On first sight he had decided that his biggest challenge was the shortest and thinnest recruit, Peter Smith. The recruits are now half way through their 8 week training and by some miracle Mick Withers has managed not to lose one soldier. This was a record on its own and he put it down to them all being too scared to fail.

On this particular day it was snowing and the parade ground had a white covering of about 5cm. The recruits had woken up and dared to hope they would not be made to march around that square in the freezing cold. SM Mick Withers however had other ideas and they rose from their beds for the morning kit inspection to be told this would be the first day they were to march in time to the regimental band. The SM did not mention the musicians would have great difficulty playing because their fingers would go numb.
An hour later we find the recruits all lined up in rows with the band playing behind them. There were mostly brass instruments such as trumpets, horns and trombones with one big bass drum strapped to the chest of a rather large soldier. I’m sure you can imagine it.

Every so often they would all march up and down in time to the music and then the march back, line up in neat rows and face their sergeant major as he shouted various instructions and insults.
After their fifth march round the parade ground…………it happened.


The recruits were once again being told how awful they were and that they would keep marching until they got it right. The total sum of their sergeant major’s rage was aimed directly at the new recruits and only them. On that grey, blustery, snowy and freezing day the band was ordered once again to start playing and off they set. However, just as they were all about to take their first step a fluffy white ball flew up into the air, arced down and hit SM Mick Withers square in the chest before it fell into the snow.

The instant it landed everyone froze (probably quite literally). There followed a deafening silence as the men and their sergeant major faced each other. It is difficult to find the words to describe the frenzy of passionate fury that seemed to cross back and forth on the face of SM Withers as, even he, was lost for words. An observer might have been tempted to use the word “apoplexy” as the blood, fuelled by sheer temper, rushed to the SM’s face and it turned various shades of puce. Nobody had been told to stop dead in their tracks but all the men and their SM simultaneously stood stock still, immobilised, whilst trying to come to terms with the horror of what had happened and (worse) the possible results. Each man was imagining his own individual part in the kind of hell that must surely follow.

There then followed a raging tirade as SM Withers ranted on and on saying that whoever had dared to throw a snowball would pay. Then, each recruit was made to hold out his hands and each in turn was inspected for evidence as Mick Withers marched up and down. Of course everybody, including SM Withers himself, was fully aware this was absolute stupidity, for the snow continued to fall and even settle in a small way on those, already frozen fingers. It would be impossible to single out one individual. Yet the certainty gradually grew amongst them that somebody would have to pay.

After walking along the ranks and appearing intently at each soldier’s hands, the choice was made. The huge, booming voice commanded, “Private Smith, you pathetic little individual, fall out”. With a look of shock the very young Private Peter Smith found himself standing in front of his SM and on the receiving end of a further diatribe of abuse. It seemed to go on and on and each soldier stood watching this desperate scene, whilst being quietly relieved that suspicion had not fallen on them. Private Smith stood for minute after minute as the volume gradually increased and then fell only to build up once again to the deafening levels that only SM Withers could manage. If the scene had been drawn in a comic book Private Smith would have been shown without his army cap and with his hair being blown back with the full force of the gale issuing from the SM’s gaping mouth.

After what seemed to be an eternity and with a number of soldiers wondering how much strain their SM’s throat could take before losing his voice, silence fell. In fact Private Smith found this period of quiet, under the glaring and bulging eyes of his officer, to be almost worse than the effect of the blast of full volume.

Eventually the order came. “March this way you ‘orrible little man”.

Private Smith followed and it became obvious they were heading to the latrines, a huge toilet blockhouse of a building with no heat. All the men knew what this meant.

However, despite seeing the back of their SM disappearing across the parade ground, such was their fear of the man, they dared not move. The shock of such a thing happening was gradually wearing off and, once again, most were beginning to realise how cold they were. Anyone looking at these recruits and their regimental band would have seen them shivering but still standing to attention. They watched as Private Smith was marched to the far edge of the parade ground and turned right to arrive at the door of the latrines.

Private Smith found himself inside the massive, tiled floor building that served as the main toilets for the whole camp. He watched as SM Withers halted by a small cabinet on the far wall, took out a key and opened it. Inside was a small glass with a bit of mouldy green and brown water and a toothbrush in it. They were handed to the private who was then taken to the area of tiled floor just inside the door where the trodden in mud was at its worst and told, “Start there”. Peter Smith got down on his knees of that icy cold building and started to clean the floor with the toothbrush. As other soldiers entered they could not help but tread upon his achievements completely wiping out his efforts. They knew, however, not to utter a word under the glaring eye of SM Withers who almost seemed to approve every time any effort at creating a clean patch was ruined by this steady stream of visitors. The SM barked out, “One week, Smith. I want to see my face in it”. He turned to leave and then stopped. He turned and once again faced Private Peter Smith and said in a rather quiet voice, “Anything to say Smith?”

Well I’m sure you will realise that Peter Smith wanted to scream, “Look I didn’t do this! Why are you picking on an innocent man? Let me go and find the person who really did this.” Instead he stood up to attention and said in his loudest and firmest voice, “Sir. No sir!”

The SM turned and left Private Smith to contemplate his fate. In such freezing weather it was usual for a young soldier to last more than a day. It was an impossibly pointless task. He also knew that late each evening before sleep he would have to wash, dry and iron his trousers ready for inspection the next morning before getting on his knees amidst the trodden in mud and starting again.

Please also remember that, although we can see it is clearly as a pointless task, the fear that existed in the mind of this young recruit meant he did not think as logically as he might and each day he would try and clean as much as he could, whilst constantly expecting an inspection visit.

Now, as coincidence would have it, the camp’s commanding officer had chosen that very day to move into a bigger house on the other side of the complex. Hence, at odd times, soldiers were to be seen carrying bits of furniture through the snow. As it happens it was in the middle of this furniture procession that SM Withers emerged from the latrines in order to return to the parade ground. He had never, not even once, been known to make any sort of joke whatsoever over his many years in the army but what happened next went down in the folklore of the whole army.

Back on the parade ground the soldiers watched as their sergeant major emerged from the latrines and turned right. They could not help but notice that simultaneously another hapless private soldier was struggling along with a huge grandfather clock that was clearly too much for him and he obviously couldn’t see where he was going. Worse, he was coming along the other side of the latrine building to SM Withers, each unable to see the other. With each step it looked increasingly likely they would meet at the corner.

The suspense was almost unbearable as each recruit watched intently, once again forgetting the cold. Fate was clearly timing it well or very badly depending on which view you took. Both men remained unaware of what was, quite literally, just round the corner.

It came down to three steps, two steps, one step and finally a fearful crash and clanging of the chiming bells that are at the very heart of every grandfather clock. Despite being such a big man the sergeant major found himself being knocked back by the combined weight of clock and struggling soldier. As he fell he was able to catch sight of a grandfather clock and adjoined soldier which were falling on top of him. There was nothing he could do and the audience of soldiers, watching from afar, were agog at the site of the SM’s arms and legs splayed out, his main body hidden, underneath this very old timepiece and (almost as if provided as a bonus) with a private soldier on top of that. There followed much struggling and scuffling as first the soldier scrambled up and with the help of the SM pushing from beneath managed to stand the clock up, once again with much clanging of chime bells. Finally the SM stood up and for the second time that day was clearly lost for words. Such disruption to his normally orderly routine was unheard of and almost seemed too much for him.

He stared at the soldier who peered out from behind his clock and finally burst out at the top of his voice, “WHY DON’T YOU WEAR A WATCH LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE?

There was a moment of eerie calm as everybody in the area took this in. Then Mick Withers straightened himself up, ensured his uniform was unruffled and turned to march back to the waiting men.

How the recruits managed to keep a straight face is difficult to say. I can only put it down to fear and fear alone. A minute later SM Withers stood in front of them and barked out orders instructing them on what would happen next. He was clearly in a rush to return to the safety of his orderly routine. He gave the band the order to play and was stunned to find yet another disruption to his daily routine. At the very moment of his order there was a bang accompanied by a ripping sound. The all-important drum that kept the beat of the music for the band stopped playing and once again proceedings came to a halt. Each soldier followed the SM’s gaze and turned to see the drummer baffled at having a hole in the side of his drum.

It was as everybody stared that the drummer held up his two drumsticks, each of which should have a pompom on the end. One soft, fluffy round part was missing and so the first heavy beat of the drum had led to the skin surface being ripped.


Well, I am sure you are in no doubt as to where that fluffy white pompom had gone. The rest of the soldiers stood stock still as one of their colleagues was ordered to find the pompom in the snow at the feet of SM Withers and return it to the drummer. In baffled silence the whole group was then marched back to barracks where they were allowed to enter the warm and relax. Each one was desperately grateful for an end to the cold, whilst more than a few spared a thought for Private Peter Smith and wondered as to his fate following this latest revelation. Everybody now knew the truth.

Now you too may wonder about Private Peter Smith and will probably be shocked to hear that Sergeant Major Mick Withers did absolutely nothing about that situation. In his world the army did not change its mind. He, SM Withers, represented the army and therefore Peter Smith must continue his punishment until the end of the week, even though the other men would eagerly tell him the truth on his return to barracks.

As you might imagine, over the next week, the SM’s lack of action led to some very unpleasant thoughts being directed towards him. His reputation became ever more darkly formidable.

To Private Peter Smith it was clear that he had very real cause to complain, perhaps even to the commanding officer. Indeed the other recruits encouraged him to do so. However, Peter Smith was clearly aware about the meaning of this whole first 8 weeks and its sole purpose as a test of character. It seemed to him that complaining would not help his cause in that respect. In short, some sort of inner instinct or gut feeling told him to do nothing.

At this point in our tale we must take a peek behind the scenes.

During his week in the latrines Peter Smith was completely unaware that each morning SM Withers checked to see if there had been any formal complaint against him regarding the events on the parade ground. Please understand, this was not because he feared in any way for his own future. Such was his excellent record that every commanding officer in the army would have rushed to support him, as his job was to test these recruits by pushing them to their individual limits. No, SM Wither’s purpose was to check up on how this young recruit shaped up under such pressure. He viewed this as a priority, especially as his first impression had been that Peter Smith was the recruit most likely not to make it through this arduous process. The regimental SM was now considering the amazing possibility that he might actually, on this one occasion, have been wrong. This was something that would never be spoken out loud.

As every passing day met with a resounding silence in this matter the SM’s regard for this individual grew. When the week was up Private Smith returned to his training without a word being said. However, I am aware it might be easy to assume that things suddenly got easier for this young private soldier, as his SM tried to make up in some way for the miscarriage of justice. This was not the case. In fact things became even harder as SM Withers continued to push this young lad’s character to the extreme. If you had asked Peter Smith for a confidential view on SM Mick Withers during this time, I would not be able to print the answer. As it was, he uttered not one word of complaint.

After 8 weeks of desperation the recruits passed their training with, an unheard of, 100% success rate. To his eternal surprise Private Smith received the top mark. One week later SM Mick Withers retired and during his leaving “do” took time to whisper a recommendation in the ear of the commanding officer. Soon after that Private Smith was the first of his fellow recruits to receive a promotion.
The story does not stop there however. The name Peter Smith (and his amazing strength of character) stuck in the mind of SM Withers. Each year he would return to the annual reunion, still a much respected figure. Each year he would check up on this young man’s progress, whilst talking with and having the ear of the very highest ranking officers.

I can finish by saying that, although he had no idea why, Private Peter Smith came to hold the record for the fastest promotion to second-lieutenant in the army during times of peace.
Whether he understood the reasons I cannot say but I do believe it was fate that put Peter Smith in the hands of SM Mick Withers.