Bandy Bureaucrat goes to War

“The worst bloody day in a century, they say,” the Colonel harrumphed as we marched toward the barracks. “Better bundle up chaps, we don’t want you freezing up on first day of instruction.”

Thus read the opening lines of my grandfather's diary.

My role model and inspiration, Grandpa, not only served for over forty years in government administration, but also fought in the foggy air high above the blood and mud during the War that promised to end all Wars. 

The following is a diary excerpt that links the two experiences.

22 November 1917

"The rainy, windy morning that I presented myself at the Royal Flying Corps No. 3 School for Aeronautics and Gentlemanly Conduct was one of the coldest on record in Oxfordshire. 

As a cold-weather Castorian, I was not distressed and naturally took the “bundle-up” command to mean that I could wear my hockey toque and mitts - although I also resolved to stay in my shorts and T-Shirt. Later, the colonel gave me a dressing down so to speak and forced me to explain my attire in front of the entire company.

“Do you Castorucks call this dressing sharply and respecting a uniform ?” the colonel asked looking at me with disdain. “Listen, Swallow, I will tolerate quite a deal from officer-level fighting men, but not slackness in the wearing of His Majesty’s uniforms.”

“Yes, I understand, sir,” I said softly. “But I fear the scourge of chafing.”

This reply induced considerable merriment among the other trainees, many of whom leaned on the desks for support while giggling and laughing until the colonel set his riding crop down on the table, put his hand on my shoulder, and sympathetically asked a follow-up question.

“Been in trenches on the frontlines, son ?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “For many, many months without relief.”

The room grew quiet, and we began the day’s instruction on navigation theory, map reading, and tea drinking in flight. My Castorian clothing style was never mentioned again.

It was not until years later that I learned that the colonel and my new comrades had assumed that my irrational rash fears had been brought about by months in the trenches at Flanders and the Somme. The truth, however, was that it was tied to my years as a frontline administrator in the Dominion Government, sitting long hours in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces with heat pouring up between my legs and an air stream blowing over my head.

As a former bureaucrat, now Sopwith Camel pilot, I was, therefore, in my element, and I excelled. Not only did the hot-cold, cramped cockpit resemble my office workspace back in the National Capital, but I was also completely at ease with the overall operating environment. Other pilots who came from the British upper classes and positions of respect and influence endured great frustration and were often distracted from their training and their duties.

“I can’t stand this,” one of my colleagues sobbed. “The insanity of the war and the futility of it all; we know nothing about what is going on, it is so confusing, I can’t understand what our company as a whole is trying to achieve, what the Allies are accomplishing, how the battle is going, all we ever know is that one of the majors overheard a general talking to some politician who said that things are going ‘splendidly’ and an end will come ‘in due course’ - how can we live like this ?”

Listening to him, I recalled my government work on a special project to provide input on a background paper for a submission to support high-level discussion of plans for consultations on a national economic policy white paper proposal in the context of a restructuring around new activity structures, wondered what the problem was, and told my colleague to “buck up.”

Over the following year, I scored many, many kills. Too many to recall. My bureaucrat ability to focus on undefined objectives, to kick into work when needed after days of nothing, to endure endless, mind-numbing repetition, to respond to ambiguous requests, and to make ever-refining adjustments served me well, and I ended my stint in the Great Conflict as a hero and a celebrated “Flying Ace - Colonial Commoner Class.”

As the King pinned a medal on my chest today, he said “Jolly good show, old man, they tell me your precision and skill came from experience in editing, reformatting, and rewriting thousands of memos and government briefing notes.”

“Yes, your Majesty, in a way, but more specifically by focusing my thoughts on those who request such edits, format changes, and rewriting.”