This Easter, Daily Telegraph reporter Daniel Knowles visited Kent ACF’s early annual camp
It is mid-afternoon, on a cold early-April day, and I am shivering –my teeth literally rattling – on a hillside on Salisbury Plain. Besides me, the field is populated by cows, and by around 100 teenage Army Cadets, aged between 12-18 and equipped with rifles. In the distance, a group of 2-Star cadets advances up a flank in a perfect arrowhead formation, practising manoeuvres. Nearer to where I am standing, another group – this one composed of 1-Star cadets – lie crouched, their weapons pointing forward. As they start moving forward, their Sergeant, a disciplined 16-year-old cadet, shouts out to me politely: “Can you come over this side, sir, so they don’t end up pointing weapons at you.”
The intense cold is just one of the problems with holding annual camp in April. I was out with Kent ACF, who held their annual camp three months early this year, around the Easter bank holiday weekend. While most of the 46,000 cadets in the UK are still waiting anxiously for summer to put their training into practice, Kent ACF, South East London ACF and City of London & North East ACF were forced to go away this Easter because of the Olympics. A very high proportion of their regular adult volunteers serve in the Metropolitan or Police Forces, while many more work for the NHS, the railways, coach operators and so on. So many adult volunteers found themselves tied up during the summer thanks to the Games that Kent ACF’s Commandant, Colonel Jeremy Wilson, ordinarily a geography teacher, decided to change the time.
When I visited Westdown it was the first full day of camp; 394 cadets – 285 boys and 109 girls – had arrived the night before, and had immediately started their training. 69 adult volunteers, including 29 Officers, had mostly arrived earlier in the week to prepare. As Col Wilson explained to me, holding the camp early meant all sorts of complications. “We can’t pick them up from the school gates,” he said, “so it’s a very tight window of time; we can’t encroach too much on the time they spend with their families.” The older teenagers were approaching their GCSE or A level exams, and could not afford to lose too much revision time, while the younger ones had only two weeks of holiday to take. That meant that a camp that would usually last two full weeks had to be squeezed into just eight days –without reducing the cadets’ opportunities to progress in their training and in external qualifications like The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
“We’ll know whether it’s worked by October,” says Col Wilson. But he accepts that there are compromises he had to make; cadets did not have the opportunity of adventure training, as even if there had been time, the weather was not suitable for canoeing, rock climbing and the like. The recreational day – usually spent on a trip to a theme park, or a similar attraction – also had to be cut, and so the eight days of camp were to be unusually intense, with nothing but training. But, says Col Wilson: “The numbers are not far off what we usually see on a summer camp, and we can easily catch up many of the things in the autumn half term.” He pointed out that squeezing the camp into a short space of time means that he saves a relatively large amount from his budget, which can be used to pay for alternative activities later in the year. And there were some advantages: “Homesickness for example; it’s not anywhere near as much of a problem when it’s only 10 days.”
Captain Matthew Lehman was among the volunteers who could not have taken leave over the summer thanks to the Olympics – he serves in Kent’s Police Force. As a trainer and once a cadet himself, Capt Lehman has 22 years of involvement with Kent ACF and he had no desire to miss a camp. “If you ask my wife, she’ll say I’m a part-time policeman and a full-time ACF Instructor,” he jokes. Capt Lehman worried that trying to fit the best part of 12 days’ training into seven would be nearly impossible. But the important thing is that they get to do it at all. “They come to get dirty, put cam cream on, get in the field and shoot, that’s the core of it,” he beams. “And my job is to make sure that they can.” Another volunteer, Captain Sean Twyman, echoed Lehman. Capt Twyman works on the High Speed Two railway in Ashford, Kent, which is to be a major part of the Olympics travel arrangements. “I’ve been with the Army Cadets since 1985, all the way through,” he says.
Thankfully, the cadets who benefit from all this Dedication were glad of it. One senior cadet, the confident 18-year-old Cdt RSM Rachael Welch, had taken time out from her A level revision to attend her last camp. “I’ll miss the adventure training,” she says, but she’d never miss the annual camp. “We’re all here – all the seniors I mean,” she points out. “It’s the only time everyone from the whole county gets together.” Another of the older cadets, 17-year-old Cdt SSgt Karina Puttock, says the same: “The experience and bonds you get are amazing – and camp is like a big reunion.” Karina was about to set off for her Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award expedition. “When you think about it, it’s all just walking,” she says, “but when you come back, you can’t wait to go again.”
The younger cadets I met out in the field were just as enthusiastic – sort of. Though there were open-ended barns for the cadets to sleep in, in case it turned too cold (it was forecast to snow), the cadets were expected to spend the night under their ponchos in a copse under bashas, though the tradition of standing ‘stag’ had been limited to daylight hours. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Cdt Sgt Nichole Barrett, a 15-year-old 3-Star cadet, before thinking again and adding: “Well, maybe I’d miss it for a holiday in Turkey or somewhere else hot. I don’t really like the cold.” I suggested that it sounded like fun, and she raised an eyebrow, before assenting. “Yes, but tomorrow you’ll wake up in a warm bed and I’ll probably wake up in a puddle.” One of her peers, Cdt L/Cpl Oliver Whittle, butted in at that point to say he has “one rule, you have to man up in life”, which won him quite a scathing look.
I left Westdown convinced that Kent ACF wasn’t any worse off for trooping out into the countryside at the cold, wet and miserable end of winter. As I boarded my train home, the sun was coming out, but so well prepared were these cadets for their camp, that might have actually be a disappointment. As one cadet put to it tome: “If it’s not raining, it’s not training.”
Download the above feature as seen in Army Cadet magazine summer 2012 issue: Kent leads annual camp