The following is taken from the October 10, 1952 edition of The Marker, which had reprinted it from the Royal Canadian Signals Quarterly.
Updated: Thank you to one of our readers for the following tip. “It is in fact a short story which can be found in a collection of short stories by a guy named Anthony Armstrong, called ‘Warriors Paraded.’ Warriors Paraded is a collection of very entertaining and funny stories about the peacetime British Army between the wars.”
Fire for the General
Generals are not what they used to be. I mean, in the old days, when a rare and valuable officer like a General decided to inspect our barracks, we could usually ascertain whether he was the kind who wanted to find everything just right or who wanted to find something just wrong, or wanted to see soldiers at work or at play or not to see soldiers at all; and we could lay our plans accordingly. But nowadays we never know what they’re going to do next. They’re modern. They have inhibitions, complexes and repressions. Most difficult people.
We were inspected the other day by General Sir Spurde Feele-Boote. He, we at once found, possessed a fire complex of such virulence that he should have been under treatment by a pyro-psycho-analyst. He bussed round and round the barrack firestation like a moth round a night-light, patted some lengths of hose and insisted on having “C” Block’s hydrant tested (total bag: a quart of rusty water, three dead newts and what looked like one of Signalman Abernathy’s missing socks), with the result that by the time we reached the Headquarters Offices were all on the jump if anyone so much as struck a match within fifty yards.
The Headquarters occupies a block full of offices, officers, clerks, orderlies and enough files and documents to organize a paper chase from Vimy Barracks to Aklavik, which wouldn’t be a bad thing to do with them either. Here the General went into the matter of Fire Orders. He looked round the Adjutant’s office and suddenly enquired, “What would you do if you had a fire here now?”
“Try to put it out, Sir,” replied the Adjutant, briskly.
For a moment it looked like being a pretty close thing for the Adjutant. Luckily he was able to explain that all local instructions about fires began with that exhortation – ever since Signalman McGillicuddy, who is not too bright, once spent a precious ten minutes trying to get through to the barrack fire brigade office on a defective telephone, while what had begun as a small smoulder developed into a bright, merry blaze.
“In the event of a fire in this building,” began the General again slowly, with the air of one using two-syllable words to a backward child, “in what manner do you warn the others?”
The Adjutant cast a helpless glance round to see if he could see any Fire Orders anywhere, then pulled himself together, showing a flash of those qualities that had enabled him to remain for two years as Adjutant to a human detonation like Colonel Sam Brownbelt.
“I instantly tell the orderly office to deal with the situation, Sir, while” – he coughed modestly – “I save the confidential files.”
At this point Lieutenant Blazer began to sidle out of the door, Lieutenant Blazer was orderly officer. He too soon gave us reason to be proud of what the manuals call the resource and iniative of junior officers; for detected by the Adjutant and questioned by the General, he explained that the Orderly Officer at once informed the R.S.M. (who at that moment fortuitously appeared outside the door) to take the necessary steps.
“What steps?” asked the General. Blazer choked the obvious answer. “Pretty quick ones,” and said, “Steps to warn those in the building to get out, Sir.”
“Well, man, what steps are those?” pursued the General who, had it been a game and he not a General, would have been considered to be losing all along the line. “Have them taken now.”
With a sigh of relief Blazer summoned the R.S.M., who entered, saluted like a whole march-past, and, as good R.S.M.’s will, practically took charge of the whole proceedings. “The Alarm, Sir,” he said benignly, is given by blowing a whistle kept handy in the office.” He half closed his eyes and adopted a recitative tone. “On-hearing-repeated-loud-shrill-blasts-on-a-whistle-indicative-of-a-fire-all-troops-within-earshot-.” When I tell that you at this point the General interjected, “Where is the whistle?” you will see just what we were up against.
The R.S.M., however, is a great man. With the air of one humouring a child he unhooked a whistle from a nail on the wall, saluted and handed it to Blazer, who saluted and handed it to the Adjutant, who to tell the truth had often wondered what the blazes it was there for anyway. He displayed it to the General, and that we thought, should have settled the matter.
Unfortunately it did not. As I said, you never know where you are with the modern General. He reached across, took it and blew into it.
Nothing happened. Not even, unfortunately, to the whistle. He blew again. Still nothing, except a slight reddening of the imperial face. The whistle seemed to be merely a blank, possibly for ceremonial purposes. The Adjutant had a go and then passed it to Blazer. He, with the simple faith of a young subaltern in an experienced warrant officer, simply handed it to the R.S.M.
The R.S.M. blew sharply into it. It gave an eerie sort of death-rattle, which was an advance on its previous form, but as a warning signal, just a mess. Anyone within earshot would have been more frightened of the whistle than the fire. But an R.S.M. is, of course, unconquerable. He took it from his mouth, gave it a look before which even Sergeants have quailed, and put it back. This time he didn’t just blow – he BLEW.
The death-rattle broke into a gurgle, what appeared to be a plug of old teletype paper shot out of the whistle and cracked a picture on the wall, and a blast like the Montreal Express passing through Highland Creek lifted our berets from our anxious heads and burst upon the windows. The Adjutant grabbed at the papers on his desk; Blazer nearly burst into tears. The General said something in Hindustani. The R.S.M shook the whistle, wiped it on a Khaki silk handkerchief and returned it modestly to the General.
“It seems alright now, Sir,” he said simply.
The whistle may have been all right, but nothing else was. For, where the General had expected a rush of feet, bugle calls and all the well-organized confusion of a false alarm, nothing but a deadly stillness pervaded the office block, broken at last by Signalman Dozer’s voice from the orderlies’ room next door, remarking to Signalman Pullthrough, “What the divvil was that?”
The Adjutant took the whistle and blew a commanding series of what the R.S.M would have called “repeated-loud-shrill-blasts.” A few repeated loud blasts answered him from the orderlies’ room coupled with a malediction on “them kids playing on the road outside.”
The R.S.M, about to sally forth and uphold the honour of the regiment, was restrained by the General who in ominous tones asked, “And if the whistle is unheeded, what further steps are taken?”
The Adjutant now recollected the gist of the orders he himself had drafted two years before and said, “One calls ‘Fire,’ Sir.”
“FIRE!” called the General, determined to get tot he bottom of this. He repeated it, then went to the door and again shouted “Fire,” very loudly several times just as if he were repelling a hostile attack from the turret of his Centurion. We felt miserably that perhaps he ought to have waited until he could see the whites of their eyes.
We did not think the situation could possibly have become worse, but it did. From the orderlies’ room next door appeared of a sudden Signalman Pullthrough. In one hand he held some crumpled newspaper and a bunch of kindling, and in the other a coal scuttle.
“Just coming, Sir,” he said affably. “I’ll have it relaid and going in a minute.”
True it had been a chilly fall day, but after that it got very hot. If the General keeps a black list of regiments in his command we must now be so high up as to be somewhere on the preceeding page.
Generals are not what they used to be.