Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Soldier Dresses (Julian Maclaren-Ross)


World War I British Junior Officer (subaltern) with Sam Browne belt.

            My brother used an open razor, leaning his head with its black widow’s peak of hair sideways and close to the mirror, for he was short-sighted; his cheeks shone blue as the blade scraped the ladder away, with that glabrous bloom I have since observed on the faces of certain priests, Monsieur L’Abbe among them: and more than a trace of Jesuitical severity was stamped even now upon his features in repose, though this vanished when he smiled. 


           I had never seen anyone shave before – my father of course was bearded, nor would I have been admitted while he was performing his toilet – and the whole process fascinated me:  the flick and sweep of the cut-throat steel which never drew blood, the stropping of the blade in readiness for the morrow, the astringent lotion dabbed on after. 


     There was a moment equally absorbing, when he drew on the brown supple boots which came up below the knee and were worn with knife-creased khaki breeches.  The boots, the Sam Browne belt, and also the buttons and brasses of his tunic and greatcoat were polished personally by my brother (for he had brought no batman) until they shone, in the case of the leather, almost purple and you could see your reflection in miniature in the crested brass. 


Insignia of 1st Battalion, Warwickshire

          The only regret I had (one not shared by my brother) was that, as a subaltern, he no longer had to wear puttees; during his first leaves, when he was a private, I’d enjoyed seeing him winding these expertly, without creases, round his legs, though I was to be thankful later that this practice had died out before my own enlistment.  The boots, however, more than made up for the puttees absence; then, when he’d adjusted his belt, the rimless monocle – a relic from the days of his roistering with which he used sometimes to give his startling impersonation of a Prussian officer – would be screwed into its socket, where it remained immovable, without a cord; his cigarette lighter was flourished at an Abdulla Egyptian in a short amber holder, and he was ready to come down to another day.

Prussian With A Monocle

A group of World War I subalterns (Future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan second from right, top row)

Winston Churchill as a subaltern, UK 4th Hussars, February 1895

From Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Weeping And The Laughter.  London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953.

Post dedicated to James Reed Roberts (b. 2-22-54, d. 8-13-70)

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