JOHN ARCHIBALD, a former officer with the Gurkhas, felt chastened, horrified and grateful after finishing The Junior Officers Reading Club.
If your grandson or granddaughter is thinking of joining the Army, they should read The Junior Officers’ Reading Club first.
Not with a view to turning them off, but to make it absolutely clear to them the level of commitment required and the implications inherent in their decision, both for them and their nearest and dearest, for soldiering is not for the faint hearted.
From Sandhurst to Afghanistan
Hennessey’s story begins in 2004 in the military hothouse that is the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and takes us through his time in the Balkans, Africa and South East Asia as well as operational tours to Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007, then finally the Falkland Islands on his last brief tour before leaving the Army.
It’s all here: the exhaustion, sleeplessness, fear, discomfort, boredom and, yes, the highs, laughter and joy.
The actual Junior Officers’ Reading Club was formed by the author and fellow young Guards officers in the desert of southern Iraq in 2006 with a view to filling the long hours of tedium that link the sporadic bursts of frenetic activity and adrenalin that is the lot of the soldier. ‘Twas ever thus, as the old soldiers among you will testify.
Horror and humour
The origin of the book was a whimsical piece by Hennessey penned for the Literary Review on the books that soldiers take to war and the fraying paperbacks found on transit-camp bookshelves.
The book tells the tale of Hennessey’s life as a platoon commander on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of his initial training as an Officer Cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
It is a searingly honest, vivid, amusing, revealing and shocking insight into what service in today’s front line is like, and the effects that exposure to the terrors of this kind of warfare have on those who experience it.
Hennessey writes with the flair of a writer, but has a soldier’s eye for the irony, surrealism and idiocy of much of what passes as warfare.
The level of detail is illuminating, the horror leavened with typical soldiers’ humour, but his ‘stream of consciousness’ style of delivery, extended sentences and lack of punctuation where a comma or parenthesis would have clarified the meaning, left me confused at times.
By the end of the book this was irritating – but it is a minor quibble, for the book is littered with gems.
Hennessy comes from good military stock. One grandfather was a retired Cavalry Officer and a veteran of the Normandy landings who begat a Naval Aviator Officer.
His other grandfather, Professor Emrys Jones – ‘Grandpa Taid’ – a brilliant scholar, a humanist and liberal, and a WWII conscientious objector, begat a clever University Administrator.
They in turn begat the young Hennessey, Oxford undergraduate reading English literature – and surely bound for a life of letters and academia like Grandpa Taid.
The young Hennessy had other ideas, however, and followed his father and father’s father into the Military where he was commissioned as a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards.
He won the Queen’s Medal for the best of his intake at Sandhurst, became the youngest Captain in the Army at the time and was commended for gallantry. Not a bad CV for an English literature grad.
When I finally put the book down I felt chastened, informed, horrified and grateful beyond words for the sacrifices made by our young service folk and their families – for it is the they who bear the brunt of the emotional and physical residual effects of active service by their loved ones.
I can recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.