Sandhurst's army trainees are as keen in the classroom as they are on the battlefield. Stephen Jones reports
So there's this young chap who puts himself forward for admission to Sandhurst. He has to jump through a few hoops of the mental and physical variety, of course, but both he and his interlocutors know that the result really hangs on the final task: the pronunciation test.
Sure enough, just before he leaves, they present him with a card on which are written the words: air, hair and lair. Luckily they trip off his tongue in perfect posh-speak, and quick as a flash the riposte comes back, "Air hair lair too, and welcome to Sindhust!"
Well, that's how the old joke runs anyway. As with many stereotypes, though, the popular view of Sandhurst as a sort of military extension of public school has some grounding in truth. As late as 1870, commissions in the British Army were still being purchased, generally for the younger sons of the nobility. The other requisite, in addition to wealth, of the prospective officer was "the education of a gentleman".
But don't they do things differently nowadays? Matthew Midlane, director of studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, to give it its full name, certainly thinks so. He is proud of the fact that the college now takes fewer of its students from independent- school backgrounds than Oxford and Cambridge - 40 per cent compared to their 50. When he first arrived back in the Seventies, that 40 per cent was more like 60. "It's a big turn around in one generation," he says. Recruits today must have at least two A-levels and pass a rigorous three-day assessment process known as the RCB - Regular Commissions Board.
I am at the academy to see how it compares to other institutions that offer training and education to adults. And adult education it certainly is, with 85 per cent of the 800 or so entrants each year arriving with a first degree under their belts and an average age of 23.
Matthew Midlane explains how the academic side of things is integrated with weapons training and other physical training. Cadets are taught about international affairs, war studies and communication. This being the 21st century, learning how to deal with the media is an important part of those studies.
After a brief chat with some of the lecturers, Iam into my first lesson.
Military discipline means that there are no problems with lateness here: all 11 of the group are sitting with pens poised when senior lecturer James Higgs arrives to guide them through the changes in Nato's role since the collapse of communism. The students, nine men and two women, are interested, articulate and ready to ask as well as answer questions.
Despite the atmosphere of enquiry, however, the perspective they are being given is decidedly a British one, complete with the customary sideswipe at the real enemy - not the Russians, the Germans or even the Iraqis, but our old friends and neighbours, the French.
In many ways the young men and women ranged in front of me are like any other adult students. But anybody who has spent more than five minutes in the place cannot help but notice the differences too. You turn a corner and there are two, three or four of them spontaneously marching their way to classes. They carry guns too, a practice not to be recommended on most college campuses. "Are they loaded?" I naively ask my "minder" for the day, Lt Col Matthew Bailey. "Oh God no," he replies, explaining that live ammunition is strictly reserved for the firing ranges.
Talking to them, the class of 2005 come across as good- humoured, bright and supremely confident. All this commitment and sense of purpose can be slightly scary to the outsider. They are so desperately keen, constantly throwing little grenades of vigour into the conversation, such as "the ultimate challenge" and the joys of being "pushed well beyond the comfort zone".
After lunch, I am driven across that part of the Home Counties that seems to be entirely cordoned off behind MOD barbed wire, to observe how cadets in their senior term are coping with Operation Broadsword. For the purpose of the exercise, Hampshire has become "Hampshiranda", an imaginary land riven by civil strife, ethnic cleansing and terrorist outrages. There is a para-military force on the loose, the aid agencies are trying to feed the hapless civilians and every now and then a suicide bomber turns up.
Confusing? Well that's the point, says the man running the show, Major Richard Crossen. Modern warfare no longer involves two massed armies facing one another across miles of empty countryside. Today things are likely to be much messier, as exemplified by recent conflicts in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq.
The action is due to take place in a simulated urban setting, first built to train soldiers of another generation how to police Northern Ireland.
Some Gurkhas in civilian clothes set up barricades, light fires and generally look like they mean business. A lorry load of rotten potatoes rumbles by. "They're for the riot," Major Crossen says cheerfully.
"They threw bricks at us in my time," Matthew Bailey wryly comments.
Back at the ranch I make my most remarkable discovery of the day: in a month's time they are expecting their first-ever full inspection by the Adult Learning Inspectorate - and no one is the slightest bit bothered about it. Colonel Patrick Tomlinson admits that it has caused some extra paperwork, but shrugs off any need for special preparations. "We're all pretty calm about it," he says.
When I ask the lecturers, they just stare at me blankly and ask: "What inspection?"
"I'm sure they'll tell us about it in good time," one remarks.