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The Soldier by Bob Freeman reviewed

Like it or lump it, Bob Freeman's memoir The Soldier Boy (1996) pub. by George Mann of Maidstone is as much a part of the Duke of York's history as any publication dealing with school life that came from a printer's shop.

Robert B. Freeman, born an army rat in 1932, was one of four boys (with more siblings to come) of a trooper father in the 16th/5th Queen's Royal Lancers and his wife Violet. Bob joined the school at Saunton Sands in May 1943 and left in July 1946, returning to civilian life.
In his opening sentence, he dwells on having "...started life in great pain..." adding that he was at fault, which might have worried his midwife had she known. That statement is a harbinger of this writer's deep-seated grievance with life and a protesting groan that lasts the whole book through. Resentment is endemic to this 'woe is me' tale, though not without sparks of wit and humour, yet these redeeming features are few and far between.

We are introduced to the Freeman family as it moves from one station in Home Command to another occupying Spartan-like married quarters in which married rank and file families lived. In 1936, the family moves with the regiment to India – as the author writes to "...uphold the Raj, to defend the North West Frontier and keep those Afghans at bay." His consolation, though he may not have realized it, is that the fathers of so many Dukies before him had been assigned the duty of upholding the Raj for a good two hundred years past.
Unlike the teller of this 'true story', however, his fellow alumni seem to have suffered little from the experience of the military school that was their lot. To the contrary, they thrived on their – as compared with the majority of working class children in the 1930s – lucky lot, the adequate and wholesome diet, fresh air and exercise, sound education and a caring and compassionate staff. Indeed, from among his contemporaries issued a stream of scholars, surgeons, musicians, medics, tradesmen, career soldiers of all ranks, all to live successful and abundant lives. [His elder brother, who might or might not have been a Dukie, made it to Lieut. Colonel.]

He writes of bullying, which in a measure is common enough throughout public schools in Great Britain - boarding or private schools in North America - and not to be denied. (As recently as 2006, word has it that parents removed a child from the school because of bullying.) Nevertheless, the author's contemporaries surveyed do not recall excessive and blatant bullying during the period covered by the narrative of The Soldier Boy.

As though his tribulations as a child were not enough, the monster of Bob's childhood was his father who evidently believed that sparing the rod spoilt the child. He is said to have terrified his children. Resentment of parental authority, privilege for all in dominion above rank, file and saddle families permeates this memoir in exhausting detail. The antipathy is evident whether this sad, unhappy chappy is describing the excessive space aboard the troopship allocated to the commissioned ranks or dwelling on the golden life enjoyed by civil servants and their families in Imperial India.

It is no wonder therefore that when, back in England, the self-confessed "uncontrollable boy" is "packed off to Military Boarding School". Why 'military boarding school' is identified in upper case rather than the Duke of York's Royal Military School is not explained.

Quite apart from being a bleak view of life in general and life at the school in particular, Bob is not entirely accurate in his references, which leads one to make the same observation about The Soldier Boy that was once, this reviewer confesses, made about one of his own books. That is, Freeman's book would have benefited from some sharp editing to have rid it of some glaring inconsistencies: Trooper, later Sergeant, Freeman the father is said to have been one of nine children at the beginning of the book and, later, one of a family twelve siblings; the author might quite feasibly have retained an accurate memory of the family's passage to India in 1937 - he was a five year old at the time - but his recall in such detail without benefit of research is highly unlikely; he writes of being met at the school by a CSM Halyard (no record of such a person has been located) in 1941 although, according to admissions ledger WO143/70, he joined the school 14 May 1943. He was therefore age eleven when he joined, not nine as stated on the rear cover.

A number of inconsistencies like these occur throughout the book, which could be acceptable were the whole account not so bleak, tedious and self-pitying. One can only hope that the author's continuing true story in The Brylcreem Boy, promised sequel to The Soldier Boy, proves to be less maudlin and self-pitying. Let us hope, too, that he found happiness and contentment in his adult life. 

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