Officers lorded over all other ranks,
Some believed in ‘upper-class’;
Forced to salute these ‘silver spoons’,
We termed them ‘bloody brass’.
Rusty relics, from Empire days,
Deserving valets ... so they thought;
Yet, little did they know it then,
Respect for some, ’twas often nought.
Unlike the ‘Diggers’, most officers,
In comfort, enjoyed their lot;
Although, whose lives they put at risk,
Sometimes it seemed, some just forgot.
With a private mess, apart from us,
Served by lower ranks who’d bring,
Top food, good wine and such delights,
Each one treated like a king.
All basic tasks, each carried out,
With no help from ‘brass’, you see,
But by batmen, as loyal servants,
And ‘baggy-arses’, just like me.
Though most did no chores, nor picket,
Polish gear, cook meals, nor ‘grunt’;
Some weren’t backward, coming forward,
In that ubiquitous ‘glory hunt’.
Promotion in rank, ’twas coveted,
Helped by ribbons on one’s chest;
Prominent then, in the crowd,
Just that bit different from the rest.
“Congratulations! A splendid job!
Though that ‘drop-short’ caused some loss!
Never mind ‘Old Boy’, it saved H.Q.!
That deserves a Military Cross!”
All ‘brass’, of course, were not like that,
Many shone amongst the tarnished few;
Yet, incompetent and dangerous,
There were certainly some we knew.
When ambition’s mixed with arrogance,
And concern for others becomes a farce,
Then that gold upon their epaulets,
Is seen as only brass.
There was (and still is) a 3-tiered rank structure within the Australian Army: 4% Commissioned Officers (who wore their insignia upon their shoulders); 24% Non-Commissioned Officers (who wore their insignia upon their sleeves); 72% Other Ranks (who had no insignia). This hierarchical system was based upon that of the British type which had its origins in Mediaeval times (and even earlier in some respects during Greco-Roman times). The tradition of officers being entitled to a servant was carried on over the centuries and still exists in the Australian Army today. Such a servant or valet is of course not titled as such but goes under the euphemism of ‘batman’ or ‘orderly’. His duties include cleaning, washing and ironing his officer’s clothes, cooking his food (when in the field) and any other sundry tasks.
As with all fields and all levels of employment there are the competent/incompetent, respected/disrespected and popular/unpopular individuals. So it was within the Australian Army at all levels. Nevertheless, as a generalisation, the majority of Australian officers were fine leaders and had full respect from the men under them, in spite of the egalitarian issues which irked many in the lower ranks. This general notion of ‘positive assessment’ was especially true for platoon commanders (lieutenants) with whom the bonds were closer. Above that rank, the chasm between ‘Digger’ and officer, widened significantly.
The nickname for army officers as a group was simply ‘Brass’, originating from the ‘brassy’ shoulder insignia they wore upon their dress uniforms. It will be noted by readers that several of the poems in this collection have been light-hearted looks at characters (real or imagined) from all levels of the ranks. This poem is intended as a humorous satire, suggesting how the average soldier might have perceived a select few amongst the higher levels of the Officer Corps, especially amongst those officers who remained permanently at base in ‘safe’ positions ... better known as ‘base wallahs’ or ‘pogos’.
“Some officers [in HQ] were ... keen to put me right ... without the tedium of talking to the soldiers. [They] tended to pooh-pooh the idea ... [since] ... ‘the men’ they thought wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to say ! ‘You wanna know what soldiers think? - Think ? The men don’t think at all !’ Yet, some officers actually asked me later what their men thought about them.
However, the patronising, or even contemptuous, were not the majority.”
- Jane Ross in her Ph.D research article in Memories of Vietnam, 1991.
Top 'Brass' at Nui Dat - January1967.- Note the starched greens, shiny boots and 'cowboy' pistols. (photo courtesy Army Public Relations)