BY ROGER WATSON
Anyone with military connections will understand the term ‘patch’ which is a military colloquialism for accommodation where serving members of the armed forces live with their families. This is distinct from barracks and messes which are usually within the confines of a military camp. Living ‘on the patch’ therefore means living in military housing in the area immediately surrounding a military camp.
Military patches, like any housing estate, are in a continual state of flux. However, the movement of families on and off the patch is more noticeable as whole regiments and companies move location or serving members go off together on active duty. A military patch is not a place to put roots down. No longer have you settled, perhaps for three years at most, than you are required to move. Friendships are short-lived and children are uprooted from school. Members of this transient population sometimes encounter each other on another patch; sometimes they never see each other again. And this is always with the inevitable fact that one day none of these people will be entitled to live on a military patch.
With armed forces, and especially army, cutbacks there are fewer patches than there used to be with former military housing either being demolished or refurbished and sold to civilians. But a few large patches remain: Catterick being a prime example; and Tidworth, where I recently spent a few nights with my daughter. She is ex-army, but her husband still serves as an officer in the Royal Engineers.
I find visiting a military patch fascinating. With three children at one time in the army, with one still serving, I have visited several. They vary greatly from the superb detached houses formerly owned by the RAF in a beautiful crescent at Dishforth near Ripon, now occupied by the Army Air Corps, to the rather neglected properties at Marne barracks near Catterick. The latter seem symptomatic of the decline in the size of the British Army, clearly marked for eventual closure with little investment in the accommodation.
However, Tidworth is still a very active military location. Squaddies were out on the running track in the early morning mist when I was there recently. Military vehicles and troops were much in evidence. During the day there are regular booms from Salisbury Plain where the Tank Regiment goes through its paces, practising meting out lethal firepower on our behalf, should the need arise. You know you are in a military environment.
There are hundreds of military houses in Tidworth. The British Army, after an association of centuries with the town, bought large amounts of property there in 1897. Recently over 300 new houses were built in 2018 and my daughter is lucky to live in one of these. It is spacious and warm with four large bedrooms and built to a high standard. Further along the patch, some of the houses leave a little to be desired.
Like all patches, the houses are arranged in rank order and the size and quality of the houses improves with rank. Rows of terraced houses, usually with three bedrooms, house the other ranks; large semi-detached houses house the junior officers and field officers (major and above) with the larger ones usually reserved for field officers. Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels are entitled to detached housing. Some even larger houses are scattered around the patches or on the camps for more senior officers.
Within easy walking distance, on military property which is open to the public, a series of beautiful polo pitches is located with large stables nearby. In the season there are regular competitions, and a major final is held once a year. Next to the pitches is a row of four enormous houses with gardens to match on a private road. These are reserved for those few holding the rank of general.
This sense of order and hierarchy may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like it. On the one hand, life is not fair and not everyone has the same talents or is entitled to the same reward. On the other hand, if everyone is treated equally how to people aspire to do greater things? The army is a hierarchical microcosm, and this is reflected on the patch.
It also strikes me that military patches are very valuable to the local community. Within sight of the patch in Tidworth there are two large chain grocery stores. The jobs that these provide would be jeopardised without the proximity of the patch. Another benefit is the people who live and ultimately retire in these military towns. I did not have to ask the direct and polite sixty-something man serving me at the till in Tesco if he was ex-army. It was obvious.
I am assured by the Editor-in-Chief of this illustrious organ that we no longer need the numbers of troops that we once did. Warfare is changing and much of it can be prosecuted from an office. Soon, reaching the higher echelons of the online warring game Call of Duty may be more suitable training for war than drilling, bulling and shooting. But I would still argue that we need, and are rapidly losing, the less tangible benefits that having people in the military brings to society.
Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.