And continuing this magnificent story in its immortal crisp but descriptive prose….
~~~~ Major Pryor turned out not to be one of those reticent heroes who shrug modestly with an embarrassed smile when asked about their exploits. He was an eloquently obsessive megalomaniac with a flair for stage management. Instead of the quiet question and answer session over a cup of coffee or a drink that the correspondent had expected, there was something approaching a son et lumiere display. Pryor, wearing the famed scarlet tunic, regulation riding breeches and field boots, had a demonstration platoon in full marching order lined up behind him. Their embittered expressions suggested that some time had already been spent on rehearsal. Pryor shook hands brusquely and got straight down to business.
“Now,” he said resonantly, “I have devised this presentation to illustrate the advantages that follow upon an officer of my seniority dressing as I do in a battalion assault. In essence, they are two. The first is control. Some confusion in action is inevitable. I minimise it. I provide a rallying point, an inspiration. Its central ingredient is visibility. Anyone temporarily lost, or unsure of what to do, has only to look around, identify my red coat, and be reassured. If in doubt he can come to me for orders.”
Pryor paused, and stared dramatically at the demonstration platoon. They stared resignedly back.
“You may well ask,” continued Pryor, looking at the correspondent with a challenging scowl, “You may well ask: If the second-in-command is so conspicuously visible to his own men, is he not equally conspicuously visible to the Germans? Will they not concentrate their fire at him? The answer to that question is Yes. Of course they will. I expect it.” He lowered his voice grimly. “But that,” he said emphasizing each word like a slow succession of gun shots, “is-what-I-am-paid-for.”
His decible output came back to normal. “And now,” he cried, “for part one of the presentation. Sergeant Smith.”
Sergeant Smith called the platoon to attention, and marched them off wearily in fours to a neighbouring muddy field. They spread out in extended order, and waited. Pryor took a position forty yards ahead of them. He blew a whistle. They all advanced, Pryor in front in his scarlet jacket, the troops plodding behind with rifles, bayonets fixed, held at the high port.
Pryor blew the whistle again. They halted. Pryor turned towards them.
“Sergeant Smith,” bawled Pryor, “can you see me?”
“Yes sir,” shouted Sergeant Smith.
“You there, right-hand man. Can you see me?”
“Left-hand Can you?”
“With total clarity,” said the left-hand man unexpectedly. He had a cultivated, sardonic voice.
Pryor stared at him briefly, gave it up and told Sergeant Smith to march the platoon back to the farmyard. There, they were ordered to stand easy. Pryor braced his legs in front of them and flexed his swagger cane.
“You will appreciate,” rasped Pryor to the correspondent, “that it is impossible to simulate battle conditions with precision. That was only an approximation. It should however have given you some idea of the value to troops of a presence of a readily identifiable senior officer to whom they can turn when under pressure.”
Pryor, who seemed to be expecting some form of endorsement, or admiring comment, stared fixedly into the correspondent’s eyes. The correspondent nodded nervously, wondering how to get away from this lunatic.
“Now,” said Pryor. “I said earlier that there were two benefits that arise from my wearing a scarlet jacket. The first, visibility, you have seen demonstrated. The second, more incalculable, concerns that elusive, essential, indefinable quality, morale. The men may not realize it, ” – he turned to gaze at them with paternal sympathy – “but if senior officers are wounded in action they bleed like anyone else. A senior officer who is hit and seen to bleed, for that matter a senior officer who shows external signs of any physical weakness whatsoever, is one with a bad effect on morale, HE BECOMES A LIABILITY. Men who rely upon him for leadership and guidance, who draw confidence from his presence, may lose heart if they see him stained with his own blood.”
Pryor glowed again at the correspondent. The correspondent gave a repeat performance of his nervous nod.
“You see what I am getting at,” went on Pryor spelling it out. “My tunic is the same colour as my blood. My tunic does not show blood.”
He accentuated the intensity of his mesmeric stare upon the correspondent. The owner of the voice from the demonstration platoon was never officially identified, but the correspondent was later prepared to put his money on the man who in the muddy field had seen Pryor with total clarity.
“You will also notice,” said this commentator, “that he wears khaki riding breaches.”