One regular ritual in the army is the roll call to ensure all are accounted for. Such was the case in winter darkness at Puckapunyal when troops roused by whistle blasts, assembled on parade mid much stamping of boots were required to answer their names when called for by a sergeant armed with torch and roll book.
I was nervous. The night before, at the end of a rare weekend leave in Melbourne, a mate, madly in love, had in the last moments before we boarded the troop train, suddenly decided to stay, and asked me to cover for him at roll call, and I concurred. Now the time had come for the big test.
The sergeant bellowed name after name and then Romeo’s name cut through the icy winter darkness. I came to attention and yelled “Present” and tensed. The sergeant continued calling names. Soon after with the first light of dawn, the platoon sergeant reported all correct and present. Oh, joy of joy and such relief. I thought I had deceived the system; alas, I had underestimated the Company Sergeant Major, who after many years of soldiering knew every trick in the book.
“Count them” ordered the Sarmajor. Thus In typical army fashion, the platoon was ordered to number from the right and it was then it was realised there was one missing. The Sergeant’s obscenities were many as he issued the dreaded options .“Righto, step forward the ventriloquist, or the platoon will be route marching all night.” I stepped forward and was arrested
Soon after, I was standing to attention in front of our well-respected company commander, Captain Reg Saunders, the first indigenous soldier to become an officer. To my utter amazement, he tore the charge into shreds and gave me a tongue lashing. It went something like this. “The army has been calling the roll forever and a day and it’s not for amusement. Not only do we check to see who has returned from leave, we check whenever necessary, such as after a withdrawal, assault, attack, or a bloody fire. It works; now a young smart bXXXXd like you turns up and wants to change the whole bloody system. Who do
you think you are? Bloody Julius Caesar? As extra training, for the next month you are going to call the roll whenever I decide, plus duty runner including auditing the roll books. Make one mistake and you’re finished ” I wasn’t even game to blink.
So, it came to pass. Calling the roll and checking here and everywhere during field training and as well as auditing roll books. I am always reminded of that wonderful warrior whenever I heard the order “Call the roll.” Such a magnificent mentor and it was not to be the only time I was to experience his leadership.
A chapter from the Army Bible.
“On parade, you horrible lot, the corporal shouts; it’s roll call again”
Come to attention and answer “present” when I call your name
Checking names is a must in all phases of war you fight
Nothing worse if a soldier’s left behind, so you best get it right
Cos in battles, thick with fear, exhaustion and blinding smoke
Is the need to find out who is missing, wounded or croaked
Who will be there to fight the next battle, be it night or day
To determine badly wounded and those able to stay”
Raw recruits answer roll calls with timid faint shouts
In time, their voices become a loud chorus of what soldiering is about
The ritual grows in strength as does confidence and bearing
A motley group of idlers become alert; disciplined, sharing and caring
The roll call is to ensure all soldiers are accounted for
It’s a sacred ritual enforced by God’s disciples** in peace and war
An instrument to help task duties from guard to digging latrines
Miss roll call and extra drill is a reminder where you should have been
Time and time again, both God of Mars and Grim Reaper come and go
Familiar names not answered on parade, and in the silence, memories flow
New young faces join the ranks to fill the gaps where others once stood
In time, they too spring to attention and answer “Present” as they should
Young and old, shoulder to shoulder; ready for the unknown, all as one
Forever a bonded team with purpose until duty done
Soon or late comes a clash of arms and with it, a bloody toll
Then to find out who is missing in battle, a weary disciple calls the roll
At reunions, old soldiers shuffling on parade, answer roll call
Leaning on canes, and trying so hard to keep in step and stand tall
Recalling days as recruits, when answering a searching call of names
Wary of the striped tyrant conducting a strange and silly game
Yet in the fog of war, he became your hero, and you understood why
Cos being separated in battle could make the difference to live or die
Always are hidden human values which vocal roll calls keep alive
Even In space age soldiering where clacking computers thrive
George Mansford © September 2021
** Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers