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The British Army's Elite Image Is Tarnished by Charges of Brutality in the Barracks

November 29, 1987|RALPH BOULTON | Reuters

LONDON — The well-polished image of some of Britain's elite army regiments is being sullied by disclosures of brutal initiation rites in the barracks.

Many a military stiff upper lip quivered when an entire battalion of 550 men from the Coldstream Guards, who share ceremonial sentry duties at Queen Elizabeth's Buckingham Palace residence, were confined to quarters for a day in early November after charges of barracks bullying.

The regiment kept face by marching one unit, clad in famous bearskin hats, to the Palace for the traditional changing of the guard.

But while military police investigated the charges, two soldiers from another Coldstream battalion were jailed for 120 days and three months for separate assaults.

The sentences and allegations of systematic ill-treatment of some young soldiers, including at least one black, have been widely reported by the British press.

"The reputation of the British Army is being tarnished by a small number of brutes and bullies who like to exercise their power over young recruits," Labor opposition Member of Parliament Jack Ashley said in an interview.

He called for a national inquiry and said the cases that have come to light are the tip of the iceberg.

"I've had 50 letters and I'm getting phone calls regularly from young recruits who've been beaten or even burnt," he said. Soldiers have been court-martialed on charges including sexual assault, he said.

Ashley acknowledged the problems of training young men to turn on violence on the exercise grounds and then turn it off in their quarters. But the problem is that there is no check against abuses, he said.

Television news programs have covered the story in detail and popular newspapers have begun campaigning with headlines such as, "Stop the Bullies." One daily even exhorted servicemen to report their experiences of bullying to a special postal address.

"Any serviceman who passes on information to the media about army life without clearance is breaking regulations," an Army spokesman cautioned.

The two Coldstream Guardsmen and four soldiers of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, jailed on Nov. 6, followed servicemen from other troop regiments such as the Devon and Dorsets and the Royal Fusiliers into disgrace this year.

But the Ministry of Defense insists the number of soldiers tried for assaults is not rising and rejects Ashley's call for an inquiry.

"I've been a guardsman for 20 years and I know that when soldiers go abroad they can get a bit out of hand despite efforts to keep them busy," one Army official said. "But it seems to me the media are blowing things out of proportion."

The four soldiers of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, a regiment now defending Britain's front-line positions in West Berlin, received jail terms ranging from two months to two years on Nov. 6 in the biggest of a recent series of courts-martial.

Two others from the same regiment were imprisoned earlier this year and several more are under investigation for assault.

Pvt. James Guthrie, 20, told the latest court-martial he had been punched, kicked, burned on his testicles and dropped 20 feet out of a window during an initiation ceremony at a King's Own barracks in eastern England.

Calvin Finbow, given a medical discharge last year after a corporal was disciplined for assaulting him, said that when charges of brutality were raised, soldiers tended to close ranks rather than risk being labeled a sneak.

"You just had to take what was dished out to you," he said. "I was hit on the head with a stick like the (seven) others in my room if the corporal was unhappy about the state of the place."

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