“I always knew that a career in the army was something that I wanted;” muses Captain Ben Matthews from his current base in Germany. “Bedales was such a tremendous help to me in fulfilling that ambition. Not only did the school never put any barriers in my way, but it also helped me to think for myself, be organised and self-reliant and develop a lot of life skills. If I hadn’t succeeded in joining the army, I would probably have gone into something like furniture design and manufacture, which, of course, is an area in which Bedales excels.”
Going to Brunel University was something of a rude awakening. “I’d always valued the sense of freedom that I felt at school,” he emphasises. “When I got to university, I think that I felt much more restricted than I had when I was roaring around Bedales. I also felt that my contemporaries at Bedales had somehow been more mature than a lot of the students that I was now meeting. Most of my efforts at Brunel were directed at being a member of the OTC there; you couldn’t say that I covered myself with academic glory!”
Sponsored by the Parachute Regiment, Ben went on to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from where he was commissioned into the Army Air Corps in 2007. “I’d had my sights set on the Special Forces, so it wasn’t my first choice, but I couldn’t resist the chance to fly helicopters,” he recalls. “Ultimately, though, I realised that I wasn’t actually cut out for it and transferred to a cavalry regiment.” With the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, Ben completed Signals, Gunnery and Tactics Troop Leaders and finished a first tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009.
“The army has always been a hugely professional organisation,” Ben reflects, “but since the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear that standards have risen appreciably. We’re better equipped and a real meritocracy these days. It’s been a great career for me during my 20s and I hope that it will be for a while longer, but it’s not necessarily a job for life anymore, which is as it should be.”
Ben has some salient points to make about changes in the way that the army is perceived by the average civilian. “A generation of soldiers has been marked by its experiences in war zones, in a way that hasn’t been the cases for some years,” he argues. “In the eyes of the public, those soldiers can do little wrong at the moment, regardless of what people may think of the wars themselves. After 2014, when the troops are scheduled to return from Afghanistan, I do wonder whether the army will just fade from people’s minds. The Press will have other things to write about and a lot of the military won’t have that much to do, having been fighting almost continuously for the best part of 15 years.”
Ben’s own experiences in Afghanistan have been astonishingly varied. The year after returning from his first tour of duty, he grasped the opportunity to take a three-month course at the Defence School of Languages to study Dari, the business language of Afghanistan. “I wish I’d had the drive to learn languages while I was at Bedales!” he laughs. “Learning Dari, which is a northern dialect related to Farsi, was a superb grounding for my next role in Afghanistan.” When he returned to the country last year, it was as an Advisor Trainer Commander. “Essentially, I was advising the Afghan army, living, training and fighting with them, acting as a liaison officer and greasing a few wheels here and there,” he explains. “I did have an interpreter with me, but I was surprised how readily I was able to hold my own conversations to a pretty high level.”
Most of us will never encounter situations at work where danger is such an omnipresent reality; to speak to Ben is to gain an inkling of how a soldier reacts both to time in the war zone and the periods that punctuate it. “Initially, you couldn’t be more thrilled when you finish your tour in a place like Afghanistan,” he says. “Gradually, though, you start to miss the basic life, the camaraderie and the feeling of living each day as if it were your last. I love soldiering; at the moment, I’m stuck behind a desk in Germany, which is not what I joined the army for, but we’re now starting the training process before heading back to Afghanistan next year. We’ll have a busy pre-Christmas schedule, head off to Canada after that for some more training, which means that I’ll be missing my Bedales reunion, sadly, and then it’ll be back into action.”
The end of British military involvement in Afghanistan also brings closer the day when Ben will have to make a decision about his own professional future. “I’m not sure now that I’ll be in the army for the duration,” he suggests. “I’ve thought about the alternatives – there are obvious financial attractions of working in the City, for example. What I really want to do, though, is to get involved in motor sport management at a high level. Obviously, it’s a pretty competitive sector, but I like to think that my time at Bedales and in the army has honed my skills to the point that it would be a possibility down the line. I can offer a certain brand of enthusiastic leadership and ability to follow things through that might fit quite well in somewhere like Formula One. It’s definitely something that I’m thinking about.”
Ben Matthews was interviewed by James Fairweather in Autumn 2012.