Bedtime Stories

A military life is a life of adventure, excitement and a well-made bed.


Earlier this year, when Admiral William H. McRaven stood at the lectern imparting advice to 8,000 wisdom-hungry graduates at the University of Texas, he didn’t speak of “taking the road less travelled” or “standing up for what you believe in”. He spoke of bed-making.

If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.”

He went on to say: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

All those years of combat in highly dangerous war zones may have knocked a few screws loose, but McRaven is onto something. Credited for organising and executing the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, McRaven knows a thing or two about getting things done. And done well.

While McRaven learnt these skills in the military, he argues that it matters not whether you have ever served a day in uniform: establishing a daily bed-making ritual benefits even the most uncouth commoner. The popular wisdom is that making your bed every morning allows your brain to start functioning in an organised manner. It encourages a routine of discipline that will surely spill over into other areas of life. “By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed,” assures McRaven. “Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

Historically speaking, the skill of preparing a properly made bed has been practised in the military as far back as modern records go, all in the name of converting a feckless civilian into a neat and tidy soldier. Even the Roman army believed keeping their quarters spick and span was invaluable to the maintenance of discipline. It is this self-discipline that still underpins the whole ethos of military professionalism to the present day.

Rudyard Kipling’s “The ’eathen” describes the conversion of a slovenly civilian recruit into a smart soldier:

The young recruit is ’aughty –  ’e draf’s from Gawd knows where;

They bid ’im show ’is stockin’s an’ lay ’is mattress square;

…Gettin’ clear o’ dirtiness, gettin’ done with mess,

Gettin’ shut o’ doin’ things rather-more-or-less…

Although drafted in the 19th century with Queen Victoria’s army in mind, the philosophy is unchanged: mess = uncultured hooligan; tidiness = respectable soldier ready for combat.

The first large barracks were not built in Britain until the end of the 18th century; prior to that soldiers were billeted upon the local population and had their sheets tucked in by doting substitute mothers. In the 19th century, soldiers marched into their new accommodation towards a small bedstead, armed only with a palliasse for a mattress (a hessian sack filled with straw), a canvas sheet and two blankets. The standard issue has altered throughout the years, adjusting to the requirements of the environment, but one thing certainly hasn’t changed: the cornerstone of army training has as much to do with making your bed as it is to do with drills and weapons.

As the Australian military practice was built on British systems, the Poms instilled their bed-making manifestos into the brain of our boys from the get-go. In Initial Employment Training, the art of making a proper bed is still strictly enforced as it develops the recruit’s attention to detail and establishes a routine of discipline. These soon-to-be soldiers are given only one formal lesson by their Recruit Section Commander and sent forth to conquer bed-making forever more. 

Standard military requirement is to have covers pulled taut, the top sheet folded back 30 centimetres, and corners turned to a precise 45 degree angle to that of the mattress. This tight-fitting triangular fold, otherwise known as a hospital corner, has long been the bread and butter of making a military-standard bed. The pillow is centred just under the headboard with the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack. And what happens if a recruit has trouble doing it correctly? “You get to do it again until your instructor is satisfied,” says Graham Wilson from the Military Historical Society of Australia.

The coin method was established to determine the tightness of the hospital corners and the smoothness of the top cover. If the coin bounced, the bed-making was up to scratch. If not, watch out. 

New recruits soon learn that mastering the military rack is essential for uniformity purposes in establishing themselves as part of the team: all for one, one for all. It also shows an individual can concentrate on details which, when you’re in the armed forces, is absolutely vital. For instance, according to a Defence spokesperson, “The Air Force is dominated by technologically advanced equipment that requires maintenance and operation by personnel that are able to focus on the finer details. Failure to do so has the potential to result in equipment failure, loss of life or both.” In the Army, a lack of attention to detail can have similarly devastating consequences: “In cold conditions, often found while on deployment, the absence of a sleeping bag – left behind because a soldier lacks the discipline to pack it – can cost a life or lead to injury.” Apart from that, too, “On deployment, depending on the area of operation, there may be health reasons for beds to be made, e.g. to keep disease-carrying insects and vermin out of beds.”

The Navy even has a term for keeping things clean, tidy and orderly – ‘shipshape’. “A clean warship is a healthy warship!” says a Defence spokesperson. Sailors traditionally slept in hammocks, which were often suspended above the ship’s cannons in the gun deck. At daybreak, once the sailors were up, they’d lash the hammocks into sausage-like wads and stow them in lockers. If a ship sustained damage and started taking in water, those hammocks were used to plug holes. They could also be used as ‘splinter mats’; in other words, absorb shrapnel from shells or splintering wooden fittings. This multi-purpose form of bedding remained in use during the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) until the ’70s.

Nowadays, RAN warships are fitted with built-in metal bunk beds, with a lift-up mattress under which is a flat locker. Before sailors go on watch, they have to make their bed, place the pillow longitudinally on top and strap it down with a car-like seat belt. They also use the seat belt to strap themselves in during rough weather. The reason everything has to be tied down is that “in a sea battle anything that is not secured has the potential to become a hazard to the people who are fighting the battle aboard…it is of vital importance that loose items do not clog up suction pumps or impede damage control or fire-fighting parties in a ship.”

While making the bed seems like such a domestic chore in a fairly undomestic environment, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time. But just how much time do these diggers actually get to spend in the sack? Australian soldiers crudely dub this period ‘farter time’ and, during training, are generally granted around seven hours in their ‘farters’ or ‘fart sacks’, before reveille (time for getting up) at 6am. The Navy, much more delicately, refer to their bunks as ‘racks’ or ‘pits’. During training, fresh bed linen is issued to recruits once a week. 

It’s clear the average civilian can learn discipline, structure and tight-tucking techniques from engaging in a military-inspired making practice, but perhaps the most important process is in developing a sense of optimism. “If by chance you have a miserable day,” says McRaven, “you will come home to a bed that is made – that you made – and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”