High jinks in the mess. Unholy amounts of booze. Medals and braid and black tie and ball dresses and lots and lots of sex.

To anyone on civvy street, the alleged antics of Major Duncan Wiggins, of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, at a summer ball in Norfolk, are utterly horrifying. To someone with any experience of Army life, they may be equally horrifying, but honestly? Not that surprising. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the comments on the story from the military community on Twitter. “Ginger Ninja” is one of the more acceptable – along with “what a lad”.

To recap: Major Wiggins, 34, faces claims that he had sex with two women – guests of a fellow, junior, officer – at the ball in Robertson Barracks after his wife and the mother of his two small children had left the revels and gone to bed. In true classy military fashion, one of the liaisons is alleged to have happened in the TV room (pretty disgusting – communal military sofas are no beds of bliss), and the other in a mess bedroom (pity the poor officer whose bedroom it was). Major Wiggins has now been suspended pending disciplinary action.

Major Duncan Wiggins of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards

If true, it’s gross, of course. When your wife’s asleep upstairs? Two women? And you’re a Major? But I’ve heard equally revolting tales, often from parties on bases, when strong drink has been consumed and something about the secure, enclosed nature of the location makes people feel safer than they otherwise might to behave in outrageous ways.

“In that kind of Alpha environment – there’s lots of it,” says one former cavalry officer. “Summer parties were like the fall of Rome.” He recounts the tale of one such party involving a hot tub – when the bubbles were turned off the next morning, the water left behind was essentially a sea of bodily fluids. “I was so glad I hadn’t got in it.”

As a young woman entering this world for the first time, it can all seem very glamorous. Dinners are formal, in black tie and full mess dress; you’re served by soldiers who are often older than you, dazzling with gold braid, calling you “ma’am”. It is both bizarre and intoxicating. Especially in those regiments that until recently only admitted men, you feel like a rare and exotic creature: observed, desired, something to be flirted with. 

It’s fun – until it’s not: usually when dinner is over, dancing has moved from something jolly and amusing to something more akin to dry humping and heavy amounts of hard liquor have turned formerly polite gentlemen into something more animalistic. That’s when the dodgy stuff can happen, and you’d be wise to get out – except when you can’t, because you’re stuck on a barracks in the middle of Salisbury Plain miles from anywhere. All you can hope is that your date is a gent who knows how to hold his drink – and has a lock on his mess bedroom door.

To be fair, things have changed since women were accepted to all regiments, and the presence of females became less exotic. “There was a bit of a boom [of this sort of behaviour] about 10 years ago, but this feels a bit retro,” says one Army WAG. “It does still go on, but this seems to be a fairly extreme example.”

Marry into the services and, usually, things change. As an officer’s wife you become a somewhat respected entity, one of the lads, up to a point. And the more senior your spouse gets, the better behaved they are – you don’t tend to hop in the hot tub if you’re an officer – or his wife. Most COs or equivalent know when to leave a party – it’s no fun for the more junior personnel if their boss is there breathing down their necks. Which is partly why the claims about Duncan Wiggins are so horrible – his wife was asleep upstairs; they have two children; he is alleged to have dallied with the guests of a junior colleague. “I’m not that shocked, but he wasn’t even slightly single,” says one Army wife.

In fact, says the former officer, the real issue here isn’t really the alleged sex per se, it’s the issue of rank.  He recalls one officer, on tour in Germany, who joked about the inappropriateness of having had a threesome with one of his corporals – not because of the act itself, but because the other man was a corporal, not a fellow officer.

There are other red lines. “It’s all fine until it breaks up someone’s marriage. They’re quite traditional folk, Army officers, and sh–ging other officers’ wives is quite rare – it’s a small world. We had one lieutenant who’d had an affair with his Commanding Officer’s wife, and he was basically banished. [Although, crucially, not suspended – although perhaps he would have been these days.]”

“There’s an argument to say that, in this instance, if the sex was consensual, there’s nothing wrong with it – your private life is private – and infidelity, although horrible is not actually illegal,” agrees another senior officer. But, he says, when it comes to the case of  Major Wiggins, there is a moral issue at play. “This man is in a leadership position. He sets the standards – so he absolutely should have been suspended. That is the right and proper thing to do.” In pure military terms, what happens on the dancefloor and beyond can, if it goes too far, have an effect on the battlefield. “It’s about not destroying the cohesion of your team,” says one insider. “Sh–ging someone else’s missus is the surest way to have that happen.”

Of course, the Army puts weird pressures on those who serve. Soldiers exist outside the norms of civilian society, are subject to an entirely different set of professional rules, live peripatetic lives, in a state of perpetual readiness, ready to carry out the tasks that nobody else wants to do. It’s perhaps unsurprising that many of them think they are outside the conventional moral code the rest of us try to adhere to.

Does that make it acceptable? No. “What a wrong ’un,” says the former officer. “High jinks is stealing a traffic cone when you’re p–sed, not having sex with two women who aren’t your wife”, says the wife of another former serviceman. “Especially not when she’s asleep upstairs.”