The story is told of a British general who, while out riding with his staff, came across naked soldiers bathing in a river. Turning to one of his officers, the general remarked: “I never realised before just how white the bodies of the lower classes were.”
It is an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the gulf between officers and men in the British forces during the First War. Men whose contrasting attitudes of innate superiority and unquestioning subservience exactly mirrored those of Edwardian life. Of a society in which the class into which you were born and the school you attended, largely determined your path through life.
Officers and Gentlemen
When war was declared, in August 1914, any male with a public-school education and upper-class accent, was automatically seen by the military as officer material. Someone who, with minimal training, could competently lead others into battle.
While, in theory, the man also had to be aged 18 or over, in practice, a sufficiently determined and well-built boy of sixteen could, and often did, persuade recruiting officers to sign them up.
The Playing Fields of Eton
For those not familiar with the British educational system, the term ‘public schools’ does not describe schools open to the public at large. Rather they specify elite, private institutions which, certainly prior to World War One, catered exclusively for the sons of wealthy and well-connected upper-class families.
These seats of education combined team games, cold showers, bullying, beatings and the Classics with muscular Christianity and a militaristic outlook. All had Cadet Forces in which boys, as young as thirteen, learned the basics of soldiering, from long marches and arms drill, to firing live rounds on the range and during exercises.
Boy soldiers of the Eton Cadet Corps in 1915
Public School boys were also taught to believe in their natural superiority over the ‘lower classes’ and their God given duty to command lesser men.
Robert Graves into his memoire, Goodbye to All That describes how, after war was declared, what he terms ‘the sadomasochistic atmosphere of the public school’ continued not only between officers and men, but also between young officers and their superiors.
Far from being the ‘band of brothers’ of popular legend, the British army often seemed more like a collection of warring tribes.
Band of Brothers or Warring Tribes? Officers and men on parade
Death and a Good Education
On the Western Front the more exclusively and expensively a young man had been educated, the more likely he was to perish in the trenches.
The basic unit of the army consisted of fifty men led by a lieutenant or second lieutenant. Officially termed ‘subalterns’, these most junior officers were more usually and depreciatingly known as ‘warts’ by their superiors. Their job was to lead men ‘over the top’ and their life expectancy was six weeks.
A newly commissioned ‘Wart’ destined to die an early death
Robert Graves recounts how ‘warts’ were treated like dirt by senior officers who took pleasure in belittling, humiliating and tormenting them. Subalterns were, for example, forbidden from speaking at the mess table and not allowed to be served whisky. In the lull between battles, all the junior officers in one battalion were commanded to learn horse riding with a view to their playing polo! A practice that continued to the point of the battalion being virtually wiped out in battle.
The Battle of Salutes and Buttons
Senior officers insisted, even at times when death was everywhere, on inculcating the lower ranks with the inferiority complex that was then central to military training and discipline.
Even in the heat of battle, buttons and boots had to be brightly polished
One way of doing this was to punish, often severely, a host of seemingly minor rule infringements, such as a failure to salute smartly, or to polish one’s boots and buttons sufficiently.
On one occasion an officer was observed kicking a private the length of a French village street while hurling abuse at the wretched man.
The soldier’s crime?
To give what the officer considered a ‘slovenly’ salute.
Even when under fire in the trenches, and no matter how filthy and malodorous the uniforms to which they were attached, brass buttons had to be highly polished at all time. As a result, keeping them bright and shiny formed a major part of the ordinary soldiers’ daily activities.
In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves describes how, on one occasion, all officers and NCOs in his battalion were ordered to assemble immediately in a local hall.
Once they had done so, their Colonel, his face ‘as black as thunder’, launched into a furious tirade about their slovenliness. He had, he stormed, seen men with their pocket flaps undone, walking down the street with hands in pockets and boots unpolished. After threatening to prohibit all UK leave, he came to his main reason for calling the urgent parade.
“I have to tell you of a very disagreeable occurrence,” he thundered. “As I was going out of my orderly room, early this morning, I came across a soldier in conversation with a lance corporal. You may not believe it, but it was a fact that he addressed the corporal by his Christian name; he called him a Jack. The corporal made no protest. To think that the First Battalion has sunk to a level where it is possible for such familiarity to arise between NCOs and the men under their command!
Naturally, I put the corporal under arrest, and he appeared before me at once on the charge of ‘conduct unbecoming to an NCO.’ He was reduced to the ranks, and the man was given field punishment for using insubordinate language.”
The Agony of Field Punishment No.1
Being given a Field Punishment meant far more than a mild slap on the wrists.
British soldiers with a portable stock used as a punishment for even minor rule breaking
Certain offences, which included such trifling acts as eating even a small part of one’s iron rations, could be punished by Field Punishment No. 1. This involved a form or crucifixion.
An officer recounted how he witnessed it being carried out on a private sentenced for being drunk.”He was spread-eagled to the wheel of a company limber,” the officer recalled. “Tied by the ankles and wrists in the form of an X. He remained in this position – ‘crucifixion’, they called it – for several hours a day. I forget how many, but it was a good working day.
The sentence was to be carried out for as long as the battalion remained in the billets, and was to be continued after the next spell of trenches.
I shall never forget the look he gave me. He was a quiet, respectful, devoted servant, and he wanted to tell me that he was sorry for having let me down. His immediate reaction was in attempt to salute; I could see him try to lift his hand to his forehead, and bring his heels together, but he could do nothing; his eyes were filled with tears.”
An End in Themselves
Brutalities and humiliations like these were not always a means to an end, that is a method of enforcing discipline and fighting efficiency. They were very often an end in themselves and their sadistic nature is demonstrated by the fact that they persisted even under conditions where they could serve no such purpose.
In my next post I will describe how brutality in the barracks was a deliberate policy intended to condition men to obey without thinking and kill without mercy.
It wasn’t that the officer class was as especially aloof. Nor, as they are often portrayed, were the incompetent and cowardly lurking far behind the lines and enjoying life of relatively safe comfort while the other ranks suffered and died only a few miles away. Of the 1.252 generals in the Army staff, 146 were captured by the Germans or wounded; 78 were killed in action, died of their wounds or as a result of active service while 21 the Victoria Cross for outstanding gallantry.
But if the widely held view that the British Army were “lions led by donkeys” is largely a myth, what is undeniably true is that their response to the men under the command, especially those nonprofessional soldiers who either volunteered to fight or were conscripted to do so, can best be summed up as snobbery with violence
In the words of World War One writer they brought to their commands