The Elite Leadership Course: Life at Sandhurst by Garry McArthy

ARRSE Rating
5.00 star(s)
FEEL THE STAG!
I will admit to wanting to like this book and I will declare that I had a vested interest as a “RoCo” survivor; heightened by the fact that the events in this book took place after I passed RoCo but was still at the Academy. Although the names are changed I certainly know who some of them are; he captures them pretty well.

I also feel no small sense of responsibility being asked to review this book. Even so I was left with mixed feelings. But first we need to explain some things for those unfamiliar with RMAS (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst) aka The Factory.

BACKGROUND
It is important to note that although the title is “The Elite Leadership course - Life at Sandhurst”, it is actually about a small, unique and VERY different element of the RMAS experience. At the time, of the c600-700 annual graduates of RMAS only a cohort of 60-80 would likely be ex-RoCo. Also bear in mind, the purpose of RMAS is to create Platoon/Troop commanders (via the vehicle of basic infantry skills). It is not to creating future OC and COs, the system is meant to do that afterwards in time.

The author has played with the course numbering. Courses at RMAS are numbered Year then intake, there being 3 a year. So the first intake of 1996 would be 961. The second 962 etc. Rowallan is ROW, Commissioning Course is CC. This book seems to be centred on ROW961, but there are events which I know occurred on ROW953, e.g. the cadet being in a police car crash. I also heard about the cadet going a bit potty too. It’s fair to say that I don’t see anything being hyped or over played; if anything some stuff has been watered down.

But, each course is slightly different; e.g our Ex Red Light was 3rd week in.

I was recommended for RoCo probably because I was pretty young and a bit immature at RCB. To be honest it was the making of me. I was completely new to the Army and nothing has pushed me as hard physically or mentally since. Even just the constant total uncertainty of what would occur in the next hour, day, week. Something as simple as a PT session could be 30mins, 60 mins or hours. Or 5 times round the chapel square then into a hall of study to write an essay! Try to imagine arriving expecting to do UEL/AT and finding yourself doing P Coy, with no MEL/schedule and with added essays.

It gave me a level of mental and physical resilience which has served me extremely well.

By comparison the CC (Commissioning Course) was pretty dull and you quickly realised as long as you played the game, you knew you could make it to the end. There were very few surprises and it was more a sense of relief when I went up those steps.

The DS on the CC never, ever questioned my commitment to become an Officer.

As an aside, I was wearing my RoCo sweatshirt and on seeing it a senior officer referred to me as “a fellow Knight of Rowallan”. Hence my Nom de Guerre. So yes, you did feel that you were part of something special. Or should I say “Speshul”

RoCo2.jpg
So lets start with…

THE BAD
If you are reading this looking for inspiration about leadership or cutting insight about officer training, this is not that book. If I was to be cruel I would say it is maybe a bit of a niche interest to those who attended the course and fancy revisiting the joys (Mean Machine, Names, Yellow Handbags, etc) or those who wanted to know what was going on in the basement of Old College but were too scared to look out the window (true story). In actuality it was directly below the female OCdt accom and I’m sure they loved the 0530hrs wake up! (But they did throw chocolate down to us from time to time, so thanks girls!)

I would like to have seen a section explaining the origin of RoCo, how it evolved from the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre in WW2, why it existed, etc. This was touched on but not really explained in any detail. Which is a shame.

I also didn’t care much for the foreword by Andy McNab, essentially that British Army officers are the best in the world because they are trained by SNCOs, who are of course the best in the world. The foreword by General Deverell was more relevant as a huge supporter of the course; he is also a really good man. I guess this is about the “brand”.

Whilst some things don’t ring true, I could be kind and say that this was down to the ever changing nature of the course to preserve its OPSEC/mystique. However I recall the stretcher races usually involved two scaffolding stretchers with attached railway sleepers called pain and gain. These are pictured as “newly named”. Well they had been in use for sometime by then. I also don’t recall seeing the “string vest” which staff were punished with for showing sympathy or for “being nice” to the cadets. I don’t recall attending Chapel on a Sunday. In fairness the author does say in a preface that some things have been deliberately skewed and that his memory also might not be 100%.

However my biggest gripe is with the author and I write that with reluctance, as I am very grateful he has put his experience down on paper; it being interesting to see behind the curtain. At best he does come across on occasion as a bit “odd”. To a civilian reader or in comparison to modern Army training he could equally sound a bit unhinged / borderline anger management issues. He seems quite close to losing his rag quite a bit, allowing cadets to get under his skin. Now whilst we had some duffers, I don’t recall having any of the appalling characters he had; perhaps he was unlucky.

The incident where he dragged a clothed cadet and threw him in the shower, or forgetting about a cadet being punished left running around the square. I sincerely hoped it was an exaggeration, as even by the standards of the time I thought that might be a bit beyond the pale. Some incidents in the book were perhaps a bit over-wrought or maybe I’ve gone all Guardian reader?

I also get the sense that maybe he didn’t fit in (or didn’t want to) with the Household Div dominated nature of RMAS. Did he see himself as a bit of a maverick? Because that sort of thing just doesn’t work at RMAS. Although RoCo would probably allow you to remain under the radar but not so on the CC.

THE GOOD (or YOU WEREN’T THERE MAN!)
As I have said above, I am very grateful he has put his experience down on paper and got it published. I really enjoyed reading it, I felt it flowed well and captured the essence of the course. It made me laugh in parts, flinch in others and recall with dread. It made my feet ache at one point reading and reliving the end of Ex PLAIN JANE or the Brecon Bimble.

After finishing the book I had to sit on a darkened room for 2 days until the traumatic memories faded.

The book is well structured and it contained plenty of detail especially the first half or two thirds of the course; but I did feel that as it got to the later weeks the detail dried up a little and it felt a tiny bit rushed. That being said it is still a very substantial book and detailed account.

I really liked the end chapter with the “Where are they now”.

He did a very good job of explaining a course that I have found quite hard to explain. I am sure many people have heard the exploits of RoCo and thought them exaggerated/made up. Well if anything some of it has been toned down for publication.

Unlike the CC, RoCo was a great leveller. No matter how fit, clever, etc you would be ground down, pulled apart and rebuilt. At the back of the group on the run? you got beasted for being weak. At the front? You got beasted for not helping those at the back, then got beasted for being at the back if you went back to help. In the middle? Beasted for trying to be “a grey man!”. The mind games were also absolutely constant. I think the author puts this across really well. This was the deliberate air that whatever you did wasn’t quite enough; the mantra being “reward success and punish failure”. Reward was generally just NOT getting extra beasted. The Mean Machine featured far, far more on my course than on the one(s) in the book!

I did like that he also threw in some of his experiences outside of his time at RMAS, what he got from the course and how it shaped his decision making. I would have been interested to read about his time on the RMAS training and selection cadre. I feel that might even be a book in itself.

It was interesting to read about some of the politics that surrounded the course and that the decision to sack cadets wasn’t taken lightly. It certainly felt much more arbitrary from our point of view.

So whilst I didn’t find the book divulged any great new secrets about building leaders or such like, it did explain the methodology behind the madness. Whilst it is a process that we Army types are quite familiar with, the author has done a good job at explaining how they tackled the weaknesses, built the character and confidence. Which in turn built those leadership traits; even if in this case that process was turned up to 11!

I don’t feel I got so much leadership training on Rowallan, that must of happened by stealth. So although the author talks a lot about SWOT, etc, I recall it more being about doing an estimate and orders process “lite”. However as the author explains we also did learn much about teamwork, picking the right man for the job, motivating people who were completely spent and a great deal about yourself; e.g I still hate being underwater or in any water that isn’t a hot tub!

SUMMARY
Overall a very enjoyable read and quite enlightening in parts. This book will strongly appeal to a niche; especially if you are ex-RoCo or interested in discovering more about a unique part of RMAS history then I certainly recommend it.

Whilst it won’t give you a picture of life at Sandhurst it will make you wonder why some people so badly want to be an Army Officer and what they were prepared to go through just to get on the course. Garry McCarthy has done a pretty good job at bringing that vividly to life.

Mores et Ductus.

As a parting note, it also won’t surprise you to learn that all the RoCo survivors in my Coy thought the frantic first 5 weeks of the CC at RMAS were actually an elaborate ruse to lull us into false sense of security / relaxing before the course started properly and smashed you. Read the book and you’ll understand why.

Amazon product
 
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Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
I might buy a copy but I feel that as the events depicted are 17 years after my own experience of Rowallan Company it might be a little odd for me to read. That's not to say that the course would have any easier or harder but rather just, different - my 1970s version was of its time and probably more true to the WW2 'ideals' (if that's what you could call them). My experience was less nuanced from a selection perspective and, as you say, we never saw any evidence that the DS were being 'selective' at all - everybody got beasted - relentlessly. It's funny how the course seems to have changed as it became more a 'permanent' part of RMAS, the Mushroom changing to the much more aesthetic Stag etc. 'Feel the Stag' wasn't something I'd ever heard. The 'yellow handbags' were simply 'burdens' and they ranged in size from small to two man lifts (memories of hauling a 105mm ammo box full of sand up Fan Y Big only to be told it should have been left at the last CP so take it back now!

The stand out point this review makes is that if Rowallan did anything, it ensured you always expected the unexpected, never trusted the DS, or the MEL, or your orders (excellent future training, that one). A good, enduring life lesson.

My only other point is how on earth does a member of the Rowallan DS think he's qualified to write this book? I'd rather see it written by a cadet who'd been through it. Perhaps the current Commandant should have a go?
 

KnightsofRowallan

LE
Book Reviewer
The stand out point this review makes is that if Rowallan did anything, it ensured you always expected the unexpected, never trusted the DS, or the MEL, or your orders (excellent future training, that one). A good, enduring life lesson.
@Bubbles_Barker, this hits it right on the head, we were told constantly "expect the unexpected, but don't expect it to be easy"; a most useful lesson for Army life.

I think you might find your experience will have strong echos here, I heard they were still allowed to flog cadets on your course ;-)

I have my journal for RoCo, which I am led to believe is very unusual. Perhaps I should, Publish and be dammed!
 
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Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
The stand out point this review makes is that if Rowallan did anything, it ensured you always expected the unexpected, never trusted the DS, or the MEL, or your orders (excellent future training, that one). A good, enduring life lesson.
@Bubbles_Barker, this hits it right on the head, we were told constantly "expect the unexpected, but don't expect it to be easy"; a most useful lesson for Army life.

I have my journal for RoCo, which I am led to believe is very unusual. Perhaps I should, Publish and be dammed!
Our journals were all destroyed at the end to remove any evidence of crimes against humanity. I have quite a few photos but would dearly love to see my RMAS records! Sadly I don't think that's possible.
 

Auld-Yin

ADC
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Reviews Editor
Our journals were all destroyed at the end to remove any evidence of crimes against humanity. I have quite a few photos but would dearly love to see my RMAS records! Sadly I don't think that's possible.
You may be able to. I sent off for my army records and got a huge pile of paper back - most of it shadow posting orders over the 30 years on the Long Term Reserve, but included were my annual reports, course reports and, most importantly, my crime sheet (Regimental entries only)! If you ask, you may be surprised.
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
You may be able to. I sent off for my army records and got a huge pile of paper back - most of it shadow posting orders over the 30 years on the Long Term Reserve, but included were my annual reports, course reports and, most importantly, my crime sheet (Regimental entries only)! If you ask, you may be surprised.
I did the same for my records held by APC and got the lot. However RMAS records don't seem to be held by APC...
 
Tend to agree. bit of curate's egg overall.
Found the book a niche trip down memory lane, and yet at the same time was slightly disappointed at how certain he was on things one knew to be wrong.

my personal bugbear was historical inaccuracy rather than course variation. Tony Streather and John Emery survived Haramosh; Bernard Jillott and Rae Culbert didn't.
Emery wrote an article after he recovered that started with the poem about the pobble who lost his toes and then went on to describe his attempt to climb again after losing extremities to frost bite.

And yeah, the later courses had it easy; where was irishman's wall on Plain Jane? as for food deprivation, didn't they know the king's feast of discarded ration packs that existed on 90s Training Areas? grumble, grumble, grumble...
 

Bad CO

Admin
Thanks for your review. As a graduate of an elite Army 6th form College near Worksop, I lived in terror of being selected for RowCo and was immensely relieved when I managed to dodge that bullet. I still vividly recall a clandestine meeting in the Chapel about week 6 with some of my classmates who were less fortunate. We presented them with gifts of a few of the cheaper items from the Naafi and their gratitude was something to behold.

Not sure if you are aware that RowCo used to be next to the Ghurka's block before it moved into Old College beneath what used to be the Waterloo Company lines. Definitely no females permitted in there in my time!
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
Not sure if you are aware that RowCo used to be next to the Ghurka's block before it moved into Old College beneath what used to be the Waterloo Company lines. Definitely no females permitted in there in my time!
From the beginning until I don’t know when, Rowallan Company was accommodated in the centre block of the U shape of soldiers’ blocks that also housed the Gurkha Demo Coy and 44 Sqn RCT. We ate in the Soldiers’ cookhouse - the Gurkhas used to make tea for us!

I think it’s been demolished now.
 
From the beginning until I don’t know when, Rowallan Company was accommodated in the centre block of the U shape of soldiers’ blocks that also housed the Gurkha Demo Coy and 44 Sqn RCT. We ate in the Soldiers’ cookhouse - the Gurkhas used to make tea for us!

I think it’s been demolished now.
Eating in the soldiers cookhouse was a rare privilege and was where I was introduced to the delights of Gurkha curries.
 

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