The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by jonwilly, Dec 26, 2008.

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  1. "The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry"

    I found this quote in one artical I was reading and remember reading somewhere that it was this, which made the old Empire no longer governable.

    Is this so or just another myth ?

    john
     
  2. Could be true as in the 'thirties there was a drop in the young "officer class" entering the army. This was because those young officers killed in WW1 did not produce any children and this, therefore, led to this shortage. For a while the British Army introduced the rank of WO3 to act as plt/tp sergeant majors. The badge they wore was the royal crown as worn now by CSM/BSM/SSMs.
     
  3. Subaltern casualty/mortality rates were catastrophically high during WWI:

    'War deaths represented one in 8 of the 6 million men from the British Isles who had served in the Great War... As a proportion of the total population these figures were smaller than in France or Germany but were, regardless, to give rise to the idea of a 'lost generation'...
    According to one estimate, 30.58 per cent of all men aged twenty to twenty-four in 1914 were killed and 28.15 per cent of those aged thirteen to nineteen.'
    John Stevenson, 'Social History of Britain'

    'The casualty rates were highest among the subalterns... estimates for the mortality rates range from 65 to 81%. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men. '

    JOhn Ellis, 'Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in WWI' (my italics)

    For the last hundred years, though - since proper records really began - casualty rates for officers have always been higher than for other ranks. It shouldn't really have been the kiss of death to empire though, at least not ours. The Germans had even higher mortality rates for officers and lost over fifty percent of the males aged 20 - 24 and the lack of a decent stock form which to draw an officer class clearly had an impact on the success of their subsequent imperial activities.
     
  4. I think that there is probably more than a grain of truth in that quote

    John, although I am inclined to wince when I see the word English

    substituted for British. The Irish, Welsh and Scots lost as much of their

    'flower' in that bout of industrial warfare.

    I had, just prior to Christmas, completed reading The Pity of War by

    Niall Ferguson and similar thoughts are expressed in that book.

    The incredible ferocity of that conflict is beyond the comprehension of

    many of us and to see the surviving old boys in their wheel chairs during

    the Queen's Christmas speech was very, very moving.
     
  5. My own family's example may, or may not, be indicative of the said "class". The Father, first and second son were killed in that order in World War I. The Death duties were prohibitive.
    I was told as a boy, that were not until the early 1950's that the fiscal mess this had created was finally resolved (involving large-scale sale of property and some "hard times")

    As to the second point, my Grandfather (first son of the "first son" above) Born in 1915, joined his Regiment in 1936 and served throughout World War II. There was no break in the "traditional" career of the Males of my family. However the number that served in WWII (four) was about half that of World War I (Seven) (these being only direct grand parents etc and their siblings).
    However was not over all national fecundity falling throughout the time frame in question?

    Anyone got any more information about "Platoon Sergeant Majors"? I have come across them before, but always as asides to a main narrative.
     
  6. I dimly recall hearing a paper on PSMs at a conference a couple of years ago by someone from York or Sussex unis who was doing his PhD thesis on why the rank 'failed' (within the broader context of how the British Army failed to prepare for WWII). I didn't pay that much attention because it's not my research period. It's probably too obscure to have been picked up by one of the publishers but it should be downloadable by anyone with access to an academic library.

    If you are really interested I can probably look it up and email it to you if you PM me to remind sometime after 20th Jan when I'll have research library access again.
     
  7. AJP Taylor made the same claim Jon, in a lot of detail. "History of the 20th Century"?
     
  8. WO 3s were Platoon/Troop and Section Sgt Majors.

    The rank had already seen widespread use (although not as a command appointment) in the Cavarly, when they replaced the rank Quartermaster.

    Section Sgt Majors were in charge of specific sections ie Machine Guns or MT.

    PSM was supposed to be a replacement for a Commisioned Officer, as a Plt OC.

    It mainly seems to have died a death and been seen as a "failure" due to a similar problem in the RAF at this time.

    Commisioned Officer snobbery. In the same way that SNCO pilots were left out of the loops by Commisioned pilots during the Battle of Britain, so to was there a break down between the messes in the Army. Whilst a new idea on tactics in the RAF seemed able to spread through the Officer Aircrew quickly, it didn´t go down. Not sure if the reverse was true.

    The plan was seen as a failure, but most of the WOIII were commisioned to Lt on it´s scrapping. Likewise the rank has never formally been abolished. Technically we could bring them back.

    Given the number of WO and LE Tp commanders now adays though, i would say that the solution has been found and that the system now works. That and there is no need to bring in the WOIII again.

    Interesting that the majority of WOIIIs were commisioned at the end though. They obviously were not seen as the failure, it would have been all to easy to promote them to WOII as required and use them as Sgt Majors.
     
  9. Allenbrooke made exactly this point after Dunkirk when he was touring units preparing to meet the proposed German Operation Sealion. Although he found that the rank and file were sound, the quality of the commanders was very poor. He attributed this to the loss of the best young officers in Flanders, who should by then have reached senior rank. He basically said that there was no point sacking a commander as his replacement would be of equally low standard. It was not until the mid point of WW2 when younger, battle experienced, Generals came through that the overall standard improved.
     
  10. BTW, the attrition rate of young officers in Bomber Command WW2 was higher than that of Subalterns in WW1.
     
  11. Interesting piece.

    "Rules now followed by the Selection Board have already in their application shown that suitability and merit, regardless either of age or youth, will, in the Army, as in outside professions, determine the selection of officers for the most responsible posts. Indeed, for such posts the Army can afford less than outside professions to follow a routine of promotion by seniority. Too much is at stake. Another principle being followed—or perhaps the same principle in another form—is that promotion to ranks qualifying for these higher posts is not a reward for past 2142 services but an assumption of capacity to fulfil present responsibilities. Every officer now appointed to a command is being selected on the footing that he can hold the command in war.

    Several questions arise, however, in connection with the career of officers as a whole. Have we an adequacy of officers, or is there a shortage? It is significant that the responsibilities allotted to the officer have never been re-examined in the light of actuality. Could not other ranks be given an opportunity of discharging some of the responsibilities confined to the commissioned ranks? If this could be done, the purpose for which higher education has been given to these other ranks would be justified, and the prospects before these other ranks would be enlarged. The warrant officer of today is surely capable of commanding a platoon and similar sub-units hitherto generally entrusted to subalterns. We propose to enlarge the complement of warrant officers by the creation of a new Class III for this purpose. The number of entries into the cadet colleges will fall to be correspondingly diminished, and we shall enjoy the great advantage of being able to select only those who fulfil the highest standard. Another effect of a reduction in the subaltern class will be mathematically to increase the prospects of every officer joining the British Army, whether from the ranks or from the cadet colleges. At present, the officer's career suffers from a defect absent in many other State employments, as the number of entries is not adjusted to correspond even roughly with the number of vacancies in the higher ranks. Promotion is therefore both slow and irregular. Promotion, indeed, is like a pyramid. Aspiration diminishes as the apex is approached.

    Under a proposal which we have in mind, a reduction in the establishment without recourse to axing of over 1,000, will enable a greater number of officers to rise more rapidly. Would it not be possible to accelerate even this rise by guaranteeing a definite limit on the time during which each rank is held so that, with certainty, promotion in the junior and senior ranks should come to every efficient officer within a maximum specified time? Further to improve the officer's career, it might be possible to lower the ages at which the senior ranks are attained. Such measures will result in an improvement in the pay and the retired pay code. The 2143 grievance of the officer, as I see it, cannot be that the pay in the lowest ranks is low so much as that the difficulties in the way of his reaching to a higher rate of pay within a reasonable time are prolonged."

    From http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1938/mar/10/army-estimates-1938
     
  12. http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~dheb/2300/Historical/MA/45GH3842.pdf

    "The rifle companies were supposed to be organised with three officers and 97
    other ranks. The Company HQ consisted of two captains, one the Officer Commanding
    the other the Second in Command, the Company Sergeant Major, the Company
    Quartermaster Sergeant and six soldiers. The rifle platoons each had either 30 or 29
    soldiers depending on whether it was commanded by an officer or a Platoon Sergeant
    Major, as the officer was entitled to a batman that the PSM was not23.

    21 B. Ash, Norway 1940, (London, 1964), pp.26
    22 Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945, pp.199-200
    23 Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945, pp.200

    The Platoon Sergeant Major had been brought in as a Warrant Officer 3rd Class
    grade position before the war in response to a major shortage of officers24. In the
    regular army a PSM commanded 2 out of 3 rifle platoons in a company, in addition they
    commanded half of the platoons in the HQ Company25.
    In spite of being relatively strong in subalterns, the 4th and 5th Battalions had
    around 16-18 each at the end of 193826 and many more had been commissioned since
    then, the PSM system was also in use in the territorial battalions. By the winter of
    1939-40 the 5th Battalion had PSMs commanding two platoons in A and B Companies,
    one platoon in C Company as well as the Pioneer, Anti-Aircraft and Mortar platoons27.
    In the rifle companies this gives a ratio of 5 PSMs to 7 commissioned platoon
    commanders, compared with 8 to 4 in a ‘typical’ regular battalion.
    While the relative merits of having platoons commanded by Senior NCOs or
    junior officers can be debated, it appears that at this stage in the war the 5th Green
    Howards had chosen to give command positions to PSMs rather than to some of their
    junior officers of whom there were enough to fill all the platoon commander vacancies.
    This appears to be a deliberate choice of experience over ‘senior’ but more
    inexperienced personnel. Most of the new 2nd Lieutenants had been commissioned
    solely on their experience in Public School cadet, or Junior Division Officer Training
    Corps, forces.
    Mention should also be made of the links the two territorial battalions had with
    the regimental depot in Richmond. The depot was involved in providing some training
    for the territorials, most prominently in running Tactical Exercises Without Troops
    24 Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945, pp.198
    25 Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945, pp.199-200
    26 Green Howards Gazette 250th Anniversary Supplement 19 November 1938
    27 GHG, Vol.XVLII, No.551, pp.194-195"

    From the 4 and 5th Bns, The Green Howards 1938 - 1942.
     
  13. From 1940, there is a bit of ding dong between a Brigadier MP and a Civvilian (ex National Service from WW1)MP.

    "§ Mr. Lees-Smith I should have thought it would require a full-time messing officer in a battalion to deal with some 1,000 men and that it would be an economy. The amount of waste the officer might find would probably in the end repay his pay. There is a messing officers' training school 1059 at the Army School of Cookery, and I have spoken to some of the men I know. They tell me that they really do not learn anything. They are only there for five days and have only an elementary knowledge of this side of life. It might be argued that if you have a five-day course you may get a great many more through, but I wish to point out—and this will be appreciated by the Minister from his past experience—that the Board of Education has specialised on short five-day courses, and it has been found that a surprising amount can be taught if those entering the course are prepared for it before the lessons begin. Therefore, before the messing officers go to the courses, if a syllabus and a text book were sent to them and they were given a certain amount of correspondence tuition, they would not be wasted. The men would see with their eyes what was in front of them, and their minds would assimilate what was being done.

    The general outline of the new scheme for education in the Army described by the Minister appeared to be the best experimental system with which to begin. I do not think we ought to be discouraged if at this stage of the war the scheme does not meet with a very special response. I know the Army is bored, as the Minister said, but it is also unsettled as to the future. Education is best conducted in an atmosphere of peace, which at present is too indefinite for men to concentrate sufficiently on work of this kind. As the Minister said, the scheme in the last war was a surprising success, but it came into operation at the end of the war and was taken advantage of when men were thinking of preparing themselves for their civilian careers. I think there is a danger of a scheme of this sort being too ambitious. Universities are to have a large share in taking control, and they will arrange lectures by experienced lecturers. The number of lectures held in a year might make a very striking total, but, on the other hand, the number of times a soldier heard them might be very small. I therefore believe that in the early stages simple subjects should be taken up. There have been experiments in one or two units and it was found that the soldiers wanted French, German, shorthand and typewriting, which do not require highly trained university lecturers. Under present conditions the 1060 soldier will most use something which is easy to his hand, something he can do at any moment during his time off duty, and it would be best to encourage, for those who want it, some sort of correspondence tuition so that, with the aid of a little book which he can carry in his pocket, he can do written work in his own time. That is much better than a lecture once a year. He should also be provided with a quiet room in the camp away from the wireless, which blares all the time in the institutes, and have in charge some officer whose mind happens to be specially interested in a question of this kind.

    I come to a question which raises a large issue and into which I should like the right hon. Gentleman to make some inquiries. I refer to the scheme for the democratisation of the Army. There is a great danger that this scheme is going wrong, and that it is more impressive on paper than in reality. The machinery is all there and all the men who now get commissions come from the ranks. That however, does not mean democratisation unless every man in the ranks has an equal chance of getting a commission, irrespective of his income or social origin. The system is this: The selection for commissions of men in the ranks is made by the commanding officer, naturally on the recommendation of the officer of the unit. The candidate goes before the brigadier and finally is interviewed by the general of the division. The first effective selection, however, is made by the commanding officer, and what we have to guard against is this. The commanding officer is a man, probably a successful officer, who is the prevailing military type, and he will regard as a man likely to make a good officer another man who is of the type he finds it easy to recognise. I know of a young soldier who went up to the commanding officer, having been recommended for a commission. He was asked whether he had any private means and what his father's income was. One result of this is that a number of soldiers who would make good officers cannot take commissions because they do not feel they can afford to do so. The right hon. Gentleman might make some inquiries about the expenses of officers in their units. He has sources of information and so have I. In the units of which I know an officer cannot get on on less than £1 a week.

    1061 The democratisation of the Army cannot go through on those conditions. I am not saying that the men who are chosen would not be good officers—they would be—but what I am saying is that in this country the ability to command is widely spread, and it is not confined to any one particular type of man and it is not confined to the type which prevails in the best kind of officers' mess. It is much wider than that. It is the Secretary of State's duty to insist that those who are selecting these men shall have an attitude of mind towards the selection which will enable them to recognise the powers of leadership in types of men who are different from themselves. Unless that is done, I am convinced that along the present lines it will be found that the scheme for the democratisation of the Army will largely evaporate in smoke and that large sums of money which are being spent by the public in order to make it possible will be misused.

    § 5.51 p.m.

    § Brigadier-General Spears (Carlisle) I should like to take up the last point which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) has mentioned about the democratisation of the Army. It is an important subject, which clearly ought to be faced. It will be admitted by all that the important element in any Army is that of the officers, for without a well-trained and specialised corps of officers the bravest troops must fail. What happens in the Army of our ally, France? France is a democracy in which every career is open to the poorest man's son. The brother of the President of the Republic tills his own fields. Marshal Joffre was the son of a cooper. General Georges, who commands the North-Eastern front in France, was telling me the other day that he used to go to school in sabots. The Republic has a magnificent Army, which is her pride. The existence of the State depends upon its efficiency. What is the French view on this subject of officers? Have they ever allowed democracy, much less demagogy, to interfere in the matter? They are much too intelligent for that, and too much depends upon the Army to allow any but common sense solutions being adopted.

    Any young man who is intelligent enough to pass the examinations at 18 can enter St. Cyr, the French Sandhurst, 1062 or the Polytechnic, which corresponds to what used to be Woolwich. There is no restriction whatever, but once he has entered one of the military colleges he is made into an officer in the sense that he is moulded in to the officer caste. Once there, whatever his origin—and nobody minds what his origin is—he is treated on a footing of absolute equality with all other young students and he comes out an officer. St. Cyr is designed to foster military traditions, to develop a sense of military honour and to mould young minds so that they will become leaders, however youthful, whom men will look up to and follow. This part of their training is looked upon as being infinitely more important than mere technical learning. I would like to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Keighley to the fact that in the democratic French Army, which comprises to-day many hundreds of generals who command its millions of soldiers, only one general in effective command has risen from the ranks.

    We are facing the same perils in this country as are the French, whose Army is defending the very existence of the State. But what have we done? Somebody must have the courage to say it. We have given way to calls and slogans. We have given way to demagogy on this question. This cheap popular cry, "Democratise the Army," may raise a cheer in the public-house and give a Minister a sense of popularity, but the way in which it is being interpreted is fatal to the Army. When the French heard that we had to all intents and purposes closed down Sandhurst and were not training boys of 18 to be officers, they were appalled. By all means do not send out boys, either as officers or as men, to France until they are 20, but let us train them from 18 to 20 so that at the later age they will be efficient officers. Let us make no mistake; in a citizen Army such as ours, which is forced to expand suddenly, and which, among the Territorials especially, must have many excellent men who, nevertheless, are not possessed of the qualities required of an officer in war-time, the officer question is bound to be a difficult one. By the very nature of present-day warfare more depends upon the leader of small units than in former days. By the very nature of the fighting small units have to defend pillboxes and follow or repel tank attacks, 1063 and the staunchness and coolness of young officers commanding these small units is of the greatest importance. Staunchness comes of tradition and coolness of practice in the habit of command.

    Incredible as it may seem, not only have we done away with the two years' training course at Sandhurst, but we have actually reduced the number of officers per battalion. Non-commissioned officers, instead of second lieutenants, are now commanding platoons in many cases. Everybody knows that however important the non-commissioned officer is in the Army—and his importance cannot be exaggerated—he cannot take the place of the officer.

    § Mr. W. Joseph Stewart (Houghton-le-Spring) Why not?

    § Brigadier-General Spears If the hon. Member knew anything about the Army, he would not have put that question.

    § Mr. Stewart Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that during the last war, in thousands of cases when the subalterns went down, non-commissioned officers took charge and admittedly did the work the officers would have done?

    § Brigadier-General Spears Of course, it is the part the non-commissioned officer has to play, and it is one of his invaluable qualities that he is able to follow up his officer. Russia made the mistake of putting non-commissioned officers in the place of officers in the Russian Revolution, and the result was the peace of Brest-Litovsk. [Interruption.] I am not brushing it to one side, but to anyone who knows, it is a question beyond discussion. I beg the Secretary of State to look into this question and reappoint without delay the requisite number of junior officers, so that our infantry battalions will attain the efficiency which we expect of them. It is a vitally important question both from the point of view of the men, whose lives depend on good leadership, and from the point of view of the conduct of the war. The fate of nations has often depended upon the winning of battles, and the winning or losing of battles has always been a question of leadership. I think I am well enough known in this House for hon. Members to realise that I am no hide-bound militarist. I am far from pleading that com- 1064 missions in the Army should be the perquisite of a class. I love the Army. I spent the best years of my life in it, and I want it to be capable of carrying out its high traditions in a changed world. Nothing could be better for the Army to-day than to draw its officers from the whole nation. Let every man's son who has the capacity and the yearning for a soldier's life have a chance of entering a military college, but once he is there let us follow the example of the French and make an officer of him.

    Abolish this nonsensical idea which precludes training during the vital years between 18 and 20, an idea which, in my view, was only accepted so as to be able to say that all started equal and that every officer had risen from the ranks. The would-be officer ought to have a harder training than any private, because, after all, he is going to be a professional soldier. Would it occur to anybody to attempt to build up, say, a chemical industry by refusing to train chemists before they were 20 years old, and then only after they had swept the floor of the factory? Has anybody ever been so mad as to apply that system to the Navy? There is another point which seems to me to be important. To resume the training of young men for the Army between 18 and 20 will help many parents to solve the problem of what to do with their boys during those critical years. Our democracy is surely big enough to disregard the dictates of Demagogy. We surely realise that equality of opportunity should not mean a lowering of standards or a levelling down, any more than liberty means licence, and I hope the Minister will review the whole position.

    My second point, and it is a short one, is this: I have seen from the newspapers that it was revealed in the French Chamber that about half the wheat sown in the autumn had been spoiled by the weather and that an immense effort is being made to sow afresh now. The Army is making every effort to help the civil population, and in the zone of the Army the different corps and divisions are lending a hand, and I hope that our own Army, in so far as it is possible to do so, will lend a hand in the zone in which it is stationed. Last autumn when our Army arrived in France the sugar-beet was standing. The French Army, which is an army of peasants, instinctively 1065 pulled the beet for the farmers who had been called up. Our troops did not do so; nobody had suggested that they should; they would have been delighted to do so had it been suggested to them; but the local farmers did not understand the position nor appreciate that our own troops—

    § Mr. Stanley I do not think that is a fact. When I was over there I was told by the Commander-in-Chief that help was given by our troops—it was arranged through headquarters—in the lifting of the sugar-beet crop.

    § Brigadier-General Spears I am delighted to hear it. My informant was not the Commander-in-Chief but the local deputy in a part of the world where our troops are stationed. It may be that some troops did help and others did not. In any case, I hope that in the present circumstances our troops will do what they can to help the French farmers.

    § 6.7 p.m.

    § Mr. Horabin (Cornwall, Northern) I will not follow the hon. and gallant Member for Carlisle (Brigadier-General Spears) in the subject which he has raised, because it is one upon which I feel rather strongly, and I wish to avoid any controversy. I should like to congratulate the Minister upon the excellence and the frankness of the statement he has made to-day. I congratulate him, in spite of the fact that he has blunted all my points for me and destroyed what I thought was going to be rather an excellent speech. I am one of those who feel that the War Office, no less than the Admiralty, requires a strong civilian Minister at the head of it. I have some little hope about that after to-day. Of course, the things which I should like to discuss can only be suitably discussed in a Secret Session; they are not suitable for an open discussion on the Floor of the House at the present moment.

    I was particularly delighted to hear the Minister refer to the need for older men in the various units of the Army. I went through the last war, as the Minister did, and I am very conscious of that need. I was going to make it my primary point to day. I suggest to the Minister, from what I have seen of units marching along the road, that there is still room for older men. I suggest that the unmarried men in some of the older age- 1066 groups should be called up at the same time as the whole of the younger groups are called up. I think also there is still room for a freer use of our voluntary system in that respect. Many men have approached me who have been desirous of getting into the Army but have been consistently turned down, and some men who, it seems to me, out of the little experience I gained in the last war, would be suitable men in the present Army find it impossible to join at the present moment."

    from http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1940/mar/12/army-estimates-1940
     
  14. Gents thanks for the normal high standard of Reply's.
    However can I get back too what was the original Question Did the Slaughter of British Subalterns in World War I really lead to the loss of Empire, or was it even a major factor ?
    john
     
  15. I´d imagine johney foreigners own losses and a increase in awareness of the world, not to mention a few troublesome chaps stirring up trouble caused the loss of the Empire.

    When would you suppose the Empire finished? Would be more important. When we lost Canada or when we lost India?

    By 1922 (after WW1) the Empire consisted of about 1/4 of the planets population. by this time four years had elapsed after the slaughter. In terms of territory the Empire was the largest it had every been, although the industrial side was flagging.

    1945 was the big one fall, when many countries went their own way. The Empire population (outside of UK) dropped from 800 million to 5 million bods. Most of whom lived in Hong Kong.

    To be honest the slaughter of subbies doesn´t appear to have effected the Empire greatly, in comparison with the events of 1945.