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Serve To Lead

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‘Sound leadership - like true love, to which I suspect it is closely related - is all powerful. It can 
overcome the seemingly impossible and its effect on both leader and led is profound and lasting’.
Sydney Jary MC (18 Platoon) 4th Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry.

"Serve To Lead" is both the motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the title of a primer for baby officers on the noble art of leadership. Thanks to 'pvtePile', who is posting / has posted the contents onto ARRSE, this is now preserved in posterity for the delictation of all ARRSEers. Serve to Lead regularly receives the blessings of the chain of command - none of whom actually put any of its teachings into use.


Cap badge of RMA Sandhurst

Serve To Lead. Those three words that appear on your cap-badge are the motto of Sandhurst. They tell you a lot about where you are, and about what it means to be an officer. If this short book helps you to understand that, then it will have achieved its purpose. This is the new revised edition of the anthology of sayings and writings from people who have understood that very well indeed, including some of the most distinguished officers that the British Army has produced, and compiled by the staff of the Department of War Studies here at Sandhurst. You will find in it some passages that are thousands of years old, extolling the eternal truths of soldiering, and some from people that you will meet and talk with, possibly while you are still here. We give a copy to each of our new officer cadets, for you to dip into and read, and to take away with you when you leave to start your own career as an officer. By the time that you have left Sandhurst you will have read this book through probably several times. You will find much in it that is helpful and inspiring, and probably some things with which you will disagree as well. Make a point of re-reading it just before your passing out parade, and see if you still agree with yourself when you first arrived. Passages and phrases that you have read in it will echo in your mind almost every day in your career as an officer, however long and distinguished that might be, and they will usually come to you when you need them most. Serve To Lead.

Serve To Lead - Introduction to the 2nd Edition

Shortly after the amalgamation of the Royal Military College Sandhurst and the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in 1947, the new academic staff compiled an anthology designed to introduce cadets to the complexities of military leadership. They chose as the title the motto of the new Academy, “Serve To Lead”. This was a paradox, but one which was immediately understood by a generation which had grown up in the First World War, had suffered economic privation in the Depression, had fought in the Second World War, and had then voted en masse in 1945 for Atlee’s Labour Party. By the end of the twentieth century, upwards of 50,000 British officers had received copies. To many it became a treasured possession, an old friend to whom one could turn in times of need. Indeed, more than one very senior officer referred to it as ‘the Bible’.

But like the Bible, by the beginning of the third millennium Serve to Lead was beginning to show its age. It contained extracts from histories popular in the 1940s, but subsequently shown to be factually flawed, written by men like Sir John Fortescue and Sir Arthur Bryant. Also included were extracts from radio broadcasts made by generals like Slim, Montgomery and Harding to help Britain through post war austerity. In language redolent of the time before the First World War, they exhorted the youth of the nation to ‘play up, play up and play the game’. Slim, for one, had made these broadcasts out of a sense of duty, but was a little embarrassed by the result. He confided to a friend that it was ‘all jolly hockey-sticks’ and ‘carry on St Hildas’; it is difficult to believe that men with Montgomery’s and Harding’s acerbic wit did not feel the same. Perhaps most importantly, Serve to Lead failed to address an extensive critique of military leadership which had begun in the middle of the nineteenth century, and had been reinforced by disasters of the Boer War, the First World War and the early years of the Second World War. Clearly the editors of the anthology hoped that if they did not afford the critics space, they would be ignored.

The core of Serve to Lead, the distilled experience of some of the best soldiers Britain has ever produced, is pure gold and has been kept intact. Men like Slim, Montgomery, Harding and Hackett fought in actions of an intensity and commanded formations of a size which it is improbable (though not impossible) that any British commander will see again. Much of Fortescue, Bryant and some others has been discarded. Their place has been taken by the best of recent scholarship, for example, the letters of Ivor Maxse, the most brilliant trainer of men Britain produced during the First World War, the diary of Alan Brooke, the CIGS for much of the Second World War and the primary architect of victory, and, at the other end of the military hierarchy the recollections of Lieutenant Sydney Jary, MC, the only platoon commander in British 2nd Army to survive from Normandy to the German surrender in command of the same platoon. The new edition has also included the thoughts of officers who fought in the campaigns, both conventional and unconventional, of the second half of the twentieth century, men like Julian Thompson, John Kiszely, Hew Pike and Rupert Smith. It has also extended the range of the extracts. The editors of the original edition failed to include a single instance of women exercising leadership, even though there were many examples to hand, SOE operatives like Odette Churchill and Nancy Wake. It seems equally perverse that an anthology on British military leadership should not include the thoughts of Oliver Cromwell, George Anson, Sir John Moore, Ernest Shackleton and several others of like stature, all of whom have many interesting things to say on the subject.. So, too, does Xenophon, whose experiences recounted in his Anabasis, written at the beginning of the 4th Century BC, leap across the centuries. Many of the problems faced by Xenophon in the mountains of Anatolia are exactly the same as those faced by young officers in the mountains of Afghanistan at the dawn of the third millennium AD.

Having just emerged from an era of total war, and expecting the outbreak of the Third World War at any moment, the editors of the original anthology selected extracts which dealt almost exclusively with behaviour on the battlefield, or directly related to sustaining forces on the battlefield. The material chosen for the new anthology reflects the much more complex world of the 21st Century. Like their predecessors the officers of today require physical courage, but just as important, and much more difficult, is moral courage. The anthology includes examples of individuals who placed their careers on the line in defence of a greater principle, but there are just as many examples of individuals who failed the test. The reader will quickly discover that a major difference between the enthologies is that the new edition balances the positive with the negative. Indeed, examples of what not to do are sometimes the more important.

During the past fifty years the motto Serve to Lead, and all it stands for, has been an object of ridicule for some sociologists, psychologists, and social historians. For example, the author of the Peter Principle, the Canadian psychologist Professor Lawrence Peter, once queried “serve to lead” with the question “Why should the ability to lead depend on the ability to follow? You might as well speak of the ability to swim depending on the ability to sink”. “Serve to lead” is, of course, a paradox, but it is a paradox which should be understood by every officer cadet after each has completed the first command task on Barossa. If cadets have not understood the meaning of the paradox, they have no business aspiring to be officers in the British Army.


‘Leadership is a process by which a single aim and unified action are imparted to the herd. Not surprisingly,
it is most in evidence in times or circumstances of danger or challenge. Leadership is not imposed like authority. 
It is actually welcomed and wanted by the led’.
Correlli Barnett Address to the Army Staff College 1977.

A Simple Truth?

Discussion of leadership is so often overloaded with vague but emotive ideas that one is hard put 
to it to nail the concept down. To cut through the panoply of such quasi-moral and unexceptionable 
associations as “patriotism”, “play up and play the game”, the ever-asking-your-men-do-something-you-wouldn’t-do-yourself” 
formula, “not giving in (or up)”, the “square-jaw-frank-eyes-steadfast-gaze” formula, and the “if... you’ll be a man” 
recipe, one comes to the simple truth that leadership is no more than exercising such an influence upon others that they 
tend to act in concert towards achieving a goal which they might not have achieved so readily had they 
been left to their own devices”.
Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1975).

Clearly Expressed

‘Leadership is the phenomenon that occurs when the influence of A (the leader) causes B (the group) 
to perform C (goal-directed behaviour) when B would not have performed C had it not been for the 
influence of A’.
WH Henderson Cohesion: The Human Element in Combat (1985).

Or Not So Simple? And Not So Clear?

Unlike characters in novels and films, most men react nervously to real battle conditions. 
Discipline and regimental pride are supports but, in decisive moments of great danger, the grip 
of the leader on the led is paramount. Infantry section and platoon commanders must possess the 
minds and hearts of their soldiers. Strength of character is not enough. Successful leadership 
in battle, although complex and intangible, always seemed to me to depend on two factors. 
Firstly, soldiers must have confidence in their leaders’ professional ability and, secondly, 
they must trust them as men. It helps, too, if a leader has the reputation of being lucky.
Sydney Jary MC 18 Platoon (1987).

Leadership and Management

We do not in the Army talk of “management”, but of “leadership”. This is significant. 
There is a difference between leadership and management. The leader and the men who follow him 
represent one of the oldest, most natural and most effective of all human relationships. The 
manager and those he manages are a later product, with neither so romantic nor so inspiring a 
history. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision: its practice is an 
art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, 
timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.
Address to the Australian Institute of Management 4 April 1957 by 
Field Marshal Sir William Slim Governor General of Australia.

In A Nutshell

Fixed (things) = management

Variables (people) = leadership

Major General Julian Thompson, Commanding 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands Conflict 1982.

Being a Leader - The Desiderata 401BC

When on active service the commander must prove himself conspicuously careful in the matter of 
forage, quarters, water-supply, outposts, and all other requisites; forecasting the future and keeping 
ever a wakeful eye in the interest of those under him; and in case of any advantage won, the truest 
gain which the head of affairs can reap is to share with his men the profits of success.

Indeed, to put the matter in a nutshell, there is small risk a general will be regarded with contempt 
by those he leads, if, whatever he may have to preach, he shows himself best able to perform.

If, further, the men shall see in their commander, one who, with the knowledge how to act, has force 
of will and cunning to make them get the better of the enemy; and, if, further, they have the notion 
well into their heads that this same leader may be trusted not to lead them recklessly against the foe, 
without the help of Heaven, or despite the auspices - I say, you have a list of virtues which make 
those under his command the more obedient to their ruler.

Xenophon, Kyrou Anabasis (400 BC).

Being A Leader - The Desiderata - In All Times

  • Perfect your military knowledge, study the use of weapons, their tactical handling, the enemy’s character and methods, and the way to make use of ground.
  • Study the men under your command. Know them well and be known to them. Gain their confidence by your knowledge, energy and skill, and by your interest in their welfare. Always be cheerful with them, however you may feel. Teach yourself to think out reasoned appreciations leading to clever but uncomplicated plans quickly but unhurriedly.
  • Study methods of deception and make full use of them. Always aim at misleading the enemy. Always seek surprise. Keep your object clearly before you. Concentrate your efforts and resources at the decisive point. Always think well ahead.
  • Work out the best methods of control in different tactical situations. Practise them constantly. Study the situation carefully. Don’t waste any time. Make up your mind and stick to it. Get out your orders quickly. Make certain that everyone clearly knows what you intend to be done.
  • Maintain the initiative. Make opportunities and seize them at once. Don’t wait for them to come. Be prepared to take risks, but don’t be foolhardy. Know your commander’s intention and act in accordance with it. Don’t wait for orders. Inaction is always wrong.
  • Never take counsel of your fears. Think of the enemy’s difficulties and how you can take advantage of them. Remember that it is willpower that wins. Never relax your efforts until victory is won. Attend to the comfort of the troops before you think of your own.
  • Be loyal to your superiors and to your subordinates. Express your views clearly and frankly, but when a decision has been reached support it fully, and stop all criticism. Never take shelter behind others when things for which you are responsible have gone wrong.
  • Refrain from jealousy, resentment and self-seeking. Be tactful. Never make friction. Be thoughtful and considerate, but maintain firm discipline. Never order troops to do what you are not prepared to do yourself. Never give an unnecessary order. Never overlook failure to carry one out.
  • Keep fit yourself and make certain that your men do, too. Keep your own nerves under control and study your men’s.
  • Last of all remember that success in war depends more than anything else on the will to win.

Brigadier Maunsell, an extract from The RMA Sandhurst Study Morale, Leadership, Discipline (1947).

Three Types of Leader

  • Institutional leaders who maintain their position by virtue of the established social prestige attached to their office.
  • Dominant leaders who maintain their position by virtue of their personal capacity to impress and dominate their followers.
  • Persuasive leaders who maintain their position by virtue of the personal capacity to express and persuade their followers.

FC Bartlett, Psychology and the Soldier (1927).

A Leader - not a Paragon

I said that leadership was concerned with getting people to do things. What I meant was getting them “To do things willingly”. What then must there be to a leader if he is to secure this willing acceptance of what he wants? He must be able to offer to those under him what they need. First of all they need direction in the execution of a common enterprise. But they have other needs and these of course will vary. It may be courage when they are afraid. It may be perception when they are muddled and confused. He must give them this. But above all, he must be able to take upon himself some part of their trouble and so help to secure their release from a burden which can be intolerable. He must be the possessor of qualities which are relevant to the task with which his men are concerned, skills and qualities which they respect. Even at the lowest level of military leadership the leader may not have all the relevant skills. It does not matter: what the group wants is a leader not a paragon.

He must have understanding. It is worth remembering that military practice is group practice. Many of the military forms which look so unnecessary or even absurd, the worship of regimental totems, the eccentricities of dress and custom, the cultivation of a separate identity for the group - these have been developed and are still dedicated precisely to the creation and maintenance of that coherence on which the effective performance of a group under pressure depends. The leader must realise this.

He must be able to manage fear, first in himself for if he cannot then his leadership must begin to fail: but in others also for otherwise they may collapse. He must also be able to manage failure as well as success, for failure is seldom final and the man helped on from one failure may well fail no more.

The personal qualities required are not found everywhere. A few people are born with them but too few, for the Army as for any other enterprise where leadership is wanted. Men who might be leaders have therefore to be sought out, and then trained and helped to form the habit of acting as the leader should.

I would add only this. A man really only gets a full response from the men he leads by something approaching a complete fusion of his own identify with the whole that he and they together form. This demands a great deal of the leader.

General Sir John Hackett C-in-C British Army of the Rhine February 1968. (Transcript of BBC broadcast Looking for Leadership, February 1968).

The Many Forms of Leadership

Field Marshal The Lord Harding of Petherton, addressing the Senior Division when C.I.G.S., July 1953 said:

There are some people who believe that leadership is something which is inborn, or which you acquire automatically at a public school; but neither of those things is true. There are certain fundamental qualities which affect leadership and which depend to a very large extent on upbringing and the moral and spiritual values which you learn in your family and in your environment as a young man; but there is no special way, nor is there any special cast or class, which has the prerogative of leadership.

There are many forms of leadership. Political parties have their leaders; every big organisation in industry or commerce, all have their leaders; and, at the other end of the scale, so do dance bands, and so do gangs of thieves and smugglers. There are many qualities that apply equally to every type of leader, but you and I are concerned with one particular type of leadership - to my mind the highest type of all - and that is leadership on the battlefield; and I believe it to be of the highest type because it has to be exercised under conditions of great difficulty and considerable danger. I would like you to be quite clear about the conditions under which you will have to exercise leadership. You will frequently be tired. You may also be cold and wet, and hungry, and thirsty. You may be dripping with sweat, or you may be freezing with cold. You won’t know precisely what is going on; you won’t know exactly where the enemy is; you certainly won’t know what he is going to do, or what is capabilities are of doing anything. You may not know where your own people are, or what they are going to do. To put it briefly, you have got to be able to exercise leadership in conditions of fatigue and fear, uncertainty and ignorance, and often in isolation. That is what makes it extremely difficult, and that is why leadership on the battlefield calls, in my view, for the very highest qualities.

Now, you have got a good deal to help you. You have got the comradeship of your men and, I hope their confidence; you have the traditions and the reputation of the Regiment or Corps to which you have the honour to belong; and, above all, you have the knowledge that what you have to do, however difficult and dangerous it may be, you are doing as your duty in the service of your Queen and your country, and even above that you have the knowledge of your duty to God. So that you have many beliefs and factors to help you in this particularly difficult job, and it is always as well to remember that when you talk about the difficulties.

Many qualities are required in a leader. Different people have different views about which are the more important. In my opinion there are five outstanding - mental and physical, moral and spiritual - qualities without which you cannot hope to be successful and a good leader on the battlefield. The first of those qualities is a mental and physical one, and that is fitness - absolute fitness of mind and body. If your brain is not clear, you cannot control it and make it think logically and quickly and come to sound conclusions: then you cannot make the plans or the decisions that are required of a leader of men in battle. If your body is not absolutely fit so that you can force out of it that last ounce of effort that is needed to carry through your job, or to achieve success - well, you won’t succeed. So absolute fitness of mind and body is essential.

Then I would say that you have got to have complete integrity. You have got to be honest, not only with yourself but with the men you lead and the people with whom you work; and honesty and integrity are things that you cannot compromise with - you cannot alter; if you do, you will lose confidence and you will not be able to lead. You must have complete integrity.

Next after that - not in any order of priority, but this is how I have put them down to keep them in my own mind - there is an enduring courage. Pretty well everyone can be brave for a few minutes. Most of us can, if we steel ourselves to it, take one plunge, or make one decision, or incur one risk But the sort of courage you must have to lead on the battlefield is an enduring courage, and one that will go on when other people falter; one that will enable you to do what you know to be right, irrespective of the danger or the difficulty, often contrary to the advice of well-meaning friends.

Then you must have daring initiative. Initiative means doing right away what you might, if you had time, think of doing a few minutes later. If you wait for things to happen to you, they will happen all right - and here I am quoting the words of my predecessor, also spoken here: they will happen to you, but they won’t be what you like, and they certainly won’t bring you success. Initiative means seeing at once - and very quickly - what needs to be done making up your mind to do it, and then seeing it through right to the bitter end.

Then you must have undaunted will-power. The will-power is the motive power; it is what enables you to make yourself fit in mind and body; to produce in you - in your heart - the courage, the enduring courage that I spoke of; to give you the courage to do your duty and to make the sacrifice that may be called from you. It is the will-power that forces you to take the initiative, to make the plan, to do what is required, and to see it through: and that willpower must be “undaunted”, it must never allow itself to be overcome or subdued. It is the will-power that is superior, that can wrest victory in the teeth of odds - that is the type of will-power that has got to be developed in a leader on the battlefield.

Now I would like you to notice not only the qualities that I have mentioned, but the adjectives I have applied to them, because in those adjectives are implied a great many of the other qualities. I spoke of “absolute” fitness, of “complete” integrity, of “enduring” courage, of “bold, daring initiative”, and of “undaunted” will-power; and there is a great deal of meaning in the adjectives as well as in the nouns which I would like you to remember.

There are other requirements that are needed as well. There are many of them, but there are three that I would like to mention to you here this afternoon. The first is knowledge. If you are to have the courage to take the initiative, to produce the will-power that is needed, you must have knowledge. You must know more than those under your command - a good deal more. You must know the power and the capabilities of the weapons at your disposal. You must know how the other resources that you can rely on to help you can best be used. You must know how much you can ask of your men. You must know what the enemy’s capabilities are. You must know how best all arms can cooperate and combine to gain success on the battlefield. You must know how to use the ground and any other aids there may be. You must know what support you can count on from the air and other supporting weapons. All that requires a great deal of study and thought, and practice and experience.

The next quality that I wish to mention is judgement. You have got to have judgement. You have got to be able to assess values, and assess them quickly and under difficult circumstances, and that calls for judgement , and judgement is only learned by experience and practice. You will never learn to judge and to assess value if you are afraid of making mistakes - never. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You will find the principles of war are frequently in conflict in any particular problem which you may be faced, and you have to weigh up and decide which in the particular circumstances is the more important of the principles - which you can stick to, which you can discard - and that needs judgement. That judgement only comes from knowledge, practice and experience.

The third thing I would like to mention this afternoon is the team spirit, because you cannot get success on the battlefield by yourself; you have got to work with other people. You have got, in the first place, to get the full confidence of the men under your command; you have got to train them to work as a team, and you have got to lead them as a team leader. Then your team has to fit in with other teams, and so on all the way up, and throughout the whole business of life, and training, and war. The Army - throughout every part of it - has got to work as a number of teams, and these teams have got to work together to one common end, and so the team spirit becomes of supreme importance: and it is only as a member - as a leader - of a well-trained, confident, highly skilled team that you can exercise successful leadership on the battlefield.

Success in battle really comes from a combination of the skill and daring of the leader and the skill and confidence of the led, and we, the British nation, have produced in the past many great and splendid leaders. The one that is outstanding in my mind as an example of what I have been trying to say to you this afternoon in regard to skill and daring and confidence is Nelson. You will wonder why I have quoted a sailor to an audience of soldiers, but it doesn’t matter what service he comes from - the three Services have got to work together. If you study Nelson’s battles you will see that in every case he gained his victory by his skill, his knowledge, his boldness, and by the confidence that everyone who served under him had in his judgement and in his decisions: and that is the standard at which we have all got to aim to obtain victory in battle.

There is one other thing that I would like to say to you. As British officers, you will never have all you want, all you need. You will be short of this, or that, or the other. Sometimes you will be short of men; at other times your equipment or weapons may not be as good as you think they ought to be, nor will you have as many as you would like. You may be short of ammunition. You may also be short of food and water, or other necessary things. When these circumstances arise - as they will do often throughout your service, both in peace and war - there is only one motto, and that is to make certain that you do the very best you can with what you have got. Don’t bellyache about what you have not got, but get on and make certain that you do your utmost with what you have got. It is very important for British officers, in whatever arm or branch of the Service they may be, to make up their minds that that is what they will always do: and that is what I hope all of you here will always make your motto in the years to come.

Now, to sum up what I have tried to say to you this afternoon, I would like to put it like this. First, keep fit - absolutely fit. Then, be honest - honest with yourselves and honest with all those with whom you work. Then, have courage - and make it an enduring courage. Next, be bold, be daring, and when there is a choice take the bold and daring course. Make the very most always of what you have got.

And never, never, never give in.

Leadership, Learning and Intellectual Development

Theory Before Practice

Officers are here reminded, that it is only by the theory and just reading that the first principles of all professional subjects are in general attained by the majority of mankind. The practical part may be afterwards successfully pursued.

Sir John Moore (1803)

Great Military Genius

‘Intellectual power makes up a large part of what we term “great military genius”, and for this reason the officer who is training for high position in war should endeavour to develop his reasoning powers. But he must do this through constant critical examination of the past and present, rather than through metaphysical speculation...

Generalmajor Hugo Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven The Power of Personality in War (1911).

A Little Learning

‘At a university a student only comes to post-graduate research after he has a general grounding in history as a schoolboy, and then, as an undergraduate, has developed this background by the study of the constitutional and economic aspects, and of special periods. Yet the military student, who comes late to his subject, when his mind is less supple than in adolescence, is expected to begin at a point corresponding with post-graduate research’.

Basil Liddell Hart’s The Decisive Wars of History (1929).

The Little Grain of Mustard Seed

The officer must, of course, have the knowledge and qualities of a leader, which are defined in the text-books; these, I think, we all know well and recognise. But he must also, as our Training and Manoeuvre Regulations wisely enjoin, have a broad outlook and wide general education; and this is where the average officer at present is apt to fail. The new system of education at the Royal Military College and at the Royal Military Academy will undoubtedly tend to eliminate this weakness, if the little grain of mustard seed implanted there is kept watered during early military life, and weeded later on.

Colonel Archibald Wavell, Royal United Services Institute (15 Feb 1933).

Too Clever By Half?

But I slowly realised that I was going against the Army tide of the time, which emphasised older commanders and de-emphasised education and broadening experiences. It was a time of the “country-boy” and “jes’ plain soldierin’”. Lots of people with fancy masters degrees and PhDs kept it quiet if they could. It was the Vietnam backlash, though it took a long time to develop. I couldn’t help what I had already done or how I had worked my way up. After the Rhodes scholarship and finishing at the top of the class in the Command and General Staff College, I had gotten an Army-wide reputation, and I was stuck with it, for better or worse.

General Wesley K Clark Waging Modern War (2001).


Trained in Peace to Use Their Wits

Success in war cannot be expected unless all ranks have been trained in peace to use their wits. Generals and Commanding Officers are therefore not only to encourage their subordinates by affording them constant opportunities of acting on their own responsibilities, but they must also check all practices which interfere with the free exercise of their judgement, and will break down by every means in their power the paralysing bait of an unreasonable and mechanical adherence to the letter of orders and to routine.

Lord Roberts (1902).

A Wee Bit Puzzled

In 1903 Major Ernest Swinton, a 35 year old engineer officer wrote the first instalment of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift for Blackwood’s magazine. Based on his own experiences in the Boer War, Swinton condemned his anti-hero Lt ‘Backsight Forethought’ (BF - bloody fool in polite Edwardian parlance) to relive the same tactical disaster each day until he finally gets it right. In the following sequence Lt BF muses on the inadequacies of his military education as he prepares for his disastrous first action.

Between you and me, I was really relieved to be able to put off my defensive measures till the morrow, because I was a wee bit puzzled as to what to do. In fact, the more I thought, the more puzzled I grew. The only “measures of defence” I could recall for the moment were, how to tie “a thumb or overhand knot”, and how long it takes to cut down an apple tree of six inches diameter. Unluckily neither of these useful facts seemed quite to apply. Now, if they had given me a job like fighting the battle of Waterloo, or Sedan, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up and been examined in it too. I also knew how to take up a position for a division, or even an army corps, but the stupid little subaltern’s game of the defence of a drift with a small detachment was, curiously enough, most perplexing. I had never really considered such a thing. However, in the light of my habitual dealings with army corps, it would, no doubt, be child’s-play after a little thought.

‘Backsight Forethought’ (Lt Col Ernest Swinton) The Defence of Duffer’s Drift (1903).

The Worst Instructed Youths

Their methods, whereby the majority of the candidates for the Army, as is clearly proved by the last 
Qualifying Report, are the worst instructed youths of their rank and means in any civilized community, 
have recently been criticized with amazement and shame by the Public Press.

In regard to the Promotion Courses in Military History, the fantastic fashion in which they trifle with 
a subject of the first importance to officers, is an insult to the intelligence of our race. They enact 
that a fragment of a campaign, at most five weeks out of four years in America, and less than five weeks 
out of six months in France, shall serve for two examination papers, a “general” and a “special” for 
lieutenants and captains of our army. I need scarcely say that such a course for any one examination would 
be laughed at by a West Point cadet, or by a German one-year volunteer. It is simply preposterous. The 
Courses are altered every year in a whimsical fashion, with utter indifference to the interests of military 
literature, and with ruinous results to the enterprise of publishers.

Thomas Miller Maguire The Franco-German War (1909).

Dysfunctional Training

In the inter war period of the last century training at Britain’s premier military institutions fell behind the demands of modern war.

The Royal Military College at Sandhurst and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich produced young officers 
who were physically fit, who could perform polished drill, and who felt themselves to be members of an elite. 
‘Life at Sandhurst’, according to a cadet who graduated in 1929, ‘was tough but it was exhilarating and the 
cadets were a dedicated corps d’elite’. The constant hustling to which the cadets were subjected ensured that 
they could work satisfactorily under pressure. What the colleges did very imperfectly was to encourage cadets 
to use their initiative and think for themselves, or to train them in leadership skills as tacticians. It was 
only when they arrived at their regiment that young officers began to learn how to lead men, usually under 
the benign tutelage of their platoon or troop sergeant. The purely educational content of the syllabus was 
increased in the 1920s at the expense of military training but, even so, a cadet who passed through Sandhurst 
in 1935 recorded that ‘Independent thinking is frowned on as heresy - no divergence from official view allowed. 
The initiative and intellectual curiosity that was supposed to be imparted by the educational syllabus was 
largely nullified by too much time spent on the parade ground. A Staff Sergeant curtly informed a cadet who 
tried to express an opinion that ‘You are not allowed to think, Sir!’. Out of a total of 1,350 training hours, 
no less than 515 hours were spent ‘producing the private soldier cadet’. This was a dysfunctional approach to 
training. It ill-fitted officers to deal with the unexpected calls which were going to be made on them on 
the battlefield.

David French Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany 1919-1945 (2000).

The training received by British Officers left them at a distinct disadvantage when they engaged in combat with the Germans.

When manoeuvre is required, so is speed and imagination and initiative. I never thought our system was 
perfect for breeding those qualities. Individuals possessed them - splendidly. But the system itself was 
differently designed.

Peter Carrington Reflect on Things Past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington (1989).

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