Anthony Clayton. The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007. xiv + 335 pp. Â£9.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4058-5901-1.
Reviewed by Keith Surridge (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
The British Army is now constantly in the news owing to its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has generated much interest in the troops themselves and recently the army has been the subject of several television documentaries. One that will air soon features a former soap opera actor embedded with a particular unit. The involvement of Princes William and Harry in the army, both of whom have successfully trained as junior officers, keeps its media profile high. Moreover, retired senior officers have been publishing their memoirs; the most recent, and perhaps outspoken, is that by General Sir Mike Jackson, Soldier: the Autobiography (2007). His trenchant views on operations in Kosovo, and especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, caused much comment in the press. Thus, a book that seeks to explore the British army officer from earliest times to the modern era is timely.
With recent events in mind, Anthony Clayton, a former lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in line with a lot of press opinion, points out that most politicians have no experience of army life. And, consequently, they have no understanding of the stresses and strains placed upon officers who have to meld individuals into fighting units and command them in combat situations. His book, therefore, seeks to give some idea of how officers have coped over the centuries with leading men in peace and war. Examining the role of the officer from the modern army's foundation in 1660 to the twenty-first century, Clayton discusses the social background of officers; their training and motivation; and how they have interacted with their men. Influencing all these is the peculiar nature of the British regiment, a "mutual obligation society" (p. 7), with its ancient traditions, that has no counterpart elsewhere.
Clayton explains that for much of the period, the army officer was recruited from the aristocracy and gentry. They were politically reliable, not very well-educated, and not interested much in their profession. War, like politics, was a vocation: officers were expected to sacrifice their wealth in a form of "noblesse oblige." Although many considered it their duty and privilege to lead, commanding regiments was an expensive business. The most expensive outlay for an officer was his commission, his appointment by the crown to a particular rank. For those with money promotion could be easily purchased; for those without ready cash, the officer could expect to sell his commission for a substantial profit at the end of his career. In effect, this was a sanctioned form of pension provision. Officers treated their commissions as property, which fitted neatly into the ethos that society should be based on property and property-holders should govern the country. However, with senior officers also responsible for feeding and clothing their men, corruption abounded. The state provided few financial incentives, so officers often turned to crime to earn their perquisites. In peacetime, many officers were simply crooks and took little interest in their men or their profession. Yet, in times of war, they led their men from the front, and led by example. This indeed was the paradox of the army officer: often a crooked nincompoop in peace, but a fire-breathing warrior in war.
During the nineteenth century, the army officer became more professional and various abuses were removed. Officer-cadet training was implemented with the foundation of what later became known as the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The purchase of commissions for children was outlawed, and later, in 1871, the buying of commissions was abolished altogether. Thereafter, promotion was by seniority tempered with merit, although the large number of imperial conflicts ensured that opportunities for advancement were readily available. Moreover, the officer was expected to take better care of his men, while still exercising an effortless sense of social superiority. This change in attitude took a while to catch on, but by the end of the century some officers were promoting temperance, moral reformation, and the provision of libraries. Clayton argues that these efforts helped to improve the public perception of the army, which is true enough. But I would suggest that this only went so far: Rudyard Kipling, for example, still needed to write his poem Tommy (1890) to show that the public continued to hold negative views of the troops.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, the officer corps expanded and many men came from social backgrounds hitherto considered unsuitable. Nevertheless, officers were still expected to lead by example and consequently suffered the highest proportion of casualties within the army. The dangers of front-line duty were so bad that the life expectancy of a newly arrived junior officer was one month.
Afterwards, the army reverted to its traditional role of imperial policeman, which provided excellent training for officers. Indeed, standards were very high, even though the officer reverted to type in that he was recruited from the usual classes, and remained "cheerful, carefree and inclined to arrogance" (p. 195). Such attitudes, however, were found wanting following the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The disastrous campaign in France in 1940 revealed that officers were unprepared for a modern, European conflict. The whole recruiting system was shaken up and by the end of the war the selection of officers had improved immensely, although there were acute shortages.
Being well-educated had never been a priority in the recruitment of officers, and, surprisingly perhaps, this view continued after 1945. Up to the 1960s, the main criterion was the ability to "fit in," and so social class retained its importance in selection procedures. This all began to change once it became easier for young people to go to university during the 1960s. Many officers now have university degrees and the army has adjusted more to the vagaries of modern society, perhaps better than at any other time. There are now women officers, divorced officers are tolerated, and same-sex relationships are accepted. Many officers no longer come from the traditional classes, although there is still a shortage of officers from non-white backgrounds. It would have been good, however, if we could have been told the percentage of officers from the public schools. My suspicion is that they are still overrepresented. It seems that in a short period of time the army has undergone acute social changes as it reassesses its commitments in the modern world. Because of this, Clayton worries how the army might be perceived by public opinion. At the moment, it would seem his fears are unfounded because the army has rarely been held higher in public esteem. It is perceived as having to clear up the mess left by politicians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Clayton has reviewed the life and careers of army officers over the centuries in an accessible manner and will help our understanding of the modern service. His overall view of the relationship between officers and men since 1660 is positive. The behavior of officers was often problematic for the men and the service, but in general they have always managed to maintain the loyalty, and sometimes affection, of the men they have commanded. His conclusion is particularly valuable in summing up the personal and professional considerations of the contemporary officer. However, the scope of the work means, as Clayton explains in the foreword, that it has its limitations. In my view this has meant the book falls somewhere between a social history of the officer corps and a military history. I was disappointed, therefore, not to find a substantial guide to further reading. There is no mention, for example, of important books by Edward Spiers (The Late Victorian Army, 1868-1902 ) or David French (Raising Churchill's Army. The British Army and the War against Germany 1919-1945 ). This criticism aside, Clayton's book is a useful starting point for any student of the British army and its leaders.
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Keith Surridge. Review of Clayton, Anthony, The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present.
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