Wasted Time in Regimental Soldiering

By Lieutenant G.W. Lathbury, 43rd Light Infantry
Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, VOL. LXXXI, February to November, 1936

It is no uncommon thing, when comparison is made between the Army and other professions, to hear it said that a soldier does little work.

If work be defined as useful work, then, in the case of most regimental officers, this is true; but if it be defined as a duty which encroaches on an officer's spare time, then it can safely be said that the Army entails as much work as most other professions.

No one will deny that the present-day standard of military knowledge and efficiency required of an officer is far higher than that of pre-War times. The days when common-sense and personal courage were sufficient in any except the higher commanders, have passed. War has now become a war of nations, and modern inventions have enlarged its scope to such an extent that commanders cannot expect to make the best use of the advantages afforded them without careful study and continual practice in command.

Despite the fact that an officer's spare time has been considerably reduced, only a very small proportion of the extra period spent with his Regiment is devoted to the essential side of soldiering, which is training for war. To hazard a guess, one might say that the time is divided in the following proportion:—one-third training for war, under which may be included the study and practice in command and the training of subordinates and formations; one-third 'barrack soldiering' or interior economy; while the remaining time is not infrequently taken up in maintaining the Army in what it tends to become, a glorified sports organization. Thus one-third of the regimental officer's time is spent in such duties as organizing the men's games, playing games with the men, teaching the men how to play games, and, worst of all, watching the men play games. Innumerable inter-company and inter-regimental competitions follow one another in never-ending array, while in the summer or Collective Training Season, these are interspersed with tattoos, horse shows, rifle meetings, and a few old favourites such as the Connaught Cup.

Also included under this heading is competition shooting. Those officers who are lucky or unlucky enough to be skilled in the use of weapons with which they are not provided in war, are condemned to spend in practice an average of at least one hour a day for several months during the summer, culminating in a week at Bisley.

No officer who has served with his regiment in the Aldershot Command, and to a less extent in other Commands, can help but be forcibly struck by the number of activities taking place, few of which have the slightest connection with training for war. In the summer, a young officer may be called upon to play cricket either for his company, regiment or garrison, apart from any special regimental club of which he may be a member. In addition he is expected to train himself and his men in athletics, shoot on the range, or, possibly, practice for some event such as a horse show or the Connaught Cup. As a result of all these activities, he tries to serve several masters—his company commander who is responsible for his training for war, and the numerous other officers who are striving to improve the standard of the regiment in the particular branch of sport for which they are responsible. This is liable to lead not only to inefficiency, but also to discontent among the officers concerned.

Are these organized games and athletics which play such a large part in the military machine really necessary? They take up a considerable proportion of the regimental officer's time, and exercise a comparatively small number of men, for it is a well-known fact that the same soldier often represents his company or regiment in two or three forms of sport. At present it is impossible to take these games light-heartedly or to treat them as they are meant to be treated, as a recreation, because many senior officers judge a regiment on its athletic record.

The reasons usually given for a young officer being forced to spend so much of his time with the regiment in watching, taking part in, and organizing sports and games, are threefold: first, they help to keep him and his men fit; secondly, they provide a means of getting to know the men; finally, they foster "team spirit" and "esprit de corps."

With regard to physical fitness, as has already been shown, games exercise a comparatively small proportion of the men, whereas twenty minutes physical training properly carried out daily, would be of infinitely greater value. From the point of view of establishing contact between officers and men, the value of games has been exaggerated. Junior officers of the British Army have always shown that they possess qualities of leadership at least equal to those of officers of other nations. These qualities are, in most cases, a natural heritage, and are not a recent acquisition. Where this is not the case, they may be acquired by other means. An officer does not really get to know a man by seeing him for an hour or so every week on the hockey or football ground. Five minutes talk about something that interests him will go infinitely further towards establishing the bond of understanding and respect from which loyalty springs. A French officer does not play games with his men to any extent, but he maintains that he knows his men as well as we know ours, and he is probably justified in this contention.

As to the question of "team spirit" and "esprit de corps"; there is no doubt that games and competitions help to inculcate these ideals into a man joining the Army, as he does, an individualist; but there is no reason why the same, if not better results, could not be achieved in the course of training for war, and that a man could not be taught to work with, and take a pride in, his company in the field as easily as on the football ground.

Games, then, should be treated as a recreation, and as such encouraged. They should not be considered as an essential part of military training taking up one half of a regimental officer's time.

Competition shooting is another item under this heading which, as I have mentioned previously, may absorb so much of an officer's time. Apart from being a form of recreation, it is encouraged as a means of improving the standard of shooting throughout the Army. Certain regiments, by dint of years of practice and considerable expense, have built up a well-earned reputation as good shooting regiments. Others are still striving to reach the same high standard, but the time they can afford to devote to this form of recreation is limited by the fact that many of them have already established a reputation in some other branch of sport or athletics—a reputation which they must keep lest they pass from the eye of authority. And so the endless competition goes on.

Is this competition shooting and high standard of marksmanship really necessary? The Battle of Mons in August, 1914, is quoted as an example of the effect of good rifle shooting in holding up an advance; but few will deny that additional automatic weapons would have done the work with equal efficiency. Nowadays, with the advent of the armoured fighting vehicle and carriers, and the increased tendency of automatic weapons to take the place of rifles, the necessity for a high standard of individual marksmanship, except among a selected few, has disappeared. There is no longer any excuse for the expenditure of considerable time and energy and many thousands of rounds of ammunition by a team of officers, in the hope that the name of the regiment may appear in the forthcoming edition of the A.R.A. Handbook—ammunition which might be so much better employed in practicing the men in field firing.

Finally, under this heading, come the various military sideshows such as tattoos, horse shows and rifle meetings. All these serve a purpose to a limited extent, but the time and labour involved is out of all proportion to the results achieved, and although it is realized that some of these must remain, the majority could be eliminated.

The moment has now arrived when, having pulled the Regimental System to pieces, constructive suggestions are required.

The recommendations which follow are based on two suppositions: in the first place, it is presumed that no appreciable increase in the pay of an officer is possible; secondly, that the type of officer obtained is considered satisfactory. If this is not so, the matter is simplified, for, by an adequate increase in pay, spare time could be proportionately reduced, while officers drawn from a different social class would not have the same interests outside the Army, and might be prepared to devote more time to their purely military duties. Assuming these suppositions to be correct, it becomes apparent that an officer's spare time cannot be curtailed further. In fact, it is considered that he should be encouraged to go away from his regiment for longer periods; always provided that he employs this additional leave in a suitable manner.

A recent letter to The Times stressed the fact that modern war with its nation-wide ramifications required leaders of the highest intellectual capacity. Leaders possessing the qualities necessary for this attainment cannot be found from officers whose time is spent in the manner already outlined. It is the duty of every officer to educate himself in political and social affairs, to keep abreast of modern thought, and to broaden his mind by meeting people outside the Army, by reading and by travelling abroad. If this duty had been carried out conscientiously in the past, the friction which has often existed between the Services, between military and political leaders, and between British and Allied Generals, might have been removed.

If it be agreed that the officer's leave must not be reduced, how then is this extra time required by him to train himself in the purely military side of his profession, to be found? That the extra time is needed, there can be no doubt. The somewhat liberal estimate of one third of an officer's five-hour work day, is certainly not enough to fit him, in the words of Training Regulations, "to fill an appointment in war considerably higher than that which he normally holds." Many young officers have very little practice in commanding a platoon, whereas at the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, they should be competent to command a company and, if necessary, a battalion. In addition, they are expected to train their own men, and to work for promotion and Staff College Examinations. At least four or five hours a day of useful soldiering or training for war is necessary if these aims are to be fulfilled.

It is suggested that this time be found in two ways: a small proportion of it by reducing the time spent in "barrack soldiering"—a great deal of work could be taken off the officer's shoulders in this respect by affording increased responsibility to Warrant and non-commissioned officers in the matter of pay, accountancy and interior economy in general; it is also for consideration whether Courts Martial should not he the responsibility of the Judge Advocate's Department. But the proportion of time which it is possible to save from that spent in 'barrack soldiering' is small as compared with that which could be taken from the remaining one third spent in building up the British Army's new tradition of a sports organization. It is suggested that all organized sports, athletics and shooting competitions, as they stand, should be scrapped. Officers and men should be encouraged to play games as before, but only as a recreation and an indirect means of producing the "team spirit" and "camaraderie" which, it is admitted, are essential. By cutting out competitions of all kinds, a great deal of money spent in transport, coaching, and in other ways—much of which comes out of the soldier's pocket, would be saved. More men would be able to take part in sports, and games would return to being a pleasure, as they were intended, and not as a means of establishing regimental reputations. "To ensure that a high standard of physical fitness is reached and maintained by all ranks, it is suggested that a daily period of physical training he made compulsory throughout the Army for all those under a certain age. This should be accompanied by periodic standard tests which might in this case be made the subject of competition. lt is realized that daily physical training is carried out by some regiments during certain periods of the year, and that standard tests already exist, but the whole matter requires more careful organization and supervision than is the case at present.

Finally, it is suggested that "Training for War Tests" be instituted from Brigades downwards, on the lines of those already carried out in certain Continental armies. These should embody tests in command, field work, marching, and field firing; and should be carried out by every commander throughout his command. Tests of this nature carried out twice yearly would provide a real means of judging the relative efficiency of units and their commanders, and including, as they would, every officer and man, would surely foster a far more genuine and lasting "esprit de corps" than any organized sport.