How The Loafer's Bred

By Captain W.A. Adams, 5th Lancers.
The United Service Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, New Series, October 1903 to October 1904

Precis of Article.

Part I.—Cecil Rhodes' opinion on the subject. General question to be discussed. Where the blame lies. Object of all training. How this object is defeated in practice. What inducements are held out to individual effort: (1) Professional inducements; (2) Financial inducements; (3) Intellectual inducements. Result.

Part II.—Remedies: Three general; seven specific. Summary of conclusion.

Part I

Cecil Rhodes once said that no son of his should ever enter the Army, as he had no wish to see him become a loafer. This is the observation of a strenuous man who succeeded during a short life in leaving upon the Empire an impression such as is felt not only by a contemporary generation, but such as future generations will remember with gratitude. The remark quoted is that of no casual observer, for four of Rhodes's brothers were in the Army; [Footnoted - One in the Cavalry, one in the Artillery, one in the Infantry, and one in the Engineers.] so we may safely assert that his observation was not prompted by prejudice, but that it was the result of long intimacy with the Service.

In this article I intend to discuss the question of where we should lay the blame: whether upon the individual or upon the system under which the individual is trained.

From his earliest school-days the British officer is trained to put manual exercise first and intellectual exercise second. Right-reasoning men, who are neither specialists nor extremists, agree that the work of the body and the work of the brain should both be sufficient for healthy exercise without ever reaching the limit of fatigue, that they should march pari passu and approximately counterbalance. In this way, and in this way only, will each derive a mutual benefit. Instead of this, what do we sec? We see our youth-that is, those of them who have made up their minds to do something-either wearing away their muscle tissues by over-training in order to be first in some field sport, or we see them turning night into day, and wearing out their eyesight and their vigour in reading for some competitive examination, imbibing a deal of facts and formulæ without the wish to assimilate them or the possibility of doing so.

A candidate for a commission in the Army spends the period previous to the entrance examination in cramming the maximum of fact in the minimum of time. When he has attained the object of his ambition, he has the maximum of time in which to forget the minimum of fact. The time which he spends in studying for his examination does not encourage thought, and is in direct antagonism to any development of the mind. I doubt even if it is a good training for the memory, for, the examination once successfully over, the memory, from a state of over-taxation, declines into inactivity, and often becomes worse than it was before its spasmodic exertion.

There comes a time in every other profession when the youth who has been playing cricket and racquets all his life, and handling an oar and a gun up to, or a little past, the close of the second decade of his existence, wakes up to the fact that unless he takes a serious view of life and puts forth strenuous intellectual endeavour, he will be left behind by those who are more diligent than he. In the Army this awakening never comes, for there is no necessity for it. There may be a few scattered exceptions, which merely prove the rule. In these few cases the young man, if he is really in earnest, leaves the Service at once, and the Army is deprived of its ablest recruit; in a less rare number of cases this awakening comes merely as a desire in early life which remains to be looked back upon with regret in later years. Of the two young officers, one of whom is keen on his profession and one on having a good time, it often happens that the latter is more favourably reported upon than the former; nor do I say that this is necessarily wrong or unjust, for he may well be the better officer, the better leader of men than his more studious comrade. Neither of them, however, can earn a living by the profession of arms, and they are therefore tempted to regard their entrance into the Service as a sort of benevolent compliment to their country. No inducement is held out to either to study, and if he does so, it is in spite, and not because, of his surroundings.

With these few preliminary remarks we have arrived at the crux of the whole question: What arc the inducements held out by the Service to the attainment of a high state of personal efficiency? In reply, I have no hesitation in asserting that inducements to individual effort are insufficient, and will remain so under our present system. I intend to examine this matter from three points of view:

  1. Professional.
  2. Financial.
  3. Intellectual.

1.     What professional inducements are held out to the cadet officer? In other words, what chance has he of getting in in the Service

At the start his chances of making a success are very small, and they diminish as the years increase. This is so, not only in the objective sense, but also in the subjective, for the young officer who, on joining, might really have been capable of great things, spends the first years of his service in levelling either up or down to that universal standard of respectable mediocrity which distinguishes the vast majority of our brethren-in-arms. In this way the etiolation of individuality goes on until we arrive at the final scene of its funeral obsequities, and only when R.I P. has been engraved upon the headstone of its grave, is the young officer considered to have attained that ripe period of experience which excites neither fear nor jealousy in the breast of his superiors.

I do not say that this system of crushing individuality is not met with in other professions, but it obtains more universally in the Army than elsewhere, and far more than in the Navy, where small messes, constant work, individual responsibility and frequent change of companionship, all operate in the same direction. We might do well to take a lesson in this respect from our American cousins.

For those whose youthful ambitions are limited to adjutancies and staff appointments, the Army does hold out a slight chance, about twenty to one against. Aspirants are always more numerous than places, and, unless the candidate can command the services of Venus or some other mythological deity, his chances are minimised almost to a vanishing point. But putting aside petty aspirations, what openings are there in the Army to what a man of ordinary ambition might call a career? If he be energetic and endowed with a reasonable amount of common sense, he may survive the preliminary tests and reach the rank of lieutenant; he may, if he wait long enough, and be able to combine good fortune with energy, reach the rank of captain; he may, if good fortune does not desert him, and he has already been able to establish a reputation for application to his duties, reach the rank of major. Chances, however, grow less in proportion to the extension of the time over which they have to operate, and it is reserved to very few to reach the ranks of lieutenant-colonel and colonel; the chance of reaching the rank of a general officer is so minute that it need hardly be taken into consideration by the tyro in arms.

The case, then, lies in the proverbial nut-shell: If a man is content to be stranded as an unemployed major of forty or thereabouts on retired pay of something less than £200 per annum, the profession of arms is good enough. Keeping his eye, however, on this ulterior prospect, the officer has no inducements to endeavour to attain a higher military efficiency than that required by the professional curriculum sufficient to carry him to the liliputian elevation of field rank. His spare hours are employed more pleasantly in having a good time, and more profitably in acquiring knowledge and engaging in pursuits which he can turn later to practical utility, when a grateful country has turned him loose in the prime of life, too soon to do nothing, too late to adopt another profession.

Young men of means have long been attracted to the Service by handsome uniforms and little work to do. These inducements have been taken away but not replaced, and when the glamour which still attaches to the military profession has become thoroughly traditional, the country will find that further professional inducements will be necessary to attract into the commissioned ranks men of brains and capacity equal in utility to the officer of last century, who, though he may have been unable to instruct, was always capable of leading, and whose motto was, noblesse oblige.

(2)     What financial inducements are held out to the cadet officer?

At the Bar more briefs spell more money; the more patient; a doctor has, the greater his income; and so on, through all grade, of professions and trades, the general principle holds good that the more the work, the greater the reward. But this is not so in the Army; every officer, whether he works or not, enters the Service on the same scale of pay, creeps through the same ranks, and may retire by permission of the Secretary of State for War on the same pension after the same number of years. True it is that under our present system of regimental promotion, one man may reach the better paid rank of Field Officer, while his former contemporary still toils in the subaltern ranks. This fact, however, is no financial inducement to the young officer who is fortunate, for the case may very well have been reversed; but it does act as a very powerful discouragement to the many-wintered subaltern who sees the important subject of promotion abandoned to the favour of Chance. a goddess who appears to enjoy well-nigh a monopoly of power in military circles. Financial inducements were unnecessary to the Service at a time when men of means were attracted into the commissioned ranks by other things ; now it is not so. The authorities have made a laudable endeavour to lighten the expenses of an officer, but only on the principle that to halve one's expenses is to double one's income. So far as this endeavour extends, it is well, but it docs not extend far enough, and the time will shortly arrive when we must cease to be satisfied with negative legislation. The financial inducements of the Service may even now be sufficient to attract the man who is lazily fit for nothing else than to enter the Army, and who is content with the dull mean between failure and success, but they are not sufficient to attract the man who is just poor enough to have discovered the necessity of developing his intellectual qualities. And this brings me to the third division of my subject.

(3)     What intellectual inducements are held out to the British officer?

At first, none: later, only doubtful ones.

When an officer first joins the Service his intelligence has neither necessity to awaken nor opportunity to mature. He may walk about in a smart uniform, he may see the men having their dinner, he may accompany the orderly sergeant when he shouts the usual formula of "Any complaints?" he may be required to do the work of a butcher or baker in passing judgment upon meat or bread rations, he may be asked to decide whether a damaged cooking-pot is chargeable to the British tax-payer or not, he may walk about stables slapping his boot, he may keep a race-horse or a couple of polo ponies, but he will never in practice be compelled to do one particle of really intellectual work.

When he has been longer in the Service such inducements as examinations in languages and the Staff College Course are open to him; but these may or may not (to use a well-worn phrase) lead to something, and until there is some guarantee that success will command employment, the officer will do well to pause before entering upon a course of higher professional education. He will remember that a Staff College certificate may be of use to him while in the Service or may not, but that the higher degree of technical knowledge which it entails will be of no advantage to him when he has retired and is in search of some civil employment. The German system of Staff training is preferable to ours. There the course necessary for the General Staff is a very stiff one indeed, and of the many who enter upon it the vast majority early drop back again to regimental work, and very few are finally successful. The paucity of successes, however, automatically guarantees employment, and neither successful nor unsuccessful candidates are disappointed. Under our system the failures are few and the disappointments many, and officers are taken away from regimental duty for two years, a time which might be spent in the regiment more profitably to the Service and more agreeably to themselves. We all remember the outcry there was in the Army and in Parliament a short time ago, when some officers, after a year's probation at the Staff College, were sent back to regimental duty. This outcry was justified by the uniqueness of the procedure, and, though unsuccessful in the special instances referred to, acted as a useful preventive. Yet the fault lay not in the procedure, but in the system of which it was a violation. It was a half measure, the whole measure of which will only be justified when a real value is given to a Staff College degree.

But one may say that, generally speaking, the British officer docs not appear to desire intellectual encouragement. The fact may be true, but the inference drawn is not. The fault lies in the fact that the officer is judged by the state to which the pulping system has reduced him, and his desire before he came under its influence is disregarded. There is no doubt that if systematic intellectual encouragement were given to the officer, he would gladly take advantage of it.

A loafer does not join the Service; he is only formed into a loafer after he has entered it. Remember Cecil Rhodes's words: "I will allow no son of mine to enter the Army, because I do not wish him to become a loafer." This is the danger to guard against. Habits of discipline and the cultivation of individuality are not incompatible as many people think But discipline, when interpreted as the stifling of individuality, is irksome to a degree. The young officer must be led to understand that the maintenance of discipline is for the benefit not only of the Service in general but of himself in particular, that he is personally interested in the matter, and that if he performs his duty honourably and well some material advantage will accrue to him. But that is just what he does not understand, and never can understand under our present system: he works in the dark; he looks at the senior officers of his own regiment, of whose character he can form some estimate, and he sees those who have had a good time, whose first object has been social amusement and whose second has been their profession, treated similarly to, and often receiving higher rewards than, the men who put their profession first and their pleasure second. The observer is young; pleasure appeals to him in a way that study never can; he will do what others do; he will swim with the tide; and in a year or two he becomes a loafer.


After diagnosing the disease, it is incumbent briefly to point the remedy. Broadly speaking, the three aims of the reformer ought to be-

  1. Decentralisation.
  2. Guaranteed recognition of capacity.
  3. Cultivation of intelligence.

I hold these three to be of equal importance. Decentralisation fosters growth of individual responsibility and interest. We learned the lesson of its necessity during the late war, and the result was what is now known as the Army Corps System. The general principle is thoroughly sound, the method of its application is at fault. We have begun at the top when we should begin at the bottom. We have transferred responsibility from shoulders which were long trained to bear it, and we have left undone the necessary training of junior ranks and lesser grades to bear the burden.

The other two aims have already been discussed.

Of the particular reforms I advocate space will allow me to mention only seven. Of these, Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are specific directions of the first general aim; No. 4 of the second; No. 5 of the third; while No. 6 and 7 are general in their application.

  1. The fixing of responsibility upon the individual officer from the day on which he receives his commission.
  2. In the cavalry, the adoption of the present artillery organisation.
  3. In the infantry, the adoption of the double company with a commander mounted.
  4. The abolition of confidential reports.
  5. The appointment in each battalion of infantry, and each brigade of artillery and cavalry, of an intelligence officer.
  6. One training-school for cadet officers instead of three.
  7. The gradual adoption of Army promotion.

I shall discuss each of these seven suggestions briefly, more with the view of inducing thought than of making out an exhaustive case in each instance.

1.     The fixing of responsibility upon the individual officer from the day on which he receives his commission.

This responsibility should be at first of the smallest possible amount and of the greatest possible kind. In this way a man becomes trained to accept responsibility as he is in the sister Service. In the Army the first real responsibility an officer undertakes is when he is given command of a company after perhaps six or seven years' service, or a squadron after a still longer period. Even then his responsibility is more nominal than actual. After many years' service, if he is fortunate, he may be appointed second in command with no responsibility at all, and it is only when he becomes lieutenant-colonel of a regiment or battalion [Footnoted - It will be noticed that I here exclude a brigade (of artillery). The responsibility of a battery commander is an appreciable quantity, to which I attribute the high general efficiency of artillery officers.] that he learns the full onus of responsibility. He is then generally over forty years of age, when it is too late to commence learning the task which should have been set in youth. That is the reason why there are so many more failures in the Army than in the Navy. The Navy is under-officered; it is therefore expedient that the individual be highly trained. In the Army officers are plentiful, therefore their training may be, and is, comparatively neglected. Moreover, formerly, when men enlisted for twelve years with the colours, a commanding officer, adjutant, and sergeant-major constituted a sufficiently large professional element to maintain a unit at the degree of efficiency then required. Nowadays, when men enlist for three years, and when a higher educational, intellectual, and professional standard is demanded from the individual N.C.O. and man, this is not so. All squadron and company officers are required to be far more highly trained and more capable of imparting instruction than before. Increased demands from these officers, however, have not been accompanied by proportionately increased facilities, and the faults of the system are visited upon the individual without diminution of the official cadre. The responsibility which I advocate should be allotted to junior officers includes the handling of public monies, the keeping of public accounts, and the preparation of orders.

2.     In the cavalry, the adoption of the present artillery organisation.

In the cavalry the squadron organization was superinduced upon the regimental; in the artillery the brigade organization was superinduced upon the battery. This gives another analogical proof of the superiority of the inductive over the deductive method. Herein lies the great distinction in practice between the two arms: An artillery brigade is considered as the combination of batteries: a cavalry squadron is considered as the disintegration of a regiment. This is wrong. We should not be content with an approximation but should insist upon a similarity, of organization. To accomplish this, we must bring the worse system into line with the better; in other words, we must make the cavalry organization correspond in practice to what it approximates to in theory, and learn to look upon the squadron as the tactical unit, and the regiment (or, as I would call it, the brigade) as a combination of squadrons, temporary or otherwise. The advantages of this are obvious. By making the squadron entirely self-sustained, we arrive at the automatic abolition of the riding-master and quarter-master, we relieve the over-worked adjutant of much clerical work, and we foster a feeling of interest and responsibility in all squadron officers. Such an organisation, moreover, would be in tune with one of the most pressing needs of the service, viz. army promotion in distinction to regimental, a subject on which I shall have a few words to say later.

3.     In the infantry, the adoption of the double company with a commander mounted.

This reform would bring the infantry organization more into line with that of the other arms, and, being a development of the principle of decentralization, would induce officers to take more interest in their profession, and guarantee better supervision of the men. Under the present system a company rarely musters for parade more than a sixth of its total strength. With only three officers per company it frequently happens that all are away on other duties, and an officer of another company is placed in temporary command, an undesirable situation which could never arise with six officers per double company.

4.     The abolition of confidential reports.

No one who has reasoned on the subject of confidential reports has ever been in favour of them. They are a lazy method of shirking responsibility. When favourable they are unnecessary; and when unfavourable they are illegal. Nothing conforms more strictly than an unfavourable confidential report to the exact legal definition of libel, as "a statement made concerning a person which has a tendency to damage him in his profession or trade;" and this is true, whether the report is so or not. Personally speaking, I believe that confidential reports are frequently beneficial to the subordinate, and are only in very rare cases as prejudicial as suspicion would represent them. I believe that the men who are called upon (frequently against their will) to frame these reports are well-nigh invariably men with the highest ideals of honour and of justice. But human nature is far from infallible, and few will not agree that there are exceptions to every rule. If there ever was one exception, one instance, in which injustice was done to an individual by a confidential report, I hold that that single instance would be sufficient to condemn the practice which at present obtains. To no man is it vouchsafed to be an unerring judge of character; he may size up a man correctly once or twice, but it is too much to hope that any one individual could pass an absolutely correct judgment on fifty men. We do not legislate for angels, we must legislate for men. Let us not imagine what the system might be in theory, let us examine what it is in practice.

The weak man makes an indefinite and consequently useless report; the strong man particularises, and is frequently incorrect; the man who is fond of detail grasps one or two minor points which he labours accordingly, and probably, though accurate in his statements, produces an entirely wrong impression; the man who has a wide range of view generalises, and, his report being chiefly conjectural, is placed in the same category as that of the species first mentioned. There arc, moreover, such qualities as perverted judgment, dependence on the opinion of others, etc., and such passions as jealousy, spite, etc.. but of these I say nothing, as being unworthy of those of whom I write.

Putting aside, however, the question of whether we stand in favour of, or in opposition to, the present system of confidential reporting, no one can deny that the system breeds and fosters uncertainty of self and suspicion of others, and the sooner it ceases the better it will be for all ranks. Commanding officers should be required to report on individuals annually, and whenever the question of extra-regimental employment arises, but such reports should invariably be countersigned by the officer on whom the report is made.

5.     The appointment in each battalion of infantry and each brigade of artillery and cavalry [Footnoted - According to present nomenclature, "each regiment of cavalry."] of an intelligence officer.

The duties of this officer would in no way interfere with those of the adjutant. He would be responsible for the professional training of officers, non-commissioned officers and men in strategy, tactics, military history, topography, etc.—subjects which are rarely, if ever, studied under the present system, except for the few weeks preceding the examinations for promotion, which take place but twice in an officer's career. The intelligence officer would receive pay and be seconded, as an adjutant is now. Not the least advantage accruing from such an innovation would be the encouragement of the study of the higher branches of the military profession by officers holding, or anxious to hold, these appointments. This officer would give weekly lectures during the winter months, attendance at which, though voluntary, would be encouraged throughout all ranks of the battalion or brigade. He would also assist the commanding officer in framing reports upon individuals.

6.     One training-school for cadet officers instead of three.

At present we have three training-schools through which a boy may arrive at a commission in His Majesty's Army—Woolwich, Sandhurst, and Militia. In time of war a fourth is added, which rejoices in the comprehensive appellation of Ubique. The cadets from the latter school are not always a success, and, as an officer of high military rank said to me the other day, it will take ten years to weed out of the Service all the undesirables of this training-school who were admitted during the late war.

The instructional system at Woolwich and Sandhurst is good, that of the latter having been vastly improved under the latest regime. The practical instruction given in the Militia is good as far as the interior working of a regiment goes, but the intellectual assistance given is nil, and is provided by the candidates in their spare time (which is eleven months annually) by a desultory practice of individual cramming, which is prejudicial in its present effect and disastrous in its resultant incompetency. Now, I urge that all this haphazard method of qualification should be done away with. There should be only one universal training-school, at which intellectual development should be assisted by a uniform system of instruction, which should lie of one quality only, viz. the best.

I am strongly in favour of the American system, where the cadet only specialises when he is commissioned to his branch of the Service. All cadets at West Point arc qualified to take their place as officers of any arm, and there is no doubt that such a comprehensive training produces officers of larger sympathies, more qualified from their intimate knowledge of the other arms to take an intelligent interest in their own, and tends towards the creating and maintaining that larger service esprit de corps which is to be desired in preference to mere regimental or departmental pride. Nor is such extensive military knowledge and capacity too much to require from the officer of the present day. The art of war does not alter, though the method of its application is continually doing so. Military science is alterable, but comparatively non-expansive. It is unnecessary for the military student to occupy his time by attention to obsolete arms and obsolete methods. His province lies not in the past, out in the present and the future, In this respect the range of military study differs from medical, legal, historical, literary, etc., which expand with every decade.

There would be modification of detail with regard to University men and officers of the auxiliary forces, but every officer of the regular standing Army should have spent some time at a universal military training-school, and should have qualified at one of its final examinations.

7.     The gradual adoption of Army Promotion.

Last year I was explaining to an American officer at West Point the system of regimental promotion and promotion by selection which obtains in the British Service, and, as I was naturally holding a brief for the defendant, I trotted out all the stock arguments about home and foreign service, esprit de corps, etc., but nevertheless his last words to me on the subject were: "If we (i.e. the American Army) had a system like that, I guess we should have no officers at all, for Americans, with all their faults, will never brook injustice." That was the remark of an officer serving under a system of army promotion where each officer has the same treatment meted out to him in the matter of rank, and inefficients are eliminated before they receive their commissions. By these means weeds are early prevented from taking root in the military garden, while we allow both good and bad to grow together till the harvest, a process which invariably depreciates the crop. A few of the anomalous results of having some 109 small lists for promotion are: that captains vary in length of service from 3 to 25 years, and that in some regiments we have majors of less service than subalterns in others. These anomalies are due merely to chance, and have no relation whatever to respective merit. The remedy for this consists in the gradual adoption of Army promotion. We made a step forward in this direction when infantry battalions were linked together, but we made a step backwards when the Horse and Field Artillery were separated from the Garrison and Mountain. Dress is a matter of initial difficulty; but this is a detail by no means insuperable, and the adoption of a universal service dress has already facilitated progress in the right direction. The possibility of the gradual and experimental introduction of this reform augurs well for its success. In the cavalry; household, dragoon, lancer, and hussar regiments might be linked into four corps which exist at present only in name, In the infantry; regiments might be combined in territorial districts or in some other suitable way; and so on, step by step, until we arrived at systematic promotion throughout the Army, or, at any rate, throughout each arm. The change which I have suggested in the organization of cavalry and infantry would facilitate the desired development. The principle which l advocate is no new one; it has always been the basis for promotion in the Navy, and it is to this elimination of misplaced pride and jealousy that the Navy owes much of its prestige. But, opponents will say, such a system would destroy all esprit de corps! Not at all. On the contrary, it would replace the false by the true, substituting for mere petty regimental pride that truer, wider, and more comprehensive Army I, which it should be the object of all well-wishers of the service to encourage.

To sum up:—The inducements held out by the service are not sufficient to attract really capable men to adopt the Army as a profession for life. The country, regarding with satisfaction the quantity of candidates, disregards the quality. Intellectual encouragement is more necessary than financial, and would entail no increase in the estimates, Individuals should have continuity of tenure and certainty of recognition ; this is more easily obtainable under an Army than under a regimental system of promotion. Reforms which will induce each man to do his own thinking are urgently required, and lend themselves to gradual introduction, Much has been done, especially during the last three years, in the direction of reform: much still remains to do.


Note.—It will, of course, have been obvious to the reader that this article was written previously to the issue of the Army Order of the 15th October; but the majority will, I trust, agree with me that the actual circumstances under which Captain Adams' very remarkable essay has appeared, so far from impairing its value, serve rather to lend additional interest.

On paper, the new scheme presented by the authorities seems calculated to remove many of the evils of which Captain Adams complains; but the very objectionable system of Confidential Reports has unfortunately been retained. For my part, I fail to see why a Commanding Officer who is possessed of strength sufficient to render him even moderately fit for his position, should have need to hide from his subordinates, individually, his exact opinion of their qualifications. It is moreover quite as important that the zealous officer should be stimulated to further exertions, by the knowledge that he has earned a good report, as that the "loafer" should be warned that his "slackness" is being brought to notice.

Captain Adams' scheme of Army Promotion, after the American plan, will not, I think, commend itself to many, even of those who, like myself, have suffered through the present inequality of chances. By all means let offers of extra-regirnental promotion be made more frequently than hitherto; but let there be no compulsory advancement. Certainly there should be "Service esprit de corps," but I fail to see that the regimental variety can be otherwise than valuable, and I totally deny that it is generally "false," or represented by "petty regimental pride." True esprit de corps is equivalent to noblesse oblige, and is not expressed by, "I belong to the Blankshires, and therefore I am a fine fellow." Nothing of the sort! The loyal soldier looks at the matter thus: "The Blankshires have a splendid record; I mean to show that I am fit to belong to such a corps, and will do all in my power to maintain or if possible to increase its reputation." Swagger, whether "cheap" or expensive, is not esprit de corps, but vulgarity. The real thing is shown by those who consistently "play up for the side" at all times, in the endeavour, individually and collectively, to excel all others as soldiers, as men and as citizens.—Ed. U. S. M.