Three Talks to Junior Officers or Officer Cadets to assist them in the handling of their men.

June, 1942

Lecture No. 2
Understanding the Men

Part I. - The need for understanding and knowledge

It is essential that you should understand your men if you are going to command them properly, and look after their needs. It is, however, no easy matter, as I am sure you all realize, to understand the points of view and the needs of the many kinds of men whom you will command. For it requires a considerable amount of experience, imagination, sympathy, and. knowledge, none of which is to be obtained for the asking, although your service in the ranks, if you have kept your ears and eyes open, will have given you a bit more of all those things, I hope, than you had before you joined up.

Further experience can only come with time, which can't be hurried. Imagination and sympathy will, however, develop as you get to know more about your men - or they should do so, anyhow. Many an officer would, for instance, have more sympathy with his men's home troubles if he could visit their homes, as some officers manage to do, and see the background for himself. If he knew, too, about the men's upbringing, he would often again be more sympathetic and tolerant with their worries and their faults, though he should not on that account cease to demand from them the highest possible standard. And, more important still, not only would he sympathize more, he would also learn to respect and admire. Anyway, that has been my personal experience.

I am going, therefore, to deal later on in this talk with the ways in which an officer can improve his knowledge; but first I want to give you some suggestions that you will, I think, find helpful in this important task of understanding your men.

Physical needs

Physical needs are, of course, comparatively easy to understand, but, even there, mistakes are quite easily made. For instance, as some of you may remember, the N.A.A.F.I. started the war with the firm idea that soldiers liked herrings in tomato sauce, and bought thousands and thousands of tins; in actual fact, the exact opposite is the truth, or at any rate was then; the soldiers disliked very strongly "herrings in blood," with the result that much valuable food and money were wasted.

And to give another example. There was a camp for unemployed men in Durham which some Cambridge undergraduates offered to run on their own; it was nearly a complete fiasco because of a misunderstanding on the food question. The undergraduates, wanting to do the miners well, spent their money lavishly on delicacies like tinned asparagus, tinned lobster, breakfast cereals, etc., while the miner, equally anxious to do himself well after a long spell of poor food on the "dole," came to the camp. hungry for good things to eat, which to his way of thinking were heavy meat dishes, and even heavier puddings. He was not at all attracted to the Cambridge fare offered him, and felt very aggrieved; while, on the other side, the undergraduates felt equally sore at the way in which the miners rejected their well-meant hospitality. Just a question of not getting down to understanding physical needs-that is all. But it nearly ruined the success of that camp, all the same.

Still, as I said, physical needs are fairly easy to understand with a little bit of thought and trouble. It is the mental and emotional needs that are more complicated and difficult for officers to understand, since the men in the ranks come not only from a very different background but, more often than not, from so many different backgrounds!

It is obvious, therefore, that you cannot treat a group of men all in the same way, and hope to get the best results, and that it will, therefore, pay you, and is part of your job, to study these differences.

Six reasons why men differ

I believe there are six main reasons why men differ from one another on account of their locality (i.e., where they come from), their job, their temperament, their religion, their upbringing, and their politics, and I am going to talk a bit about each of these six differences.

i.     Their locality

Town and country - North and South - Welsh and Scots - they have different customs, different ways of thought and speech, different humour, and, as we have already seen, different kinds of food.

I expect you know many instances of these differences. There was in my own experience the Tyneside lad who had been transferred down to the south to get a job. When asked how he was getting on, he said that the thing that worried him most was the fact that he could never enjoy his meals; the reason being that; on Tyneside, they took off their coats, and very often their collars, when they wanted to enjoy a good meal; whereas down in the smug south they stayed all fastened up, and never gave themselves a real chance to put a proper meal down or ply a good knife and fork. If only his hosts had known that custom, I'm sure they would gladly have undressed to put him at his ease.

That is a difference of custom, but cultures vary every bit as much. Some very good examples came to light at the time of all the bad unemployment in the Durham and Welsh coalfields, when great efforts were made to keep the unemployed men active.

Give a Durham man a hut to build, or a slag heap to remove, and he was, we found, on the job; but ask him to do things in that hut, when he had completed it, in the way of drama, or discussions, and he was not half so keen. The Welshman, on the other hand, was not always so keen on the hard work; but, once the hut was built he was as happy as a king, acting and singing and discussing in it; so if you have a mixture of Durham men and Welshmen in your platoon or company, you will need two different programmes to keep them happy in their spare time.

And lastly, of course, there are all the different kinds of humour - the self-pitying, heroic jesting of the Cockney, the friendly humour of the West, the broad Lancashire humour of Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway - and who but a Lancashire comedian could succeed in making delightful fun out of the sad fate of a small boy in the Zoo? Scottish jokes - or the lack of them, and so on. By studying the kind of humour that appeals to your men, you will learn a lot about them, and you will also, with luck, get to know the kind of crack that they will enjoy. The officer who can make a good joke is always much appreciated by his men.

ii.     Their jobs.

I believe a man's job to be more important in moulding his character than his locality, though in a way the two go together, since you so often find the same jobs in the same kind of locality.

When I was a subaltern, I remember being told to make a list of my men's names, and to put down against them what they did; but when I had written down that one was a miner, and the other a clerk, or a factory hand, I had not much more idea about their characters than before. I did not know anything about miners and very little about factory hands, and no one told me, so my list was not much help tome in understanding them.

I have no time to go into the matter here at any length, but I will just take a few examples of what I am getting at.

There is the miner - a man who is by nature of his daily life accustomed to danger and hard manual work; a conservative in his habits and his thoughts, because he lives for the most part in communities that have little contact with the rest of the world; a strong Labour man in politics, hostile by tradition to the officer class, and yet a man who, once you have won his loyalty, will never let you down, because loyalty to a leader, come what may, is in the miner's blood and in his history and upbringing.

That is a rough general picture of the man, and. when you have got those points about him in your mind, you should have some idea how to lead him and get the best out of him.

And, as an opposite, we might, perhaps, take the Cockney clerk who will, likely as not, stand next in the ranks of your unit to the miner. Everything a,bout him is different. Crossing by a Belisha beacon may well be the greatest danger he had faced before the air raids altered all that; but even now he is not accustomed to danger as II. part of life in the way the miner or seaman is. He is a friendly, cheerful person, untrained to physical hardship, and without, as a rule, any habit of loyalty to a leader, or any very definite political views. A less stable character in some ways, if I may venture to say so, but a much easier one to know and to make friends with quickly.

Then there is the factory hand, whose job often dulls all his initiative while giving him the useful habits of patience and steady endurance; and lastly, to complete my examples, there is the docker, whose work demands from him a body which must stand up to long spells of hard physical labour done against time, and whose industrial conditions in the past have helped to make him a bit awkward to handle.

It is all a fascinating study. If ever you have the time to read a little industrial and Trade Union history, you will find that it will help you a lot to understand the attitude of different types of workmen to those in authority over them.

iii.     Their temperament

In every body of men there will be the sulky, the good humoured, the touchy, the lazy, the hard-working, the amorous, the loyal, the grumbling, the shy, and all the other diversities of which human nature is capable. The officer who knows each man well as an individual will be able to get the best out of him and vice versa.

Some men like being joked with, and can enjoy a joke against themselves; others, as you know, are touchy and cannot be joked with at all.

Again, there is the hard-working fellow who is always all out to do his very best; and there is the other fellow who never starts to work until he has had two or three prods to get him going. Well, if you prod the fellow who is working his hardest already, he will not like it, and it will upset him.

And there is the grumbler who is always' grumbling, and the other fellow who never grumbles unless there really is something worth grumbling about. The former, if you know him, won't get any attention from you, while the other will be worth listening to when he has a grumble to make.

iv.     Their religion

The fact that the majority of the men in the ranks to-day do not appear to have any strong religious views, or to be interested in religious observances, must not blind you to the fact that there are plenty of men scattered through the army to whom their religion matters a great deal. Such men should be treated by you with every respect and consideration, although, at times, their observances may seem to you - and more particularly to your N.C.Os. - to be a bit of a nuisance.

They will usually have in their kit bag, so to speak, something that will stand them in good stead when things are bad, and at such times they will be a help and strength to those round them. Religious faith is a valuable aid to morale. It is, perhaps, one of our greatest tragedies to-day that we have not got more of it, so let us make the very most of the leavening that we have.

v.     Their upbringing

I think that it is pretty obvious that the kind of upbringing a man has had - good home, bad home, etc. - makes a great difference to the way he sees things and behaves.

vi.     Their politics

At the beginning of the war, when the men called up were all young, this question of politics was not important; nearly all of them were far too young to have any special political leaning. But now it is a different matter. The army is getting older men who have been possibly keen trade unionists with strong political views as well; very often they will come into the army suspicious and resentful of those in authority, and it will be necessary to understand their point of view and to make the necessary allowances.

Lead them like an orchestra

Those are, I think, the main ways in which men differ from one another, and the more an officer understands these differences, the better he will lead his men. I think that officers should try to lead like the conductor of an orchestra. A good conductor knows every instrument and every player in that orchestra, and from each player, and each instrument, he will draw the very best individually, and at the same time he will get them to play in harmony together. If that conductor goes sick, and someone else takes his place in a hurry, the same players and the same orchestra will be there; but a very different and far inferior tune will be played perhaps hardly a tune at all.

You will find the same situation in the army. One subaltern will make a mess of a platoon, and another will do wonders with it. With highly trained men there should not be this disparity, since the men should be less dependent on their leader, if properly trained.

Two more points before I pass on.

i.     Men in the ranks see things differently from the officers

Don't forget that men in the ranks see things very differently from the officers. No matter what the man's education and class is, his point of view will, while in the ranks, nearly always be closer in many things to the point of view of the men in the barrack room or tent with him than it will be to the officer's point of view.

For instance, I expect most of you go back from a tactical course full of ideas about tactical schemes and, possibly, night operations, which you will want to try out with your units. Well, just remember that those schemes and night operations look a bit different through the eyes of the soldier who is carrying them out. And the same with the clean barrack room; to the officer inspecting it, and to the man cleaning it, there is a world of difference from the point of view of the importance of that cleanliness! A small point, perhaps, but one important to keep in mind.

ii.     Make the best of your material

You are sure to get some queer-looking fellows to command at times. They may, at first sight - and at second sight, too - seem fairly hopeless material.

Perhaps your platoon sergeant will tell you that so and so is quite useless, and perhaps he will be quite right. If so, the sooner the man is out of the army the better, if that is possible. It very often is not. But do not be in a hurry to condemn a man as useless. Very few men really are, and it is extraordinary what good understanding and leadership can do with a man, and what fine qualities often lie hidden under unlikely exteriors.

Remember, too, that we all respond to what people think of us to a certain extent: think well of a man, and you help him to improve; think ill of him, and you make him worse.

If you ever get what seem to you a poor lot of men, remember what the good card player does with a poor hand of cards. He makes the best of them, and plays them so well, that his small cards almost become aces. You can do the same with men if you try - and it's easier, because men can be changed, and cards can't - or, anyhow, are not supposed to be!

Part II. - Ways of getting knowledge and understanding

I have given some idea of the kind of knowledge that an officer ought to have about his men, but it is not very easy, unfortunately, to get that knowledge. We are not born with a knowledge of how others think and feel, and our class system, and educational and housing conditions, make it very difficult for us to find out. Many in fact never do; but if an officer is to be of any use he must find out, and there are many ways open to him if he will take them. Here are some:-

i.     Company and platoon mess meetings, sports meetings, etc.

Opportunities to meet the men informally should be taken advantage of, as these meetings give the officer a chance of seeing his men as natural human beings-talking about their food or their games. They serve other good purposes, too, of course, and should be held regularly and kept fairly informal.

ii.     Informal chats-off parade, on route marches, in hospital, etc.

The object of these talks is to get to know about your men in a friendly way-about their homes and families, their interests in civil life, and so on. Some officers, I believe, take the view that it is prying into a man's private affairs to ask them questions of that sort and that men resent it, but I am quite certain that they are nearly always wrong in that view. I have yet to meet a soldier who is not only too glad to take out his wallet and show the photograph of his wife and family, or his girl, to his officer, if that officer has shown that he is a kindly person who will be interested to see them. And do not let the telling be all on one side. Tell them a bit about yourself and your family, too; in fact, make yourself a real human being to them, with interests and feelings that they can share and sympathize in.

(a)     Find points of contact

It is an officer's duty to find points of contact with his men, as he cannot expect the majority of them to find points of contact with him; the man's home town, his football team, the show on at the local pictures, the man's job in civil life, and, as I have said, his family, are all human interests which give plenty of scope for friendly chats.

Not that I want to suggest that all the men in the ranks have such simple and limited interests, though I think it is fair to say that it is true of a great many who, through leaving school at fourteen, have had little opportunity or encouragement to develop wider interests. Nevertheless, it is amazing how many diverse interests you will find in a group of working men, when you have had the time to get to know them well. One will be an expert pigeon fancier, another an authority on swing music, a third a skilled chess player, and so on, until you will wonder why you were ever such a fool to think of your men as dull, if ever you did so!

(b)     The well-educated few

But more important to keep in mind are the well educated few, who have an influence in the ranks out of all proportion to their numbers. That respect for book learning, despite what some people say, is still very strong amongst the less educated. These few will often be better educated than their officers, with wider interests and more culture, and they will often, too, be men with a bit of a grievance, perhaps because they have not been recommended for a commission, or because they feel they are square pegs in round holes. The officer who shows his awareness and appreciation of their better education, both by the way he talks to them and by the way he employs them, will turn potential rebels into loyal and very useful soldiers.

One of the very real advantages of these talks is that, once you know a bit about the men, it becomes so much easier to pass a casual friendly remark to a man at some odd moment. You can't very well ask, "How's the baby" or "Is the wife getting on all right" until you know who has a baby, and a wife, and who has not. And yet questions like this often give a man just the opportunity to tell you of some worry that might never have come out, but for the chance you gave him, especially if he is one of those who don't like coming to see you for a private interview about his troubles, however informal you may make these interviews.

(c)     Experience helps

Some officers are very stuck when they first try these informal talks. and cannot find anything to talk about. They feel awkward, and sometimes say the wrong thing - like the public school boy who a few years ago gave up part of his holiday in Scotland to come down and help a big London East End Club. When he got to the Club he felt very shy and out of it, but, at last, seeing a boy standing on his own, he plucked up courage to go up and open conversation. He could not think what to say, but. at last ventured the remark, "Birds are scarce this year, aren't they?" in complete ignorance that "birds," to the East End boy, had a quite different meaning from what they had to him. However, it turned out in this case to be quite a good opening, and conversation flowed after that - though on somewhat unexpected lines!

Experience is the only cure for this difficulty, though I know that some officers never find it easy to do, however hard they try.

iii.     Discussions

The alternate weekly issue of "Current Affairs" and "War" is another opportunity, and a splendid one, for officers to get to know their men if the talk is really conducted informally and not like a lecture. It also gives the officer an opportunity to allow his men to tell him that he is quite wrong, and that is healthy for both sides.

But there is no need to limit the discussions you have with your men to the subjects dealt with in "Current Affairs." It is a good thing to watch the popular press, and when some subject of particular interest to the men is getting a good deal of publicity - "spit and polish" or "family allowances," for example - have a discussion on it with them. A good "free for all" exchange of views all round is a splendid way of getting to know each other's mind and temperament.

iv.     "Off the record" talks

The idea of these talks is to give the men an occasional chance to ventilate any little grievances they may have about administration or welfare in the unit, without having to go through all the business of an official complaint, which they are often unwilling to make.

It is not always too easy for men to get little things brought to notice and put right; and yet, little things, if they fester, can become quite big and serious in time, so that these "off the record" talks can be made to serve a very valuable purpose.

It is very probable that your sergeant may not care for these talks too much, if some of the things the men say reflect a bit on his administration; but as the remarks will very probably reflect on your own as well, you will be able to show him how to take criticism in the right spirit. You must watch, too, that he does not "have a down" on the men who speak up, or that will kill the whole thing.

My experience is that the men greatly appreciate this opportunity, and rarely, if ever, abuse it; and, if they do, there should be no difficulty in dealing with the matter.

v.     Reading books

As there is not time now for officers to pay visits to the coalfields, the pottery towns, and all the other various industrial parts of the country from which their men largely come, and which are more foreign than many foreign countries to the great majority of officers, one of the best remedies is for them to read in books about these places, and the people who belong to them. I, personally, have found some of these books of the greatest help to me in understanding men.

vi.     Psychology

A general knowledge of psychology is of real use in enabling an officer to understand and help his difficult men. I don't mean that he should try and psycho-analyze them - heaven forbid! If he had the time which he has not - he would. be pretty certain to get the result all wrong.

What I do mean is that if the officer understands - and lets the offender see that he does - that there is a reason behind the actions of the thief, or the liar, or the coward, or the frequent absentee, he will very often be able to help such men to overcome these faults.

On the other hand, if he just judges them in his mind by what they have done wrong, and shows no appreciation of the environment and past history which may have caused the man's failing, then most surely he will be unable to help the man to improve; and, as I have already said, that will not do, since we have got to make the best of our men and help them to get rid of their faults, whatever they may be. A knowledge of psychology will also help you to deal with men's private worries and troubles. The Germans use highly trained psychologists on a very large scale for this purpose, and we are doing so more and more.

As I have quoted the Germans once or twice favourably, it may amuse you to hear that they are not always successful in this aspect of their work. After the last war, they made a very deliberate and determined effort to cultivate a British sense of humour, as they realized that it was one of the great strengths of our nation in times of adversity. They, for instance, published many of Bruce Bairnsfather's cartoons of the last war, with detailed explanations of each joke, but it was all no good. Some years ago, they officially abandoned the attempt!


I think that I have said enough in this talk to show you that this matter of understanding your men is a big subject, and that Solomon gave crowning proof of his famous wisdom when he asked for an understanding heart, in preference to any other gift from God.