Personality in Leadership

By Major T. V. Scudamore, V.D., F.R.G.S., The British Columbia Regiment
Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 2 January, 1934

One may well ask if it is mere chance that to-day Italy, Germany, Austria and possibly one or two other of the more vigorously ruled countries in Europe are controlled by men who served for some considerable time in the ranks as front line men. It is not because those countries have any distaste for the outward symbols of power or because they are ultra democratic. It can be solely because those leaders have arisen by force of their outstanding personality.

The British army has been more than fortunate throughout its long history in having developed that personal touch of the officer with his men to a greater extent than any other army in the world. It was the strength of the British army in the Great War and the great weakness of the German army that there it did not exist.

But I question if that personal touch goes much further than the regiment and hardly extends as far as brigade and for real unity of command it should extend right through to the highest on the active list.

The staff hardly receive to-day from the fighting troops the credit that is their due, largely because they are so seldom seen except on ceremonial occasions. Sehaumann as a staff officer in the Peninsula and Waterloo campaigns complained loudly that all promotion and reward went to the infantry. "Nous avons changé tout cela,"—and it is to be regretted.

The sending back of young staff officers to their regiments for a period of discipline and training was a move in the right direction as was also the abolishment of the staff tabs, but this applies only to those rather junior in rank. Part of the glamour that surrounded Marshal Foch was the fact that more often than not he only bothered to wear a single decoration and one that was only open to the rank and file and the commander in the field.

An officer under whom I served in 1914: had five war medals (a rather unusual thing at that time) and he developed the mild eccentricity of wearing a different ribbon each day and all of them over the week-end. He was killed in action at Neuve Chapelle but he remained an inspiration to all, and it was difficult to follow a leader who would lie out at night in front of the wire and make me think out naughty nothings for him to shout across to the Germans in a broad Rhine dialect through a home-made megaphone. In a trembling whisper (caused entirely by the cold and damp, of course) I used to point out that we were in France and not in South Africa and that the enemy were less than 9200 yards away and not a mile.

How many commanders have we produced who, like General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, could stand alone wrapped in a British Warm at a cross-roads to watch a brigade of infantry go by? It may have looked like wasted time to the staff but his sole question to a passing young company commander (who did not realize that he was being addressed by his Army Chief) "How are your men's feet?" went through the whole division like fire and, in consequence, there were 30,000 men who would have died for him. Such is the value of personality in leadership. There was no large staff car; no A.D.C.; no fur collar; but there was a fighting general who understood men.

There is a nice story of Field Marshal Lord Byng who, being thoroughly bored with the lack of imagination shown by some of his senior officers at a pow—pow, turned his back on them and relieved his feelings. It is the human touch.

The Bar Point-to-Point has been won before now by a learned judge and this feat has not cost him anything in prestige. What a thrill it would give the rank and file to see a Brigadier in running shorts young and fit enough to win the 120 yards hurdles or the quarter mile. True, our senior officers are to be seen in pink in the hunting field riding well to hounds but there is not the same intimacy at a meet that one finds in the playing field or on the track. The hunting horn carried by more than one of our generals in the field was an effective touch in the Great War, whilst for even a battalion commander to go into action unarmed is as sensible as it is inspiring. To inspire confidence in those whom they lead our generals should be seen more often, to quote the late librarian at the War Office, as "Warriors in Undress"—but they must know their work too.

Napoleon could tweak the ear of an old grognard or ride on the limbers of the guns of his almost mutinous men who openly threatened to shoot him; he could walk with his arms linked between those of two of his marshals to trample down the snow: personal touches which must have inspired the most backward troops to push forward.

I have never seen a British General tweak the ear of an old soldier though they sometimes pull their legs, and I have never seen them do any really hard marching, but the fact is that the British character finds it difficult to combine efficiency and seniority with the behaviour of a ban camerade and unbend.

Particularly in the Peninsula and Corunna campaigns do we see the personal touch in leadership with the caustic Craufurd, the dashing Pagets and the gallant Sir John Moore never far from the rearguard in the retreat or the forefront of the battle. To-day there is too much of the glamour of command without the personal and human touch.

Admittedly modern conditions make it difficult for a higher commander to be seen far forward but they do not make it impossible and should a Corps or even an Army Commander be killed, the loss is reparable and the example beyond price. The death of Sir Thomas Picton at Waterloo was not so much a loss to the army as an inspiration to the men, and the fact that he concealed a wound that would probably have proved fatal in order to take his part in the battle is a historic fact of which his old regiment is justifiably proud. Gallipoli gave some of our very senior officers the chance to show their mettle and nobly many of them responded with their lives. Conditions there brought them into much more intimate contact with the misery of the regimental officer and man. Those who actually shared that wretchedness won a permanent position of respect amongst the fighting troops. Conditions on the western front did not enable the staff to share the hardships of the front line to the same extent as at Gallipoli, or rather it enabled them not to share them and therein lay the weakness of command. Personal risk is not so essential, however, as being personally known to the men, preferably through frequent contact in an unofficial status.

The British army is still conservative enough to look suspect on the officer who can write fluently or speak with conviction. The barrack room lawyer is not required but every trained officer should be able to put his ideas into writing and to have at least three good lectures at his command and he should be able to speak convincingly without having to bark like a dog. To-day we are dealing with an educated, almost teetotal and highly critical rank and file.

The sporting element in the British army is so overwhelmingly preponderant that an excellent speech can be made purely from copious quotations from Handley Cross and the Bible, as an able and distinguished staff officer once showed me. His speech was understood and appreciated by the riflemen who thought that half of it was from the Sporting Times and the other half from Shakespeare.

Pomp and circumstance have their place and value but the differences in the working uniform of general and staff should not be more marked than those of the regimental officer. Uniform means uniformity. The solid brass hat might go and the gold lace and both be replaced by something simpler; one might even be persuaded to abandon one row of ribbons when inspecting infantry.

As a nation we find it hard to combine geniality and seniority in the manner of a General Balbo and yet the more highly educated armies become the more necessary will it be for the military manner in the commander to be replaced by an easy comradeship. There were at least three great British generals in the late war who were able to acquire that faint air of familiarity whilst handling Dominion troops, with the result that they were an astounding success with the men that they led, but they should not be the exception but the rule.

One of the most popular and brilliant staff officers ever loaned to Canada before the Great War used to apologize for appearing on manoeuvres in the black Sam Browne belt, black leggings and boots that he had worn in South Africa and which were then out of date. There was no need for apology and his unaffected simplicity endeared the late Colonel Paley to all who knew him. Returning home after a hard field day he would march in rear of the column of infantry with the padre and myself and as we all came from Suffolk we would discuss the partridges and the hares and why wpodcock were so scarce. How he did it, I don't know, but Paley usually managed to work in a little unobtrusive instruction at the same time. How many of our staff will march at all, especially after a hard day? One can best perpetuate his memory by following, on occasion, his excellent example.

In the British army our love of animals has made the adoption of quite a variety a matter of common knowledge and tradition. One must admit that they are usually terribly spoilt and always decked in the most elaborate and expensive finery but what regiment would ever adopt a staff officer as a pet? He might bite.

Affection is more valuable an asset than awe and the good story about the able commander, even though it only be founded on fact, will carry him further in the field than all the official visits in the world.