The Promotion and Examination of Army Officers

By "Viator"
The United Service Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, New Series, October 1903 To March 1904

The Army Order of 15th October, 1903, on the subject of Confidential Reports is of immense importance to the Army in general; and more especially, it is to be hoped, to the junior regimental officers.

This order is to the effect that, in future, officers will be recommended in their annual confidential reports, either for accelerated promotion, for promotion in the ordinary course, or for their promotion to be delayed for further report.

I have said above that this order is of immense importance, and especially so to the rising generation of officers; but it will only be so if the order is acted on in its strict integrity. It is true promotion by selection has been the rule, or has been supposed to be the rule, for many years; but this only referred to the higher ranks—and I think I am right in assuming it has never been seriously held to apply to junior regimental officers, except in a very limited sense.

There is an order, too, existent in India, that if in his examination for promotion, an officer should succeed in becoming "distinguished"—that is, in making 75 per cent. of the total number of marks for all subjects, counted in the aggregate, that this fact would be especially taken into consideration in selecting officers for Staff appointments.

I think most officers in India were of opinion that this order has, up till recent times at all events, been more observed in the breach than otherwise; not that I mean to insinuate for a moment that the majority of officers appointed to minor Staff appointments in India (such as officers recently qualified for promotion to captain or major could expect to be given) have been badly selected, but merely that, in selecting them, the particular manner in which they passed their promotion examinations was considered as of secondary importance.

The Navy is in strong contrast to the Army in this respect; for young officers have a great incentive to work in the Navy, owing to the fact that, if at certain examinations they obtain five first-class certificates, they thereby are specially advanced to the lieutenants' list.

Let us now take the case of two young officers whom I will call "A" and "B," and who join the same regiment, be it cavalry or infantry. Of these two "A" is the senior by a few days or weeks, or even because he passed higher on the Sandhurst list, on the same day as "B" passed. "A" has no particular interest in his profession, but he does his duty sufficiently well to escape reprimand, is good at games, is popular with his brother officers, and, in fact, represents a type of officer of which there are many representatives. "B," on the other hand, is deadly keen on his profession; and having thoroughly learnt his regimental duty, having interested himself in musketry, signalling, etc., foregoes no opportunity of attending classes of instruction, of learning foreign languages, and perhaps even, later in his career, of going to the Staff College and obtaining a certificate there. Let us now consider whether "B" will gain very much by his zeal for his profession. He may become adjutant, but the appointment is open to all the captains and subalterns in the regiment of cavalry or battalion of infantry; and it may well happen when the appointment falls vacant, that another equally keen officer and senior to him, or one who is even better liked by the commanding officer, is preferred before him. When "B" has passed the Staff College, or, if serving in India, when he has passed in the language and has qualified for promotion, he may obtain a Staff appointment, but unless he has the good fortune to go on service and to be promoted by brevet or to otherwise distinguish himself, he will sooner or later return to regimental duty, and will find "A," who has clone no more than he was absolutely obliged to, senior to him as before. It may well happen, too, that "B" cannot afford the Staff College, or prefers regimental duty to the Staff, but this will only emphasize the fact that "A" continues the senior; and "A" will, unless he commits himself, and his comparative want of keenness, energy, and knowledge of his profession is discovered, command the regiment or battalion, and "B" will see himself compelled to retire for age, and will never get command.

It will, I know, be urged on behalf of "A" that he does his duty quite well enough; that bookworms are not wanted in the Arrny, and that it would destroy all the harmony and camaraderie of regimental life if junior officers were constantly striving for certificates, and ostentatiously doing their work in the hopes of being noticed and recommended for accelerated promotion.

I freely admit that there is something, but not, I think, very much, in these arguments. Bookworms are very rare in the Army; in fact, I cannot remember ever having met one in so far as professional literature is concerned. If a man were a bookworm, he would presumably be of sedentary rather than of active habits, and this alone should militate against him. "Mens sana in corpore sano" should be the motto of every young officer desirous of accelerated promotion.

Secondly, as regards the argument that unless seniority were the rule for regimental promotion, there would be unwholesome rivalry among the officers. To this I would reply that each case of an officer recommended for accelerated promotion would be doubtless considered on its merits. In some regiments promotion goes at times so fast that opportunities must be taken to bring in officers from other regiments, and this offers an opportunity for "B," not only for promotion to captain or major, but even to second in command or to the command of another corps; only, however, if in the last case "B" is a really very capable officer, he has no chance of commanding his own corps, and the other corps has no very suitable officer to take command of it.

Moreover, the fact that non-commissioned officers are selected for promotion, or that seniority is tempered by selection, and this more especially to the rank of Colour-Sergeant or Squadron Sergeant-Major, does not, as far as I know, encourage an unwholesome rivalry amongst non-commissioned officers, but rather the contrary. Why, then, should it do so amongst officers?

This recent Army order regarding accelerated promotion, etc., is of especial value now that in the auxiliary cavalry and infantry there are so many officers specially commissioned, and comparatively late in life as compared with the age of officers gazetted under normal conditions. If, as is of course the case, there are many most excellent officers amongst those specially gazetted in late years; and if pure seniority were to be the rule for their promotion as has hitherto practically been the case, then their prospects of promotion or of eventually obtaining the rank of Lieut.-Colonel would be indeed poor.

Hitherto the case of an officer who entered the Service, say from the University at twenty-two, instead of from Sandhurst at nineteen, has been especially hopeless, for all the officers immediately senior to him would probably be younger than himself, and he has been handicapped throughout his career.

When officers considerably over the normal age enter the Service it probably does not occur to them how small their prospects of promotion to Lieut.-Colonel are; few of them possibly look further ahead than to the rank of Captain, but have a vague hope that all will come right in the end. It is well, however, that their parents, at all events, should recognise (for youth does not generally look very far head) that even if their sons remain in the cavalry or infantry, the chances are that they will never command their corps. Voluntary retirements, death, transfers to other corps, etc., all of course greatly help the prospects of an officer who elects to stick to the regiment he first joined; but even so, as in each regiment of cavalry or battalion of infantry, out of some twenty-eight officers only one can be in command, and he may hold it for four years, it will be clearly seen how very many officers, if they elect to remain on, will become forty-eight years of age before they can succeed to the command, and, forty-eight is the age for compulsory retirement if Lieut.-Colonel's rank has not been gained.

Many officers, seeing how hopeless their chances of succeeding to the command are, retire before they are absolutely obliged to do so; so that it does not seem apparent at first sight what a very poor career the Army has been to the larger number of officers who join the cavalry and infantry.

Many in both branches, perhaps more especially in the infantry, used in old times to remain on, because regimental life was comfortable and suited them, or because their private means were insufficient, and without, in either case, being really professional soldiers at heart. In due course they succeeded, as a rule, to the command of their corps, not became they were specially fitted for it, but because they were not glaringly unfitted for it. [Footnoted - Sometimes in spite of being most "glaringly unfitted," from every conceivable point of view.-Ed. U.S.M.] In this manner in the past many a keen officer's career has been extinguished; for, seeing no chance of promotion to the command which he believed would be given for seniority and not for merit, he has preferred to retire rather than undergo the mortification of being compelled to do so for age.

When an officer has attained the age of thirty or upwards, and begun to look ahead and sec his poor prospects of promotion, the thought that all his hard work and energy will lead to nothing has done much to quench an officer's zeal in the past. It may be urged that esprit de corps, and keenness for the credit of his regiment should induce every right-minded officer to work. So it does in most cases, but not to the extent of making an officer by private study and by extraneous methods endeavour to render himself more efficient. He will work for the benefit of his corps, but not much for his own benefit. The Army generally, however, will profit largely by having a large number of officers who have made a special study of their profession, so that though the motives to study and to perfect himself in extra regimental knowledge may be selfish, the Service as a whole will profit.

Hitherto the incentive even to do very good regimental work in the cavalry and infantry has been greatly wanting, but not so in the artillery and in the Indian Army.

It is not because promotion has been by selection rather than by seniority in the two latter, that officers arc generally keener, but because young officers from the date they join are given more responsibility, that they in consequence have more power of initiative, and can therefore take much more interest in their work; and, further, because at a much earlier age and rank than in the British infantry more especially, they get independent commands.

An infantry officer, more especially if he is serving in India, will probably have temporary command of a company before he has many years' service; but the anomalous thing is, that once having obtained this temporary command, there will be practically no increase of responsibility till he becomes second in command, which, under ordinary circumstances, he can hardly expect to do till he has some twenty-five years' service. For some twenty-two years, therefore, he has practically the same amount of responsibility.

In the cavalry this is not so much the case, as there are four squadrons as against eight companies; but in the artillery the system is much more perfect. There a subaltern on joining has a section of two guns allotted to him, over which he has considerable, though not of course entire authority. As a captain he will, in the absence of the major, command the battery, and in any case have still more interesting work to do than before; and as a major he will practically have an independent command, with every prospect of becoming a lieut.-colonel.

A major in the infantry, however, has very little more independence than he had as a subaltern when he also commanded a company for longer or shorter periods; and his chances of promotion to lieut.-colonel are in some cases nil, and in others very uncertain. Much depends on his age and on that of those above him.

It is hardly to be wondered at that the Royal Artillery officers, considering the facts above stated, are more frequently really professional soldiers than those in the infantry; and they throughout have a selfish incentive to work beyond that which the admittedly great esprit de corps of the whole regiment of artillery provides, in that officers are selected for the horse artillery for mountain batteries; and there are many billets, such as adjutancies, etc., for which capable officers are also chosen.

A really good officer, therefore, quickly meets with his reward; and in the Indian Army it is the same, for the appointments of adjutant and quarter-master are open to the subalterns; there are many Staff appointments to be obtained, responsibility is increased in a much greater degree in the junior ranks than in the British infantry, and it increases with promotion, a captain probably commanding a double company.

Command of a regiment, too, is frequently attained while only in the rank of major. In both the Indian Army and in the Royal Artillery a keen officer has every incentive to work, for he has many more opportunities of coming to the front and of showing his capabilities.

It is true that of late the command of a squadron in the cavalry and of a company in the infantry has been more fully made over to their commanders than was hitherto the case; and the regulations state that an officer's efficiency will be largely judged by the efficiency of his squadron or company.

This is excellent as far as it goes; but companies are such very small units when the employed men, bandsmen, etc,, are eliminated, especially on home service, that it is really extremely difficult to find many men to train. The captain, moreover, may be but an indifferent instructor; but with good subalterns and an experienced colour-sergeant good results may be obtained, and the credit will in large measure go to the captain or major commanding, as the case may be. Hence the test docs not invariably furnish really reliable evidence.

Greater scope and increasing responsibility arc much wanted for senior captains and majors in the infantry; and such can perhaps be attained by the double-company system, which, however, has its disadvantages in war time, and is a subject which cannot be dealt with in the present article.

If, however, in every branch of the Service it is clearly recognised that in the future promotion is to be by selection; and if such selection can be carried out without partiality, favour, or affection, and, above all, without outside interest, as it is doubtless intended should be the case, then I am tempted to believe that the reproach that the Army officer is stupid, or that he considers studying his profession bad form, will quickly disappear.

The fact that an officer has distinguished himself, or at all events done well on service, will of course, as hitherto and quite rightly, be considered the chief factor in awarding accelerated promotion.

It docs not fall to every one, however, to go on service, and, in my opinion, accelerated promotion cannot begin too soon. Of eight 2nd lieutenants who join a regiment in the course of a year. two will probably have the making of excellent officers, four will be normal, and two will be indifferent. It is certainly to be hoped that the two who are very good will receive quicker promotion.

It may be urged that an opinion as to their real capacity cannot be passed so early in their career; that is, in the first two to three years. I think it well can, but I would supplement the information which the commanding officer and senior officers may be able to give as to their merits, by adopting the naval system, and by making them pass a really good test of their efficiency, theoretically, and practically too, if possible. This examination should not be very largely a farce, as the "A" and "B" examination has too often hitherto been; nor should the "C" and "D" examination be so easy, and the written replies should be looked over by an independent expert, who is unacquainted with the candidates, and whose sole or principal business is to do such work.

In this way a uniform standard of marking will be obtained and the War Office authorities will be able to form a fair judgment, at all events, as to the officer's theoretical knowledge.

The great thing is that in future, as far as one can judge, endeavours will be made to promote officers by merit rather than by seniority, or let us say by merit tempered by seniority.

If once this is thoroughly carried out, the Army officer will compare favourably in knowledge and zeal with any other profession He has always had many estimable qualities, but it has been the exception to find in the junior ranks officers who really studied their profession in the wider sense.

If inducements to do so are offered, and if promotion is very largely dependent on the success achieved by officers in their studies, the recent Army Orders will inaugurate a new era; and officers who have joined the Army comparatively late in life need no longer see their way to promotion hopelessly barred. Much however, will depend on the way in which commanding officers, frame their reports; for, important as it is to have the rising generation of officers make a real study of their profession, book knowledge will ever atone for the want of courage (in which I include the readiness to assume responsibility), a clear head, and a capacity for receiving and imparting to the men practical instruction, and the faculty of command, that is the faculty of compelling cheerful obedience.