The Duties of an Officer (1916)

Published in Canadian Army Training Memorandum, No 10, January 1942

1.     The following notes were prepared by a senior officer for a lecture to young officers undergoing training, in France, in 1916, and were published in "The Times" on Saturday, 1st April of that year.

They are just as applicable to-day.

2.     "I have been asked to say something to you on the moral side of the duties of an officer … In laying before you some remarks on such a subject, I would begin by impressing on you the great importance of your work. You must realize that, however good and skilful the disposition may be, battles must be won by fighting; the heroism, skill, and firmness of the most junior officers will have the most far-reaching results.

3.     You are responsible for the successful leading of your men in battle; you are responsible for their safety, as far as this can be ensured, while gaining successes in battle; you are responsible for their health, for their comfort, for their good behaviour and discipline. Finally, and not least, you are responsible for maintaining the honour of your country; for doing all you can to ensure the security of your country and of our women and our children after us.

4.      To bear all these responsibilities successfully you must acquire, first, knowledge. You must know what to do and how to do it, in order to lead your men with success and honour, and protect them from destruction or loss, which will be suffered if you are ignorant of your work and of your profession … Secondly, you must acquire character-that is, resolution, self-confidence, self- sacrifice in order to inspire your men by your example, sustain their courage in danger by your example, and their endurance in hardship by your example.

5.     Now as regards the first: knowledge, remember two things.

(1)     Knowledge is not a Heaven-sent gift; it is the outcome of study, hard work, and thought.

(2)     It is an absolute necessity to you as an officer. It is the foundation of your own character, for without it you cannot gain self-confidence. You must know your job. If you do not you can have no confidence in yourself, and the men can, and will, have no confidence in you either. Knowledge is therefore the first great essential for your capacity to command your men … The men must have confidence in their officer. They must feel not only that he knows his job, but also that he will set the example of courage, self-sacrifice and cheerfulness, and that he will look after their welfare and comfort.

6.     Now as regards the second requirement of an officer-character. The character of the officer is the foundation of the discipline of his men. Men can only be commanded successfully by men. No troops ever possessed a discipline that was worth a damn-that could stand the great disintegrating strain of battle-who were commanded by weak, slow, irresolute "Old Women". "Old Women" are not confined to persons who wear petticoats; nor to persons over 70 years of age. I have met "Old Women" in trousers, and of any age between 28 and 50 … DON'T be an "Old Woman" whatever else you may be.


7.      The creation of Discipline and the maintenance of Discipline are among your most important duties. Your orders, and the orders given by your N.C.Os. must always be obeyed without hesitation, with energy and with cheerfulness. Never pass any lapse from duty, however trivial, without taking notice of it. Drop hard on to slackness, disobedience, slovenliness. Never stand any rot or nonsense. Insist on great cleanliness, on great alertness, quickness, and cheerfulness.

8.     I don't want you to go away, however, with the idea that the men must be treated like dogs-very far from it. You don't want to curse or damn every time you notice things wrong. Sometimes a word of encouragement, or a patient listening to an explanation, or a smile when pointing out the fault will go a long way. Remember that, though we are officers and the men are privates, still we are all comrades in the great dangers and the great struggle; make the men feel that you realize this comradeship and love it.

9.     You cannot be too particular in insisting on a smart, alert, cheerful appearance, and on the prompt and willing accordance of all honours and salutes. It is only that Company or that Battalion which shows attention to all this which really does possess discipline. Without discipline, no body of men will stand an hour of real danger … These matters of appearance and respect to officers are not eyewash. They are the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace, as the parson says!

The Officers' Looking-Glass

10.      The Company or the Battalion is the best looking-glass of its officers. In the Company and the Battalion you see the image of the officers-you see yourselves. When you note a Company on the march—slack-looking, miserable, dirty, slow, and almost sulky in coming to attention, with half a dozen stragglers creeping on behind, and the officers and N.C.Os taking no notice-you can tell at once that these are bad officers, and that no discipline and no energy exist there. On the contrary, when you see a Company marching well closed-up-men with heads erect (even though covered with mud of trenches), and quick and energetic in their movements when they come to the salute-they show good officers and a well disciplined Company … When you take your men into action, either in ordinary trench warfare or in a big attack, all this discipline will repay you and your men themselves a thousandfold.

11.     Keep up your own energy and that of your men, and maintain the offensive spirit most carefully … To do this, don't overlook the fact that one of your chief duties is to be always thinking. You have got brains; don't forget to use them. That is what you are an officer for … You must always be thinking. How can you make the trench (or your position whatever it is) more secure, or more comfortable for the men? Or how can you attack the enemy? Or inflict some blow or loss on him? As soon as the thought has entered your head, put it into execution; issue the necessary orders, and see them energetically carried out. Thus you will keep up the spirit of Energy and of the Offensive which are of such immense importance … All energy is born of thought; therefore remember that to think is one of your great duties.

12.     Try and carry out these principles, and put the knowledge you have acquired here into execution when you return to your Battalion. Do not overlook the fact that-though you must possess (and show that you possess) decision and resolution in order to instil discipline into your men-merely to insist on obedience, smartness, and compliance with all orders is not sufficient. Do not forget that the men are your comrades; and do not overlook the fact that the British soldier has a great soul, and can and does appreciate what courage, honour, patriotism, and self-sacrifice mean … Talk to your men often on these great qualities, both in lectures and to individuals personally. You will always find a ready response, which will one day stand you in good stead; and what is more important still, will stand your country and the Empire in good stead.