Advice to a Young Officer (1917)

Manual for Commanders of Infantry Platoons
Translated from the French (Edition of 1917) at the [US] Army War College, 1917

Initiative does not consist, as is sometimes thought, in the right to modify an order that has been received, when it is thought that the result obtained will be better; such action is disobedience.


A commanding officer should impress himself on his command by his superior qualities. There is no single type of commander which young officers can take as a model, but each one should reflect and try to determine what natural or acquired qualities give to the best commanders of his acquaintance their influence over their commands. An officer recently promoted should not be content with thinking that he has been made a commander simply to secure obedience under ordinary daily circumstances. That would only indicate that his rank is respected. He should not be satisfied until he has patiently gained the confidence and the heart of his men; until he is certain that; they have given themselves absolutely to him, and that they will obey him even to the death.

A young commander should remember that in critical times the authority that emanates solely from his own personality will always be far more efficacious than that which comes from the regulations.

Moral qualities.

A commander raises himself in the esteem of his men above all by the qualities of his character, and rightly so, for energy, initiative, will power, perseverance, precision, judgment, self-control, sense of duty, and self denial are qualities without which the finest gifts of intelligence remain of no value.

Among the qualities of mind, a general and extended military education is not produced in the course of a campaign; but every officer can and should possess himself of a thorough knowledge of everything that concerns his duties. If he has precise knowledge, he has confidence in himself, proper decisions will come readily to his mind, he will express himself calmly and without hesitation, and he will command the attention of the men; on the contrary, inappropriate or contradictory orders, given in an uncertain or nervous manner, inspire doubt as to their efficiency. The French soldier obeys blindly only when he has blind confidence.

A commander is loved by his soldiers when he has a sense of justice, an absolute uprightness, is concerned with their well-being and pays personal attention to it. The soldier submits readily to all severities for which there is a reason, and, in his heart, he gives to excessive indulgence and weakness the consideration which they deserve. Justice does not consist in treating all men exactly alike, but in exacting from each the full exercise of his faculties and powers, and in rewarding meritorious actions in accordance with the efforts which they have cost.

The habitual attitude of the officer is also of importance; lack of dignity in bearing and language, vulgarity, and familiarity are: never proper for an officer; everyone can be correct, simple, and dignified without holding his inferiors at a distance, good humor and gayety, which, like hope and without preventing and absolute faith in victory, are so readily and so happily imparted to others.

During bad days, when the men are discouraged, the officers and noncommissioned officers form the foundation on which the spirit of the company is rebuilt; they remember that; "no matter what comes, one must never despair"; that there is no good reason why the enemy is not as badly decimated and depressed as our own troops; that in war, Dame Fortune has astonishing rewards for those who do not give up; and that; complete victory belongs to him who is able to hold out a quarter of an hour longer than the other.

The spirit of precision.

The importance of details.—In addition to those moral qualities necessary at all times, it is important that the young officer go deeply into the new requirements of war, which, at the present time, depend so largely on scientific qualities.

Today every attack;, every stubborn resistance, risks failure if the force engaged has not prepared its ground, its matériel, and its personnel with a minuteness superior to that of the enemy. In this preparation, where every detail is important, the least neglect must be paid for in the end.

The noncommissioned officers and the chief of platoon of infantry should realize that no matter how brave they are personally, their tasks will not be accomplished if they do not constantly apply themselves to the details which no other officer can attend to for them. Order, method, mechanical precision, and horror of the terms "almost" and "unfinished" have become essential qualities, the absence of which will surely expose a commander to the most serious disappointments.

Orders received and the initiative.

Command is exercised in accordance with the following principle: The superior determines the object to be attained, indicates his intentions, and defines the tasks to be executed by the subordinate elements; he leaves to the latter the choice of means for their execution. Officers and noncommissioned officers should make good use of that initiative in choosing the best means leading to the desired end.

Initiative does not consist, as is sometimes thought, in the right to modify an order that has been received, when it is thought that the result obtained will be better; such action is disobedience.

However, a noncommissioned officer should act on his own initiative:

First. To complete and develop an order when intentionally or otherwise the commander who has given it; to him is silent on certain measures of detail which it is intended to be left to his judgment.

Second. When, for any reason, an order is not received and a decision is necessary. In this case he must give an order and report his action. He may be mistaken as to the urgency of the case, but the commander will always consider that "the only faults which merit reproach are those of inaction and fear of responsibility."

Finally, in very exceptional cases, for example, when the situation is entirely changed between the time when an order was issued and the time it was received, initiative may lead one to act in an entirely or partly different way from that ordered; it is necessary then to be absolutely certain that "in disobeying the text of the order the intention of the commander is carried out," and a report of the action taken must be made without delay.

In all other cases discipline demands that orders be obeyed promptly to the; smallest details which the commander has thought necessary: to mention. Initiative is only exercised in regard to those details which have not been mentioned, and action on these should be in accordance with what is known of the commander's intentions and manner of thought.

Orders given.

The principal quality of an order is clearness. In war, misunderstanding is a more dangerous enemy than lack of discipline; more frequently than otherwise it destroys the strict execution of orders.

A subaltern officer often has the advantage of being able to explain and comment on the orders which he gives his men; their intelligence is thus brought into play, and they are more willing to carry out orders of which they understand the necessity.

But it is also necessary that the command understands that this is only done for the best interests of the service. It should be none the less ready to execute strictly, without hesitation or question, an order given without explanation. That is the very basis of discipline, and one can not revert to it: too often, even if only as an exercise.

Frequently the orders of a noncommissioned officer are not properly obeyed because he gives orders to a lot of men collectively when only a few are required to do the work; each man then looks to his neighbor to carry out the order. The one giving the order should always divide the work up and assign it by name to the men who are to execute it. It seldom happens that a man who h s personally received a clear and positive order will disobey it, hut he will often try to evade an ambiguous order. Before formulating an order one must be sure that it: can be carried out and is not capable of evasion; it must say exactly what is desired and no more; the system of demanding more than is desired in order to be sure to have enough must be avoided. Whatever is ordered must be obtained; the difficulty is to properly estimate what is reasonable and profitable.

When a precise and correct order has been given, a immediate and severe penalty should follow its nonexecution.

It is not admissible for an offer or noncommissioned officer to fail to, pay attention to a flagrant fault that he sees committed, under the pretext that the guilty person is not under his direct orders. This frequently happens, either through indolence or through fear of wounding the sensibilities of the commander of the man at fault. A noncommissioned officer is the superior of all persons in the military service who are of interior rank. He should realize his authority and not make himself an accomplice of a man who misconducts himself in his presence. He should intervene tactfully and firmly and insist that the orders and regulations be carried out at all times and in all places. All slackness in camp and in the trenches arises from the failure to observe this principle.

In the company the noncommissioned officers should be the mainstays of their squads or sections, and they should never refuse advice to a man who asks it, or a solution of a difficulty which he brings. before them. An excellent means of having little to repress in the interior management of the company is to lay down the principle that a man is never at fault when he is covered by the previous approval of a noncommissioned officer, but that he is always to blame when he has not referred to him if he has any doubt: as to what he should do. On the other hand, a noncommissioned officer will be considered as unfit to command if he avoids accepting his responsibility of giving a direct reply.

Therefore the young officers and noncommissioned officers should never forget that they hold a part of the principle of authority, and that it has been confided to them with the understanding that they will not allow it to suffer under any circumstances.

Relations of officers among themselves.

Officers of the same company mess together; meal hours are hours of relaxation during which it is proper that they become sociable, but whatever the familiarity that exists then, the deference due to experience, age, and rank; must never be forgotten.

The respect shown by the lieutenant to his captain, his attention and punctuality in observing all his instructions, will be quickly observed by the command and will teach it obedience and military spirit by the best method—example.