The Study of War by Junior Officers

By Major J.K. McNair, R.A.
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXVII, February to November, 1932

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Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., A.F.C., in the Chair.

The Chairman, in introducing the lecturer, said that he was peculiarly fitted to speak on "The Study of War by Junior Officers," because he had the exceptional experience of having been to two different Staff Colleges; he had also done regimental soldiering and been on the staff both in India and England; and he was just the right seniority, combining the mature knowledge of age with the joyous carelessness of youth.

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Lecture (On Wednesday, 10th February, 1932.)

The object of this lecture is largely to promote a discussion which will enable Ofiicers of all three Services to give their impressions of the facilities they had in the junior ranks for studying war, and to make suggestions for improving those facilities.

Personal experience must, of course, vary with the character of the individual, the Service to which he belongs, and his particular environment. No one of us has had experience in the junior ranks of more than one Service, so that a lecture such as this must, in any case, be based on the speaker's own experience, supplemented by what he has been able to glean from officers of the other Services. But, even so, I am at once confronted with a difficulty. Everybody of about my age will, I think, agree with me that we did not go through the normal stages of education in the junior ranks. When the Great War started, We had not got over our teething troubles, that is our earlier regimental or technical education, and when it finished we found ourselves promoted in rank and responsibilities beyond our advance in age. We found, too, that our knowledge was definitely behind what it should have been, because, in spite of the saying that "the best training for war is war," fighting as seen by the junior officer gives him little knowledge of principles. So my personal. experience may not be of great value as a guide, but I will try to give you a few points to serve as a basis for discussion, and I hope that those who have had a normal peace-time training in the junior ranks, either before or since the War, will contribute from their experiences.


Now, if we are to guide a young officer on to the right lines, we must first be clear as to what we want him to be. In other Words, "What is the object of training and what part does personal study play?" The British system of discipline is based on a spirit of confidence and good feeling as between officers and men, and therefore, first and foremost, We want to produce men of character. Knowledge can never be an end in itself, but it is the only sound basis on which character can be built. I know that this has been said and written many times before, but I make no apology for introducing it here, because, when talking about reading, writing, discussions and other methods of acquiring theoretical knowledge, we are very apt to forget it. In fact there are some people, in the Army at any rate, who think that we try to over-educate the average officer. They argue that only a small proportion of officers ever rise to the higher ranks. The great majority never rise beyond the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and, up to that rank intellectuals are not required in any great number. It is the quality of leadership that is wanted, and that needs developing. The few who are going to continue and form the intellectual leaven, are usually Staff College graduates, and their education can be left to look after itself. However, whether that view be held or not, one thing is certain. There is no place for the mere bookworm. Let us keep in mind, therefore, throughout this talk on personal study that the goal at which we aim is men of character and sound judgment with the capacity for leadership, and not mere pundits.

The next question is "what is the material on which we have, to work," that is, "what is the character and mentality of the young officer when first commissioned?" Until that moment, we must remember, he has been under fairly rigid discipline, and has been used to all the petty restrictions that are necessary in the various educational establishments through which he has passed. Now, for the first time, he feels a measure of freedom and has a natural desire to enjoy life While he is young. Yet he probably realises that he is at the bottom of the ladder again, and that he has got a lot to learn before he can begin to pull his weight in his new surroundings. At what age, then; should personal study begin? On the one hand, if the brain is not used; in time it grows incapable of being used. Most of us have come across the man of thirty-five or forty who, when suddenly called upon to use his brain in a way he has not done since he left school, finds himself totally unable to respond. Many of us found, even after four and a half years of war, during which we read little and wrote less, that it was extremely difficult to sit down and work for the Staff College. Personally I failed to qualify at the first examination at which I sat in February, 1921, simply through sheer inability to complete the first paper in the given time. The brain simply would not work. So the brain must be kept in trim. On the other hand, the young officer has got to learn his duties as an officer; he has got to learn to handle men; and he has got to do his practical training. These matters take up a deal of time, both during work and play hours. It is, therefore, a mistake to force personal study too early.

The average young man has no natural inclination to sit down and read deeply. If he has, there is something wrong with him; he is abnormal, and he is either half-way to becoming a Napoleon or half-way towards qualifying for the bowler hat, and we can leave him at that. Generally speaking, for the first two or three years of his commissioned service, the young officer does not require an intensive theoretical education. Instruction in the practical duties of his rank, instruction in the manners and customs of his Service will be quite sufficient to keep his mind in trim, and to develop his character in the way it should go. In making this assumption I may, perhaps, be talking too much from the point of view of my own Service, although I think the Air Force will agree. The Navy take their personnel in hand so much earlier, that they may have different views. In any case, I think there can be no doubt that it is here that the commanding officer has a great responsibility. If he lets the young man go on too long without study, he may never be able to catch up; while, if he starts him too soon, he may either disgust him or turn him into a bookworm. Both are equally bad, but only a good judge of character can decide the psychological moment to take him in hand.

The Senior Officer's Responsibility

Having arrived at this stage, let us look at the question from the point of view of the senior officer charged with training. To begin with, it is not everyone who can teach; with some it is a gift, to most it only comes after practice; a few will never be any good at it, however much they practise. But when we speak of teaching as applied to officers, we do not mean that type of forced education which is necessary with schoolboys. Any attempt at educating the adult mind is useless unless it has the active co-operation of that mind. In fact, the adult mind has got to educate itself. The teacher can only guide and criticise.

The first thing, therefore, is to excite interest. In the very early stages of an officer's career, much influence is exerted by the atmosphere in which he lives, and senior officers can do a great deal to discourage a parochial outlook. For instance, some time ago in India I was talking to an officer with about eight years service, and I was amazed to find that, although he had been three years in that station, he did not know who the chief civil official of the district was; nor did he know anything about how that particular part of the country was run. That is an example of what I call a parochial outlook, and I was not surprised to hear a little later that that officer had failed to pass his promotion examination. Fortunately, this narrow outlook is not as common as it used to be. But there are still some officers whose horizon is bounded by their own Service, who have few if any friends outside it, whose reading of the newspapers is confined to the sporting pages, and who are totally unable to appreciate the point of view of the average civilian. In these days, when war is the affair of the nation and of every individual in the nation, that is wrong.

Of course, the young officer should be proud of the unit in which he is serving, and it is quite natural that, during his early training, his conversation and interests should be based largely on his day-to-day experiences in that unit. But senior officers can do much by example, firstly, to make him realise that his own Service is a big and complicated organization that requires study, and secondly, to encourage him to take an intelligent interest in the affairs of his country and of the world at large.

As we are talking about teaching, I should like to advance a plea for the system of promotion examinations. I know it is often said that to pass an examination requires a particular kink in the brain, that not everyone has this kink, and that some otherwise good and practical officers therefore fail to pass; but apart from any other consideration, I suggest that the system is of value from the point of view of the senior officer responsible for training his juniors. An expert scientific witness in a recent case was asked in cross-examination by counsel "are you a master in your profession"; he replied "if by ‘a master in his profession' you mean one who knows all there is to be known about his profession, there is no such person, either in science or in law." Every officer of any seniority knows that there is no time until we retire at which we can sit back and say with a clear conscience " I don't need to learn any more." But the young officer does not realise this, while senior officers are far too busy to occupy themselves continuously with directing the personal study of a lot of junior officers, all in different stages of development. This is where the promotion examination comes in. The knowledge that he has got to pass it by a certain age or a certain date provides the young officer with a very necessary spur to study.

Again, aimless study is of no value. If the student is to get full benefit, there must be some definite standard to which he should work. How many men are there who, faced with the training of young officers, could make out a satisfactory syllabus for their work, or who could lay down a standard which they ought to reach ? Without some official help, I think most people would be rather at sea. The promotion examination fulfils this function. The syllabus gives both teacher and student a standard to which to Work, and former question papers provide a very valuable guide to the teacher in assisting the work of the student.


Having created the right atmosphere in a young man's life, the next thing is to start him off on his career of personal study. He has got to read. If he receives no guidance, he will probably do as I did, take a book out of the library that has been recommended to him by somebody, and retire to his room with it. There he will sit down in an armchair, yawn over it for a day or two, perhaps memorize imperfectly a few facts, forget to put the book back until reminded by the librarian, and in a week or two he will have forgotten everything he has read in it. So he must be told how to get value from his reading. The same methods may not of course suit every man, but there are two general principles to follow. The first is: never to sit in an easy chair. The normal young man has probably got no time to sit down to work until the evening, and he has probably been doing something fairly energetic during the day. In these circumstances, an easy chair produces a feeling of lethargy, and very shortly all his energies are being spent in keeping awake. There comes an age when it can be done, but it is not when one is very young. It is much better for him to sit up at a table with his book, and a pencil and paper beside him. Incidentally, it is curious to note how most men find the evening after dinner the best time to work. I say "curious," because we often read in biographies of great men that they used to put in a couple of hours before breakfast because the brain was supposed to be clearer then. I am afraid that if the ability to study on an empty stomach is the hall-mark of genius, very few officers I have met are likely to go far.

The second principle is: "always try to reproduce something of what you have read in your own words." For some the best way is to make notes of various points in the book as it is read, others may find it better to write a short résumé of each chapter as it is finished, or possibly of the whole book. It depends very much on the individual, and also on whether the book is being read with the object of getting ideas or of getting facts. Another excellent way of getting full value out of a book of the type designed to make one think is for two officers to read the book at the same time, and to discuss it together.


The next stage is to get the student to think for himself, and to apply what he has read. To do this he must write. This writing may take the form of solving tactical schemes or exercises, or may be in the nature of short essays or answers to set questions. Whichever it is, the object should be to put his own ideas into his own words. It is here that the senior officer comes in in two ways. Firstly, the young officer Wants some guidance in setting himself these problems—I am not suggesting that everything he writes should be set by a senior Officer; that would be violating the principle that the adult mind must educate itself—but at the outset, and occasionally afterwards, he wants some help as to the type of problems he should set himself. The methods must vary to a certain extent in each Service. Secondly, there is the necessity for criticism. Writing will do the young officer little good unless his efforts are occasionally reviewed by a senior. Criticism should, of course, be constructive, but particular attention at this stage should be paid to eradicating false ideas and impressions. In order that the young man should learn to express himself clearly and concisely, his style should also be examined, and anything which might tend to ambiguity should be exposed. I think perhaps, at this stage, verbal criticism is better than written remarks. But perhaps the best way of all is for the teacher, if he has time, to make notes and then discuss them With the student afterwards; the latter then gets something concrete to take away with him and digest, after he has asked questions to elucidate anything he does not understand.

Military History

So far I have discussed this subject in general terms; now I want to touch on one particular aspect—the study of military history, using the word "military" in the broad sense, of course. The Army Training Manual says, "military history must unquestionably have the most important place in study as being the best means of learning the true meaning of the principles of war and their application, and of studying the preponderating part which human nature plays in all operations." [Training and Manceuvre Regulations, p. 14.] Military history, however, can be a dry-as-dust subject if taken in the wrong way, and it is just this study of the human side that converts it from a labour to an interest. In discussing mistakes made in past Wars, one has often heard such remarks from beginners as "Why on earth did So-and-So do that; they couldn't have known much in those days." What the junior officer does not realise is that it is always easy to be wise after the event when full information is available, but that it is a very different thing for the commander who has to make a decision in battle with incomplete and often conflicting information, while bearing the responsibility for the safety of his force. It is by drawing attention to this aspect, by "painting the picture," as we call it nowadays, and by thus giving him something of the atmosphere of war, that the senior officer can help so much.

Then there is another way in which senior officers can help. History used to be taught very badly in most schools, and there still seems room for improvement in a good many. The school history book is, too often, a dreary recital of events punctuated by dates. The result is that the reader comes to regard the great men of history as mere names. I think that a large number of junior officers, when they first start to study military history, are apt to look on the leaders of the past as impersonal beings, and they will not get full value out of their reading unless they try to learn something about the characters of these leaders, and try to see them as human. A study of character often shows the reason for success or failure, and always helps one to understand the reason for a decision, or possibly for indecision. Here also senior officers can help by drawing the attention of the young student to the importance of the human element. Of course, it is not everyone who starts with the outlook I have just mentioned. Some boys have a bent for history, and come from school with a very fair realization of how to study it. To others the realization may come without prompting by their seniors. Personally, I was one of those to whom history was taught in the bad old way at school, and I could never summon up any interest or enthusiasm for it. One day I thought I had better do some work, and I took a book on the Waterloo Campaign out of the library. I was sitting in an armchair reading it, when I came across the story of how, after the battle of Ligny, in which Blücher had been unhorsed and had been ridden over by a regiment of cavalry, he had to go to bed that night sober for the first time in his life because he stank so much of the onions in which he had rolled that no one would drink With him. I have since read other versions of the story, and do not even now know Whether it is true, but at the time it suddenly struck me that here was no mere name in a history book, here was a real character, a very tough old gentleman of seventy-two.

What, then, is the best way to help the majority of young officers to read military history? I am sure that no academical directions to choose certain books, or even to write certain papers, will suffice. There must be something more personal, and I suggest that the only way really to rouse the interest of the young officer, and to make him read intelligently for himself, is to make him talk. He should be made to talk, not in a large lecture room full of more senior officers, but in comfort, with others of his own rank and seniority about him to join in the discussion. This is the way I have seen it done in my own regiment. At the beginning of the winter a campaign is selected for study, and officers are told that there will be discussions towards the end of the period. About January or February a list of points to be discussed is given out, together with a note to those who have not previously taken part emphasizing that the discussions are not in the nature of an examination, and that they may bring any notes or books that they may require, the object being a mutual exchange of ideas. The points are as far as possible linked up with appropriate paragraphs in the training .manuals. Then in February or March the discussions take place on, say, two evenings running between tea and dinner. The officers meet in some room in the mess, where they can be comfortable, and smoking is allowed. A senior officer conducts and, of course, the more junior the officers the more will he find it necessary to help them out, and to keep them on the right lines. But the conducting officer should take care that the discussion does not degenerate into a lecture by himself, and he should normally confine himself to summing up on each point. Of course, it goes without saying that a lot of preliminary work by the conducting Officer is necessary. An occasional discussion like this makes military history very interesting, and enables commanding officers, with a minimum of effort on their part, to make certain that their juniors are studying on the right lines.

Before we leave military history, I want to say a word or two about books, because a young officer just starting to study wants good advice on the choice of books to read.

As regards wars before the Great War there is not much difficulty, because certain books have by now come to be regarded as standard works, and it is usually quite easy to pick out one which will give the young student a good general outline of the campaign he is studying. Most of these standard books contain plenty of comment as well as facts. Some of them are rather dry reading, and it is a good plan to read in addition a good biography in order to get at that human side to which I have referred.

As regards the Great War the problem is more difficult because there is such a quantity of literature. Many of the books contain masses of facts but little or no comment; others contain plenty of comment but were written too soon after the War for that comment to be entirely impartial. Some are distinctly one-sided, because the authors have been biased by their own personal experiences, others are frankly egotistical and written with the object of replying to criticism. So it is not an easy matter to advise the young Officer Where to start. Perhaps it is best always to start off with the Official History, and then to take, say, two other books written from opposite points of view. I cannot go into more detail here without making invidious distinction between books, but the one thing that stands out seems to be that the officer guiding the study must himself be well-read, and must be able to discriminate between the book which will give the young officer the right atmosphere, and the book which, although interesting, is best left alone till later when he has reached the stage when he can perceive its true value.


I have tried to give, from my limited experience, some idea of what the junior officer lacks and the sort of help he requires. I have rather confined myself to the initial stages, because it is obviously then that he wants most help. I have suggested, too, that the ideal should be two partners—the junior officer who is studying and who must educate himself, and a senior officer who should guide and criticise. Unfortunately, in this imperfect world, there are always difficulties. The nature of these depends largely on the conditions in the various Services, and they are not, therefore, suitable for discussion in a general lecture such as this. But there is one, which stands out in the Army and which is probably applicable to the other Services. If a commanding officer, charged with the responsibility of training his young officers, is going to do all he might to help them in their personal studies he will have no time to command or train his unit. Nor is he always in a position to delegate this responsibility. Take his case in the Army. In an average regiment there are seldom more than two or three other officers with sufficient seniority, capability and experience to assist juniors. And these, because they are capable and experienced, are always being asked to do other jobs outside the regiment. As I have said, the system of promotion examinations does help the commanding officer a lot, both as an official urge to study and as providing a syllabus of Work. But even then he can rarely give junior Officers all the attention he would like. There does not seem to be any solution to this problem.

Again, the mental capacity of individuals varies so much, that methods suited to one may be totally unfit for another, and there must be difficulties in one Service which the others do not necessarily experience. But the main thing is to arouse interest and enthusiasm and to create the right atmosphere. As Dickens wrote, "if you had all the abilities of all the great men, past and present, you could no nothing without sincerely meaning it."