Examination Tactics (1953)

Major-General H. Essame, CBE, DSO, MC, in "THE Army Quarterly" (Great Britain)
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 1, January 1954

An examination system seems to be an inescapable feature of any form of civilization. The Chinese developed theirs under the Imperial regime to such an extent that many students spent the whole of their lives in preparing for examinations and frequently only qualified in their seventies. The limitations and drawbacks of examinations are obvious to any man of practical experience. Nevertheless, there appears to be no escape from them. Without the spur of examinations, the incentive to study would decline and there would be no uniform means of making certain that candidates for promotion or for such institutions as the Staff College reached the standard required. In addition, from a purely military point of view, an examination provides one means of testing ability to face a difficult situation in an emergency. In any military examination, many of the conditions of a battle are reproduced.

The successful answering of any paper involves the normal military sequence of reconnaissance, concentration, assembly and deployment. It might be expected, therefore, that candidates, accustomed in their normal day-to-day training to think on these lines, would take the contest in their stride. Post-war performance, however, apparently shows no improvement on pre-war experience. Once in the examination room, many candidates continue to forget that they are faced with a problem to be solved in accordance with military principles. Even those who realize this, fail for the very reason which has abruptly terminated the career of many a promising commander—inability to appreciate the character and probable reactions of the enemy, that is the examiner. In actual fact he is a highly critical friend, above all anxious to be just, and his problems are at least as complex and exasperating as those of the candidate. If this were more generally understood, there would be fewer failures and less justifiably bitter comment to cast a gloom from Korea to Jamaica.

Absolute secrecy quite rightly conceals the identity of examiners. No breach of trust, however, is involved in revealing the fact that they are in all probability ambitious senior officers with considerable experience both in command and on the staff and, therefore, industrious and jealous of their reputation. They are likely to display the characteristics of the majority of their kind: to be orderly minded, with a strong bias towards concise expression in simple form, intolerant of verbosity, quick to detect bluff, practical minded and extremely conscientious. Their sympathies will probably be towards the candidate who shows practical sense and experience gained through close contact with troops. As they themselves are busy men and have worked hard to attain their rank, they are likely to show little tolerance towards the candidate who has been too idle to study the syllabus. They are probably invited to do the job: it is hard to imagine anyone who realizes the work involved volunteering for it. Having accepted what is for all practical purposes a command, an examiner's first step, after being briefed with regard to the particular weaknesses disclosed at the previous examination, will be to study the syllabus and the reports for the past six or seven years. He will then start to select his questions, probably taking care to avoid any which have been recently set, knowing full well that even the idlest candidate has probably taken the trouble to read the blue or orange reports published after each examination. Eventually, after taking considerable trouble to ensure that his questions are unequivocally worded, he will pass the first draft of the paper to the branch of the War Office whose responsibility it is. Now the fun begins.

The questions probably involve the interests of quite a number of branches, all of which must be given the opportunity of commenting. Some even may object to the questions. The contest is prolonged and may reach a high, almost legalistic level. The mutilated draft, under secret cover, passes to and fro. Sometimes a specially selected critic may be brought in. Suitable persons temperamentally qualified for this role are never hard to find. At long last, agreement is reached and the paper passed to the printer. A few days later it returns to the examiner for checking. At this stage, a printer's error undetected may result in world-wide exasperation. Between the wars, a misplaced comma in a Staff College paper cost several hundred pounds in cables on the day of the examination and involved the personal intervention of an unusually explosive C.I.G.S.

The examiner, however, is still only at the very beginning of his troubles. Each question has to be analysed in detail, and a scale of marking evolved. To many questions there may even be no perfect answer: some solutions will be merely better than others. A proportion of candidates can be relied upon to violate at least one principle: the extent to which they must be penalized must therefore be decided. If the subject is in any way controversial, it will be by no means to evolve a uniformly fair system of marking.

In due course the batches of candidates' completed papers begin to arrive, and the arduous work of correction starts, much of it probably to be done late at night or in a period of leave. All the demands of private life must now go by the board; the examiner, of necessity, lives for work alone. At long last, when he has marked all the papers, he may find that, compared with past results, far too high a proportion of candidates have failed. He may, therefore, decide to go through all the work again to make quite certain that he has not been unreasonably strict. If he has been paired off with a critic, he will have to pass the marked papers to him for comment before deciding on each candidate's final total. In any case, there will inevitably be a number of papers only a few marks short of the pass standard to review. These borderline cases, in fact, may well be the cause of a good deal of correspondence with the War Office especially where a candidate has done brilliantly in Tactics, for example and just missed pass marks in another paper through sheer ignorance of what Napoleon did in 1796.

It now remains to compile the report. Oddly enough this should present no difficulty, for he will find that experience has led him to exactly the same conclusions with regard to the candidates' short-comings as his predecessors since 1906. He can, therefore, be left, it is hoped still retaining his faith in the basic soundness of the younger generation, to draw the cheque for his fees. This, when income tax has been deducted, will probably show that he has worked for about half as much an hour as his wife's charwoman.

The fundamental and annually recurring causes of ninety per cent of his troubles and those of his predecessors must, therefore, be considered. The blue-covered reports on past examinations since 1920 are usually available in most military libraries. Study of all of them leads to the conclusion that the main causes of failure can be grouped under five heads—ignorance, bad battle procedure, bad staff duties, bad deployment of facts and bad military English. The theme is depressing in its monotony: post-war candidates are probably no better and no worse than their pre-war counterparts.

Although the lists of reading prescribed are comprehensive and clear, the candidate is entitled to a measure of sympathy. The doctrine of any vital organization such as the Army must inevitably be in a constant state of modification; amendment must succeed amendment, and manual replace manual. To read right through the "Manual of Pay Duties" or "Queen's Regulations" from cover to cover, apart from the inevitable mental indigestion, would be a waste of time far more profitably spent in the open air on training or recreation. The candidate is, therefore, entitled to expect skilled guidance in the matter of essential reading. Fortunately, the means are available, and the candidate who fails to take advantage of them and wastes his own or the Army's time on unguided study deserves his almost inevitable fate.

The resemblance between the early stages of a battle and the answering of an examination paper is striking. Both are a race against time. Both demand meticulous preliminary reconnaissance and careful planning. In the examination room, the aim of the candidate is to score as many marks as possible. To do this he must first of all read through all the questions and make certain which and how many of them must be answered. He must then decide which of any alternative questions offered he is going to answer and in what order he proposes to do so. Finally, he must allot time to the questions in accordance with their mark value and make out a time-table. Having made this out, he should stick closely to it. No commander, however inexperienced, would willingly commit his troops to the attack without training himself in battle procedure. Similarly, no candidate should enter the examination room without preliminary practice. The speed which can be acquired by practice alone is as essential in examinations as on the battlefield. Experience appears to indicate that a minimum of four or five papers in each subject must be worked through before a candidate can be confident that he will not be caught short through lack of time and thus miss the chance of displaying the full range of goods he has to offer.

The reading of many acid reports gives the impression that at least fifty per cent. of the examiner's justifiable irritation could have been avoided if candidates had observed the simple rules of military expression insisted upon in the training of a R.A.S.C. clerk and in official day-to-day correspondence. The examiner is entitled to expect that handwriting should be legible and preferably bold. After all, an undecipherable message may mean a lost battle. Every spelling mistake probably results in the loss of a mark. Since the beginning of this century, officers have been baffled by by the treacherous "Easy Six"—"accoMModation, alloTTed, liaIson, pursuit recoNNaissance and sepArate". Even C.I.G.S.s have had to draw attention to the apparently fatal words, one even endorsing the examiner's report with this remark, "I concur: more attention must be paid to speling."

This, however, was before 1939. A dictionary on every candidate's writing table would obviate this. It might well be accompanied by Appendix C to "Staff Duties in the Field-Abbreviations". No examiner can reasonably object to a word written in full: an abbreviation without official sanction is, however, bound to shock his sense of propriety. He is also entitled to expect that paragraphs should be numbered and headed as in any modern military manual. Tabulation and simple diagrams obviously lighten his task. In fact, it is discourteous as well as unwise to present him with work in slipshod and unofficial form. Many candidates apparently fail to realize their shortcomings in this elementary matter. In day-to-day military life, their contemporaries are probably equally indifferent and their seniors too busy to bother with minor detail. Practice, therefore, in answering questions under an outside critic, unlikely to spare their feelings seems to be the only solution.

The examiner's most bitter and consistently repeated complaint is however, the persistence of the supreme military crime, to use Field Marshal Montgomery's expression, of "drifting to battle". The AB 4 provides a blank left-hand page for rough work and notes. This is the assembly area for the operation where the facts should be collected, the ideas married up, the inessentials thrown out and the components arranged in the right sequence for the advance. Failure in war is inevitable if the deployment phase is muddled: it is almost equally certain in the examination room. An officer who can successfully deploy his command for battle already knows the principles of orderly expression on paper. He has merely to apply them in answering examination questions. Given practice under the right guidance he will inevitably reach the standard expected.

Closely connected with this vital matter of layout is the type of English required. Candidates' shortcomings in this respect are the subject of the examiner's most constant and sour comment. The concise military English of the current training manuals is expected. It may not be beautiful, but it is clear and that is all that is wanted. The candidate who models his style on that of "Infantry Training, Volume IV, Tactics 1952" cannot go far wrong. The principles of military English are Clarity and Brevity. Verbosity, jargon, slang, high sounding and empty phrases, clichés and colloquial expressions are anathema. There is no more to be said.

The candidate who remembers when committing his thoughts to paper that he is, in fact, making a formal military report to a senior officer who holds his fate in his hands, will be on the right lines. Unfortunately, human nature is such that practically no one realizes the defects of his English until be submits a specimen to a competent critic. A candidate may be lucky enough to persuade a senior officer to comment on his efforts. If he is not unduly sensitive, no ill feeling will result. It is obviously preferable, however, that an outside critic, uninfluenced by personal and local factors and with no respect whatever for the candidate's feelings, should carry out this rather invidious but essential task.

In conclusion, this article might well have appeared in The Army Review of 1913 instead of The Army Quarterly of 1953. In war, an offensive attitude is vital: in examinations, good manners and observance of the etiquette prescribed are the examiner's due.