An Open Letter to the Very Young Officer

By C. N. W.

(From the Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. LXII., February to November, 1917)

My Dear Blanc Bec,--

Because you are so young and have so recently been turned out of the nest, it seems to me that the French name for an immature birdling, newly fledged and pale, still, as to the colour of its beak, is more applicable to you, the officer fledgling, than the other term of Bluet which the French apply to the young bloom, the sapling, otherwise the Flower of the Army, or than our English term of youngster- and so I address you as Blanc Bec.

But though your beak is pale, betokening immaturity of experience, you have got all your feathers and can use your wings, so there is a certain amount of danger that, as in the case of other young birds when they first set out to fly about on their own--especially young warrior birds-you may butt into things through inexperience.

For being in the Blanc Bec stage I envy and congratulate you--I, who, as an old bird, am relegated to a dull .perch in the Senior Aviary alongside of other old birds whose cry is in effect--though most of them would express it otherwise--"Eheu fugaces, postume, postume--alas! for the days that are lost to me, lost to me."

Still, moulty as we may be from age, some of us in our day have flown strenuously, if not always successfully, and we all regard with interest the early flights of the Blanc Bec of to-day, remembering our own callow youth, and are moved to croak our warnings to you as to what to avoid.

In the Old Army the great majority of the officers were drawn from the class, or genus, which in the bird world is represented by the gallinaceous, or combative, fowls, you who read this may belong to that' genus, or you may come of a more peaceful and dove-like stock, but if from the latter you show an amazing pugnacity which, dropping the bird metaphor, goes to prove that the Germans and our own ante bellum croakers were a bit out in their prognostications that the British race was decadent, and that the British lower middle class was so steeped in commercialism and the labouring classes in Trade Unionism-relieved by striking and watching professional foot- ball matches-as to be of no account as fighting men.

Events have proved that the race can fight as well as ever it did--all classes and sections of it, “Duke's son, cook's son, or son of a belted earl”; but don't run away with the idea that because you possess the national courage, and your name has appeared in the London Gazette as a Temporary Second Lieutenant, you are by mere virtue of being a commissioned officer also a leader of men j to be that you must possess, or set to work to acquire if you want to be a good officer and not a useless--and therefore in war a dangerous--slacker, the qualities which make for leadership.

I don't suppose you have had time, recently, to indulge in light literature such as Blackwood's Magazine, or the Journal of the Royal Artillery Institution, in which case you will have missed reading in the former the description-under the title "Fallen Angels"--of the gradual, and at times painful, process of forming the young, New Army, officer in a cadet corps, and, in the latter, the very excellent open letter by "Esterel" to the Junior (Artillery) Subaltern.

This is what the author of "Fallen Angels" has to say-and it is worth considering-about the qualities which make for leadership :-" The obvious qualities that an officer must possess. ..are. ...

"(1) The gift of leadership.

"(2) A personality and a character that will command the respect of the men committed to his care.

"(3) A smart personal appearance combined with cleanly and temperate habits, for no man can be expected to respect a leader who never washes, or is seen to be tight, or wandering about in a public place arm in arm with ladies of slight reputation."

Now, if you are a Public School-boy you have started on soldiering as an officer with a great pull over your brother warts (Footnote:-- Wart-an excrescence on the posterior of society-a junior subaltern.) who are not, because, in spite of the admitted shortcomings of a Public School education, Public School discipline is the best training for a leader of men in that it teaches the great lesson of playing the game always, in other words, playing for your side and not for yourself. Politicians, I admit, also play for their own side--or Party-but, while doing so, they play hard for themselves, which makes all the difference. Soldiers never.

In a great, new, improvised Army of several millions it is obviously, impossible that all the young officers can have been at a Public School; nor can they have the benefit of passing leisurely through the good old regimental mill--or school-as did the officers of the Old Army, a mill which, when the crisis of 1914 arrived, had ground out the regimental officers of Mons, Le Cateau, and Ypres. In the New Army the young officer, or Blanc Bec, or wart, has passed straight from the office stool, or from behind the counter, into a position which in war time demands from even the wartiest of warts the highest qualities a man can possess. You, Blanc Bec of the New Army, have displayed on the Somme, the Ancre, or wherever the New Army: has fought, the same bravery as your predecessor j but you fall short of him in many respects, and, believe me, it is in the kindliest spirit that I am writing to point out to you, the latest type of officer, how you so often fail to come up to the accepted, because proved, old standard. I will take the quotation, given above, from “Fallen Angels” as my text, switching on to “Esterel”-to whom I here make all due acknowledgments-at intervals. I cannot hope to better his open letter to the Junior Subaltern and am only attempting to amplify it.

I rather demur to "Fallen Angels" (1) "gift of leadership," because, although great generalship is a gift, and great generals are born, not made, and are somewhat rare, the art of leadership of the smaller units can be acquired, If you do not possess it at the outset; but (2) “personality and a character that will command the respect of the men committed to your care," seems to me to touch the spot.

As regards personality, "Esterel" asks his gunner Blanc Bec, “Do you command your section? or are you merely in it? Have you got that grip? If you have not you are merely a rather unreliable means of transmitting orders which you are incapable of enforcing. Your men size you up very quickly and, as a rule, with painful accuracy." Now about getting that grip (quite apart from earning the respect of your men); it is only to be done by, as "Esterel" says, “looking out for the weak spots in your knowledge and skill and downing them completely one thing at a time." Earlier in his open letter he puts this question to his Junior Subaltern, “Do you know everything about those ordinary everyday things which you are supposed to be au fait with? I do not refer to strategy, military history, or the pack equipment of the Bulgarian infantry. I mean your own job. For instance, is it quite impossible to bowl you out in your knowledge of the following" --and he proceeds to give a list of elementary subjects, knowledge or ignorance of which go to make an efficient or a useless gunner Junior Subaltern.

He writes to the gunner subaltern and deals, for the most part, with gunner subjects, but his advice can be applied universally, and the gist of it is-master the details of your own job and don't depend on your N.C.O.s.--however capable--to make good your ignorance of anything you, as an officer, ought to know concerning your duties and your command-the time may come when, if you have been a slacker, not only your own little lot, your platoon, but your company and battalion and other units right and left of you may be scuppered through your inefficiency. "Nice thought," as "Esterel" remarks. And even if nothing very serious results from your lack of knowledge of the most elementary matters concerning your little job, you will be written down by your superiors and--what is even worse--by your men as an Ass.

"Esterel" gives also very sound advice about not “badgering your men” just to exert your temporary authority; but, on the other hand, do not be afraid of earning unpopularity (it will only be temporary) by enforcing all orders from above, or any you decide that it is necessary to issue yourself. Be absolute boss of your own clump of men and see to it that every man in it looks to you as his boss, passing on any orders, whether from the Field Marshal Commanding- in-Chief, the Corps, the Divisional, the Brigade, or the Battalion Commander, which may not have reached you direct.

I feel I am exploiting "Esterel" unduly--sucking his brains in fact--but before finishing with his model open letter I will quote his formula for power to command.

“Power to command = strength of character + determination + tact.” Working backwards: tact is one of those blessed words like Mesopotamia which can be overdone. Your ultra tactful man is generally a moral coward who follows the line of least resistance-but often arrives at eminence. Don't be too tactful--or, as the sailorman expresses it, "too ---- politeful" in dealing with your men, but again, never damn a man's individual eyes or hold him up to ridicule before his pals-damn the collective eyes of the platoon-and hard- if it deserves it, but treat the individual soldier with the respect he deserves. Determination and strength of character are synonymous terms; if you determine in your own mind that a certain course of action is the one which the platoon is to follow, get it done and no back chat about it. The men will respect you, however young you may be, for having a stiff upper lip.

I assume that, by sticking to your job, you will before very long become an efficient enough officer-within your limitations-but there is more "to it" than military knowledge.

"Fallen Angels" dilates on personal cleanliness; .1 honestly do not believe, from my experience of him, that the New Army young officer omits to wash; quite contrariwise. But he does, at times, cut a queer figure in uniform! and recalls that dreadful creature the "knut."

Don't, Blanc Bec, demean yourself by wearing a fearsome sponge-bag cap--drooping over one eye; it does not look soldierly, and is therefore not "it"; nor are slacks, turned up to display your fancy socks. Certain expressions occur to me. "Good Form"; "Manners Maketh Man"; "Officer and Gentleman"--they all dove-tail. Believe me, no one is quicker to spot and resent being under the command of a bounder than Mr. Thomas Atkins--Old or New.

I do not suppose many Blanc Becs will come across this long screed--or read it to the end, if they do; but if any do, remember always, while you hold the King's commission, that you are the successor of generations of gallant gentlemen who, because they were gentlemen--not very learned perhaps--made the good officers they were and that it is not enough to be without fear--you must also be without reproach, by which I mean you must not bring contempt on your uniform.