This talk looks at the appointment of Infantry Battalion Commanders before and during the Great War. Until the Cardwell Reform of 1871, a gentleman, wishing a commission in the British Army,would have purchased it, the cash price being a bond for good behaviour and could be forfeited by being cashiered or for gross misconduct. In the 19th century, the purchase of a battalion commandership would have cost £4,500 (which is close to £440,000 in 2021 value). If an officer was in search of promotion, he would pay the difference between his previous rank (Major) and Battalion Commander (Lieutenant Colonel).
It is no surprise that the officer corps of the British Army would have been a wealthy elite, which is not the best method of appointing the bestor the most effective men to command. There was no training for officers before the Crimean War, even though Sandhurst College had been open since 1801, attendance was not compulsory.The college was actually closed from 1870-74, re-opening after extensive reorganisation. Despite the experience of poor leadershipduring the Boer War, the quality of officers in the Edwardian era was not very different to those of the late Victorian era.
In 1914 a survey of Battalion commanders shows that 7% were drawn from the peerage, 26% from the gentry, 23% from families with previous military service, 26% from the clergy and the remaining 18% not known. The Army continued its emphasis on public school education – this after all was the ‘breeding ground’ for gentlemen and a private income was essential to maintain standards. The Great War was to change all of this. Meritocracy implies competition by merit ad before 1914, there had been no merit assessment other than social status. An example of this was Major Hugh Rice of the 2nd Essex regiment. He avoided the Boer War due to illness but that was no handicap when he was promoted to major in 1908. Identified as 2nd in line for a battalion command and with inadequate monitoring of his standard of leadership, he was sent o India via a ‘swop’ in position to serve with the 1st Essex. After landing in Gallipoli in 1915 with his battalion, as part of 29th Division, he assumed command before being invalided back to the UK, and eventual retirement, due to illness. He had avoided any training what so ever.
Training for battalion command by 1912 involved lectures on tactical fitness to command in war, an examination and experience of minor operations in the field. In 1912, 38% of the candidates for command failed, and only 15% went on to command battalions, their promotion involved passing over a senior major. This appears to be partial evidence for Meritocracy Assessment.
During the first year of the war (1914-5), over 33% of regular officers became casualties. This included battalion commanders, and their replacements were found amongst younger officers from a public school and OTC background. From the ranks of newly recruited ‘New Army’ men, men were promoted to officer rank even though they had been poorly trained but were likeable and highly thought of. Similar men who did not seek officer rank remained privates during this period and would go onto to become casualties in future conflicts. Finally, 105 Warrant Officers were promoted to officer rank. By 1918, NCOs were sent on training courses for assessment for officer rank even though not all battalion commanders approved of this. Infantry COs were usually unwilling to release their more able NCOs and several NCOs refused the promotion.
Looking at the major differences between recruitment of officers in 1914/5 and 1916/8 one would observe that the army went from a ‘class and education’ preference to a perceived ability assessment. But a class bias still existed and training for officer rank did have some specific skill assessment. There was still a ‘two track’ system, fitness to command could be made by a superior officer without the candidate attending a training course. There were ‘talent spotters’ at Army HQs, these would recommend prospective officers for promotion but not all approached were suitable.
In 1916, Haig established a training school for senior officers at Oudenarde Barracks, Aldershot, under the command of Brig. General Reginald John Kentish. Kentish was chosen as he had considerable staff and regimental experience, and had spent time as commandant of the Third Army School. There was no compulsion for officers, considered for command of a battalion, to attend as it was completely voluntary and many (such as Lt-Colonel Jack of the 2nd West Yorkshire) refused as the attendance was ‘an infernal nuisance’.
The course was comprised of three units – Tactical Development, Army Administration and Leadership skills. Adrian Carton de Wiart, a ‘failed major’, never attended the course but was an outstanding commander of the 8th Gloucester Regiment and commander of 12th Brigade. But then, de Wiart had shown all the skills of a battalion commander by his bravery, leadership and tactical decisions in the field of battle.
At Aldershot there were tactical exercises for the prospective battalion commanders as well as lectures. Initially the group would comprise of 20 – 30 senior officers, but by 1918 the number had been increased to over 50. After initial drill exercises, the prospective commanders graduated to the tactical exercises which were held on the Hog’s Back near Wellington Memorial, around the Royal Pavilion, on Laffan’s Plain, the Basingstoke Canal, Norris Bridge and in Crondall Village.
The army was looking for leadership skills including courage, determination, even-temperedness, fairness, civility and a sound sense of justice. The candidates had to acquire knowledge and demonstrate imagination and of course be prepared for hard work. Fitness for command included having a sound character, to show conscientiousness and tact.They also had to be able to learnnew ideas, to have the imagination and initiative (along with military knowledge) to solve problems and to motivate and drill troops.
Whilst no records of Senior Officer School survive, it was the practice to publish the lectures as ‘Notes for Commanding Officers’. The fourth course, held in the first half of 1917, can be examined in terms of its tutors and participants. There were six Instructional Staff, three Group Commanders, and 19 Syndicate Commanders, as well as one Royal Engineer Instructor. They were rich in battle experience. There were 227 attendees, with ranks from Lieutenant to Lieutenant-Colonel, 20 per cent being Dominion officers. Eight per cent already had experience of command, and clearly part of the school’s purpose was to enhance the knowledge/skills of those already in post. All bar four were infantry. Over a timespan of a year and a half following completing the course, a period likely long enough for these officers to achieve command if they were going to, and removing those who were subsequently killed, 40 per cent achieved a CO post as Lieutenant-Colonel.The army at this point in the war evidently possessed clear notions as to who should progress to CO status and was judicious as to who was appointed.
Not all promotion to command a battalion ended successfully, thirty-eight per cent of COs were removed from command or side-lined into inactive posts.Promotion to battalion command was the hope of many officers, but the best never took it up without diffidence. The most able COs followed the tenets of “identity leadership”, stamping their mark through training and shaping their officer cadre. Physical exhaustion and war-weariness, however, were never far away.
Although Regular officers (captains or majors in 1914) made up the majority of battalion commanders, promotion of civilians who volunteered in 1914 must not be discounted: Two hundred and sixty citizens of August 1914 were identified as being appointed Lieutenant-Colonels to infantry battalions of regiments of the line during the war. From the ‘citizen CO’ group of infantry battalion commanders, 13% were killed in action (11% for regulars), 16% were wounded or invalided out (the overall figure for the BEF was 20% and compared to the 38% removed from command, the citizen CO removal rate was 25%.
George Henry Gater, CO 6th Lincolnshire’s from 15 August 1916 to 1 November 1917, who led his battalion with “brilliant skill and resolution”, was to be the most notable of the citizen promotions to Brigadier-General. As a trained teacher, had been assistant Director of Education for Nottinghamshire since 1911 and had enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters in 1914. He served in Gallipoli where he was first promoted to captain and then to major. He won the DSO during the battle of the Somme, and promoted to command the 6th Lincolnshire’s in October. He went on to be awarded a bar to his DSO after Messines in 1917 and was chosen to command 62nd Brigade in November 1917. After the war Gater returned to civilian life as a civil servant, first as Director of Education In Lancashire then with the London County Council.
During the Great War a limited meritocracy had emerged in the British Army. Promotion of able and experienced officers whatever their pre-war background was evident by 1918. Even Haig in 1919 acknowledged the promotion of the most able even from ‘a humble background’ had taken place.
On 29 September 1918, the pivotal moment of The Hundred Days, the COs of the British Army comprised 40 per cent professional soldiers, 31 per cent Territorials, four per cent Special Reserve, 23 per cent citizens of August 1914, and three per cent empire soldiers. The BEF moved towards promotion on merit but there were always more influential forces from the regular army at play. There was definitely a ‘core knowledge’ basis to the system of promotion. Post-war, the army reverted to pre-1914 criteria for promotion as the civilians and territorial appointments left. By the 1920s, junior officers were said to live for another war or a plague in order to be given a chance of promotion. A Selection Board for promotion of senior officers did not come into force until 1943 and WW2.
Report by Peter Palmer