Junior Officers in World War One
When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 it had an army with less than a quarter of a million men available for immediate service in Europe. Spartacus Educational records that the newly appointed Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener “immediately began a recruiting campaign for volunteer regular troops. At first this was very successful with an average of 33,000 men joining every day.”
Within a month, half a million men had joined up.
Junior Officers Needed to Command Infantry
The basic unit of foot soldiers was the platoon of up to 50 men under the command of a lieutenant, the second lowest commissioned officer rank. The lowest rank was second lieutenant.
The official title of these two junior officers was subaltern; however, they were often called “warts.”
Any man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.
At the outbreak of war these young men (many were still just schoolboys) rushed to join the forces in Britain; they all thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun. Many lied about their age and some 16-year-olds got into uniform with a nudge and wink from recruiting sergeants.
George Morgan joined the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1914. He was 16 and he was concerned he would not pass a medical that required a chest measurement of a minimum of 34 inches. BBC History quotes Morgan’s later recollection: “I took a deep breath and puffed out my chest as far as I could and the doctor said ‘You’ve just scraped through.’ It was marvellous being accepted.”
Product of British Public Schools
Overwhelmingly, the junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which, in the quaint way that country has with its language, were actually private institutions open only to those who could afford the fees. The student body came almost exclusively from the British upper classes and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.
John Lewis-Stempel writes in The Express “They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders.
“The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die.”
Christopher Hudson writes in The Daily Mail these products of boarding schools were “brought up in a regime of muscular Christianity, team games, cold showers, and immersion in history and the classics. They read Henty and Kipling and the famous Newbolt poem with the line, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’.”
In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke the language, public school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead lesser men, to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry.
The “lesser men” were taught to obey the commands of those with upper crust accents.
Courage of Junior Officers
A common thread is exposed in the writing of many junior officers; they seemed to fear “letting the side down” or “not being brave enough” more than they feared death.
Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton College and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that “To die for one’s school is an honour.” He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was 20 years old.
The subalterns had to be the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell.
Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled in a reminiscence quoted by Spartacus Educational, “I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, anxious lest I show it.”
Subalterns Cut Down by Enemy Fire
The casualty rates among the junior officers were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, perfectly describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front was just 42 days.
The public school subalterns were an easy target. Because they enjoyed a better diet and physical fitness than the working class men they led they were, on average, five inches taller.
As Christopher Silvester of The Daily Express points out in reviewing the book: “The universal expectation of a subaltern was ‘a hospital bed or interment in the soil.’ ”
Thousands Died in Near Suicidal Attacks
Charging across “No Man’s Land” with nothing but a pistol, junior officers were obvious targets for German troops; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.
One British public school, Eton College, sent 3,000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War. Many were career officers in higher commands, safely distant from the shrapnel and bullets. Despite this 1,157 Old Etonians died on the battlefields.
John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that among subalterns “estimates for the mortality rates range from 65 to 81%. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.”
Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian A.J.P. Taylor to write “The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.”
Sedbergh School in northern England supplied 1,200 men, mostly officers, to the battlefields of World War I. Their school song prepared them by instructing them to “laugh at pain.”
The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and described the men who went into its meat grinder as “The Lost Generation.”
Rudyard Kipling’s son John was keen to join the fight, but was rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and got him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In late September 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going “over the top” he was dead, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.
- “Recruitment in the First World War.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
- “World War One Movies.” BBC History, undated.
- “The Dreams of Chivalry Shot Down in Flames.” Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail, November 25, 2010.
- “Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.” John Lewis-Stempel, W&N, October 2010.
- “Review: Six Weeks - The Short & Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.” Christopher Silvester, The Express, October 22, 2010.
- “Death of Our Best and Brightest: Eton Rifles May Have Been ‘Built for’ Slaughter.” John Lewis-Stempel, The Express, February 9, 2014.
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© 2017 Rupert Taylor