Junior Officers in World War One

Updated on February 9, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Lieutenant Kenneth Ford of Marlborough College, killed by a German sniper in November 1915, aged 20.
Lieutenant Kenneth Ford of Marlborough College, killed by a German sniper in November 1915, aged 20. | Source

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 marvelous being accepted.”

Second Lieutenant Lloyd Allison Williams of Kingswood School, Bath. Killed by shellfire, aged 22, in July 1916.
Second Lieutenant Lloyd Allison Williams of Kingswood School, Bath. Killed by shellfire, aged 22, in July 1916. | Source

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.

Boys of Eton College practice drill in 1915.
Boys of Eton College practice drill in 1915. | Source

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.’ ”

Dead at the age of 19.
Dead at the age of 19. | Source

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.”

Bonus Factoids

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.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Glenis Rix profile image


      2 years ago from UK

      Dreadfully tragic. My grandfather was decorated in the War for crawling out of his trench to rescue his commanding officer, sustaining a bulletin wound to his arm in the process. Chilling to think that had he been one of the many fallen I wouldn't be here.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      2 years ago from Norfolk, England

      That was so interesting to read. WW1 was terrible, so many young men lost their lives. Reading the stories of these young men is really interesting to read, thankyou.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)