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The British Army officer corps and social class


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Hello all,

I was told last week that the deadline for the submissions to the undergraduate history journal here at West Point was next Wednesday, so I decided to spend my weekend cranking out a short social history of the British regimental officer corps in the Victorian era and how their total lack of professional knowledge made them remarkably well-suited to "small wars" against irregular enemies. I'm 6,000 words in and still have a full day of writing tomorrow, having spent Friday night outlining my research. By far the most enjoyable part of the paper was writing that while the German Army officer corps spent the nineteenth century in monastic dedication to building a professional army that would have all the tools with which the lose the two largest wars in human history, the small and anti-professional British army conquered the largest empire in the history of mankind. It's also been entertaining to look at the obsessive emphasis on sport in public schools, at Sandhurst and in the regiments in the nineteenth century. As USMA abolishes the traditionally academics-focused order of merit system of branching and replaces it with a system that will allow branches like the infantry to pick their new officers with regard to physical fitness and not academic excellence (and thus far, every branch I have seen places physical fitness higher on their wish-list for new lieutenants than academic performance), I also wonder how professional the alma mater and my own Army will be in the future.

But I digress. I've come here to ask for suggestions for research, potential resources, and the like. I'm sure this forum is a gold-mine of information, and I'd greatly appreciate if anyone is willing to share ideas on the British Army regimental officer corps in the Victorian era and how they were effected by social class. I will, of course, properly cite anyone who can assist me in my research.

In light of that, there are two key research questions as yet unanswered by me:

(1) How did the British army generally adapt to fighting small wars? They seem to have done remarkably well, despite the steep learning curve that always plagued the force. If anyone could suggest specific conflicts that best serve as examplars of how the Victorian British proved remarkably good at unconventional conflict (as opposed to their horrendous conventional performance in the Crimean and Boer Wars), I would appreciate it. While I have a pretty good knowledge of Queen Victoria's little wars, this part of my paper's the hardest to write.

(2) What letter did British cavalry officers traditionally drop as part of their affected accents? I'm completely sure they did this in the 19th century, but for the life of me the letter's escaped me.

Once again, I sincerely appreciate any help the forum can provide.

V/r,

CDT TS Allen '14

USMA

West Point, NY

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Hope everything is going well - we will look forward to some details of your training ?

You ask a difficult question when you talk of formula's . I think most of these Victorian conflicts were won more by goodluck - and the bravery of the men - then any careful judgement by the officers. Should I venture any opinion I would say that the British have always fought in their Regimental

formations and this established en espirit de corps of similar strength to the old Roman Legions. You fought for your comrades - the concept of fighting for Queen and Country looks good on paper - but for the men their home and friends were the Regiment.

I can carry this a step further - when I was in the Metropolitan Police, we directly carried the Queen's Authority - but we didn't go around thinking or, talking about this concept. Should a colleague need assistance or, a situation develop then you acted together to look after each other.

The British landed Gentry of the 19th Century all attended Public Schools (Public, meaning Private) - they knew each other therefore, on both a school basis and on a social one. When they left school it was to join a social network that extended throughout business, politically and in the Military and Navy. When you were Commissioned you did not just get allocated to a Regiment - well, not a top one. You went before boards of officers from the Regt. you wished to join - and this was one of the reasons for Hon. Colonels. Your background, title, available money - these were all important. An officer had to be able to keep-up with the social events of a top regt.. Some Regts. would only accept young officers from titled families.

Whilst they were taught to maintain and look after their commands - it is a fact that most officers left the running of things to the senior NCO's. They were the professionals.

Probably the main success of the British , in those days, was our ability to control big areas and large populations, with comparitively small numbers of British personnel. We did this by having a very efficient civil service - who employed large numbers of locals to do the basic work. We also,

immediately on gaining a new Colony set-up a police force and a local militia. Most of the small Victorian Wars had a few British Regiments and large numbers of local troops. THe Hon. East India Company - had of course - been the pioneers in this type of Govt. and at any time the proportion of Indian soldiers to white was far higher.

I am not sure which letter you refer to when you say they 'dropped a letter'. The public school system made them all speak pretty much the same - and even today I find the so called 'upper English' accent can be hard to follow.

One final observation - in the 19th C. soldiers were expendable. They fought a long way from home and so long as we won, no-one worried too much. However, look at some of these battles and you will find whole Regiments being 'wiped-out'. The First Afghan War in 1839 saw 40,000

Indian troops of the East India Co. being killed. When we went back for the 2nd. War in 1878/9/80. there were large numbers of casualties again

- the Berkshire Regt. being all killed. Apart from a few pages in the Illustrated London News, the main thing was that we claimed to have won. The same in the 1879 Zulu War. However, Natal was a very small colony and did not have all the extra local service men - the result was that the Zulus inflicted the worst defeat in a Colonial battle.

I hope this little bit of background is some help. Mervyn

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I must confess to having repeated something I once read to the effect that there was a fad among 19th Century british light cavalry officers for dropping the letters 'l' and 'r' and replacing it with a 'w', as in 'Wubbish' rather than 'Rubbish!' This was allegedly based on the speech of the infamous Earl of Cardigan.

However, honesty compells me to say that, after some little hunting on-line, I can find no reliebale references to this phenomenon, except in the writings of George MacDonald Fraser: in the Flashman series, Cardigan invariably refers to the main character as "Fwashman" and utters the "Wubbish" exclamation referenced above. So, not sure whether that was a factual reference, as are many of the fine details in Fraser's work or a bit of literary licence.

Again, It may have been the case, that thea variant of the 'upper class' accent in the late 19th/early 20th century which included some, presumably deliberate, oddities. The one which comes to mind was the habit of using 'me' for the possessive 'my', as in "Me gout is acting up again, blast it!". Again, however, my references are literary and not linguistic.

For what it's worth!

Peter

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Hello all,

Mervyn, I appreciate the ideas. I hadn't really considered the role of officers and local troops, and especially with the incredible writing of John Masters to rely on as a primary source (albeit a not perfectly contemporary one), I think I'll have to "go there" with the paper.

Pete, I think you're right on the accents. I'll put it in the paper without a citation and see if the various editors who look at it think it's notable. On the off chance I got the idea from Flashman (I've only read one of Fraser's novels, although I definitely enjoyed it), I'm pretty sure it's historically accurate. Isn't there a Flashman bibliography out there, somewhere?

Another question for the group:

Who was William Elliot Cairnes???

He published an anonymous account of social life in the British Army in 1900. I know he was a serving officer, and that's all I can find on him. Can anyone find me his rank and regiment? Thanks!

V/r,

~TS

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I remember reading somewhere about an "accent" that was fashionable amongst cavalry officers, but for the life of me I cannot remember where i read it. But it also seems to be more of a deliberate/affected speach impediment as opposed to an accent.

"Weally Wobert!"

However, i dont know what the source for it was.

As long as there is no source that predates Flashman, it is possible that folks will say "He got that from Flashman!"... which in turn does not make it fantasy.

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Hello TS!

In Douglas S. Russell's "Winston Churchill Soldier" (2005) there's a reference to Col. Brabazon, CO of the 4th Hussars. The quotes about Brabazon's "...inability real or affected to pronounce the letter 'R'." are from Churchill's "My Early Life".

/Jonas

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Hello TS!

In Douglas S. Russell's "Winston Churchill Soldier" (2005) there's a reference to Col. Brabazon, CO of the 4th Hussars. The quotes about Brabazon's "...inability real or affected to pronounce the letter 'R'." are from Churchill's "My Early Life".

/Jonas

Well, if the R became a W like I am sure I have read... "other Ranks" and "I outrank you!..." would make interesting conversation stoppers....

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Thank you, gentlemen. The final footnote:

[1] The prevalence of this phenomenon is debatable. At the very least, the Earl of Cardigan and Colonel Brabazon, young Churchill’s commanding officer in the 4th Hussars, had this unique accent. One can only imagine the iron discipline it took Queen Victoria’s lancer and hussars to keep a straight face as officers addressed the “other ranks.”

Moving on, does anyone have any idea who William Elliott Cairnes was? I'm still at a total loss! I rely heavily on his book to make my points, as well.

V/r,

~TS

Edited by TS Allen
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Well, if the R became a W like I am sure I have read... "other Ranks" and "I outrank you!..." would make interesting conversation stoppers....

When I taught in Nigeria, in the early '80s, some of my students had difficulty with distinguishing "F" and "P". Not that odd, if you look at how letter sounds are formed .

Having my class monitor offer to "fark" my motorbike alway sounded vaguely indecent but the prize was the class during which one of the lads, reading from one of Romeo's better known speeches, informed Juliet, with great feeling that "Farting is such sweet sorrow." Probably the closest I came in a long career to totally losing it in front of a class and collapsing on the floor in a flurry of giggles!

Peter

Edited by peter monahan
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Hello again all,

The paper's coming along splendidly. I finally founded the anecdote I wanted for my epilogue. Robert Graves found himself shamed in a battalion mess not far from the trenches of the Western Front in 1915, in what turned out to be one of the only battalion messes of "gentlemen" officers still around. Humiliated one day by a superior, he recalled later of the incident: “There was a severe struggle in me between resentment and regimental loyalty. Resentment for the moment had the better of it. I said under my breath: ‘You damned snobs. I’ll survive you all. There’ll come a time when there won’t be one of you left serving in the battalion to remember the battalion mess at Laventie.’ This time came, exactly a year later.”[1]

There's another anecdote I'm looking for, however, that I cannot find for the life of me. It's the (famous?) story of the Pathan-recruited scouts who, having shamefully lost a rifle in battle, absented themselves from their unit for a year or so, ran around the frontier trying to find it as in The Four Feathers, and finally returned it to their unit. I thought it was in John Masters' Bugles and a Tiger, but a search via his excellent index of every reference to "Scouts" or "Guides," I cannot find it. Can anyone help me find a passage describing this famous story?

Thanks!

~TS

[1] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, 1929, as cited in E.W. Sheppard, Red Coat, London: The Batchwroth Press, 1953, pages 19-23.

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TS - do you know the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, who knew India well. He has a few lines about an expensively educated (public school) young officer being killed by a Pathan with a cheap rifle -

A scrimmage in a Border Station -

A canter down some dark defile -

Two thousand pounds of education

Drops to a ten-rupee jezail –

Kipling has lots of good stuff about the Army in India and later - e was born in India - see http://www.kipling.org.uk/kip_fra.htm

His poetry fell out of favour as being too Jingoistic - at least, until his son was killed in the First World War, a young subaltern.

Bill

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The actual story, and it is from The Corps of Guides, earky in its history, is as follows: A Pathan recruit deserted, taking his rifle with him. Colonel Younghusband - unit founder - called in the other 4 men of the same sub-clan of the tribe as the deserter, told them to strip off their uniforms and leave the unit in disgrace, only returning if they could bring the stolen firle with them.. They did so and were gone some years but 3 of the 4 eventually returned with the rifle. Apparently no questions were asked as to how they got it or the fate of the deserter.

The story may be in Chevenix-Trench's book on Frontier irregular scout units, but I can't put my hand on my copy. Here is a site for Younfghusband's History of the Corps: http://www.archive.org/stream/storyofguides00youniala#page/n259/mode/2up .

Edited by peter monahan
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Kipling also spent some years in India as an adult, writing for one of the English newspapers in the Punjab. That is the genesis of his 'Soldiers Three' stories and many of the other tales set in the subcontinent.

Kipling's son John was only 17 and in poor health but his father used his influence to get the boy into the Irish Guards. John was posted 'missing in action' within the year. There has been some debate over the body of a subaltern of the Ir Guards buried in France during the war but I also recollect news stroies some years ago now which had John's body being found by a construction crew in the reamins of a bombed out [and buried] farm house, complete with monogrammed effects and a prtly written letter to clinch the ID.

Kipling wrote a poem, "My Son John" about the death and his grief, and perhaps guilt at helping John enlist, were eveident. he wrote the history of the Irish guards in WWI and was a key figure in founding the Imperial War Graves Commission [later Commonwealth WGC]. The phrase "known unto God" on the stone of unidentified soldiers wa apparently Kipling's suggestion.

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Hi TS - You may like some of the army humour on this web site about WW1 - shows up some differences between the Officers and ORs http://www.firstworl...s/satirical.htm

On officers' accents - there was and is a tendedncy for public school chaps to use the "long A" - class pronounced "clarss" and past as "parst". The alternative is to say them "short". My first pilot was ex-public school and used to twit me about my "short As" (not my height). We used to quote to each other the phrase "Get aft abaft the after mast you daft bastard" or as he would say "Get arft abarft the arfter marst you darft barstard". This accent was mocked by the ORs who called officers "orfficers".

Bill

Edited by Bilco
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@ 1978 there was a BBC series that impressed me deeply called Plains Tales of the Raj-based upon the book. I grew up with a lot of old India army officers as my neighbors and my Housemaster at school was one of the last Subltons commissioned in India. He served out his time later in Borneo, Malaya and Hong Kong with the Ghurkas and ate Japanese POW given to him by Borneo tribesmen. They were pukka men-if they gave their word, they kept their promise. They all had mustaches, were horse mad and drank whiskey or Pims in the afternoons.

In the BBC series one of the last men they interviewed was a 90-something retired Subalton who had served on the Afghan Frontier in his teens. Leading a patrol up a hill a tribesman popped up and took a shot at him-wounded him and then went in with his knife to finish the teenaged Lt. off. The young chaps' batman and the tribesman wrestled over the knife and eventually the Lt. shot the tribesman with his revolver, but only after the batman got fatally stabbed. As he lay dying he said, "But Sir, what will become of my family?" and the Lt. said, "Do not worry; I shall ensure they are alright. I give my word of honour" ...and -as the batmans' eyes glazed over- he said, "then it is alright, because I have the word of a British officer"....

The old man-wearing a white sari as i recall-and with annoyed younger Indian women in saris hovering in the background- stayed on taking care of the batmans' family financially. "I never went home because I had promised you see"...said the 90 year old.

Only the British officer class....

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Kipling also spent some years in India as an adult, writing for one of the English newspapers in the Punjab. That is the genesis of his 'Soldiers Three' stories and many of the other tales set in the subcontinent.

Kipling's son John was only 17 and in poor health but his father used his influence to get the boy into the Irish Guards. John was posted 'missing in action' within the year. There has been some debate over the body of a subaltern of the Ir Guards buried in France during the war but I also recollect news stroies some years ago now which had John's body being found by a construction crew in the reamins of a bombed out [and buried] farm house, complete with monogrammed effects and a prtly written letter to clinch the ID.

Kipling wrote a poem, "My Son John" about the death and his grief, and perhaps guilt at helping John enlist, were eveident. he wrote the history of the Irish guards in WWI and was a key figure in founding the Imperial War Graves Commission [later Commonwealth WGC]. The phrase "known unto God" on the stone of unidentified soldiers wa apparently Kipling's suggestion.

there was a BBc series on this. Young Jack- "My boy Jack" was last seen walking down the road to the battalion medical station crying and holding what was left of his face together with his hands. As I recall his lower jaw had been sheered off by shrapnel.

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