***The Role of the Regimental Officer in the Maintaining Morale, and Discipline of the BEF, 1914-19.

The Role of the Regimental Officer in the Maintaining Morale, and Discipline of the BEF, 1914-1919. Gary Sheffield. 

An organism, whose well-being depends on the interplay of human relationships. 

Tony Ashworth (1980) a substitute family for the soldiers NOT monolithic and imposed from above.

Common Experience?

What kinds of things create a military experience?

Very difficult to generalise about soldiers experiences: things in common, but things that were very different.

Industrialised and bureaucratised warfare (Ashford). Early 1915 getting a grip. 

Active and cushy fronts depends on where you are talking about.

Where soldiers come from:

  • Regular
  • New Army
  • Territorial Army
  • Conscripts

Each unit had its own ethos.

Arm of service : gunner compared to infantry.

Rank – Class – Education

Rhythms of Trench Warfare

Front Line, Support Line, Reserve (average 4 days of each) then ‘rest’ – which could be hard work ‘humping and dumping’.

Charles Carrington, 48th Division, 1916. 101 days under fire, 65 in FL, 120 Reserve, 73 in Rest. Remainder on leave, instructional schools, travelling or in depot.

Day to day 

Stand To Arms!

Prepare to repulse an attack.

Twice a day.

Day: sentries, inspections, rum, working in trenches, sleeping.

Night: working parties in No Man’s land, patrolling, raiding. Finding out what is going on. Or a small scale battle to capture enemy, or simply to duff up the enemy.

Danger: Jan-Jun 1916 BEF’s 108,000 casualties in absence of major battles. 

Shelling (planes and trenches) sniping, patrolling, raiding.

The Role of Leadership – above all else.


Regular paternal ethos – Temp Gents

Bureaucracy of paternalism

‘The paternal deferential relationship’ – behaving in a fatherly way.

Deference given in return.

Country house values looking after his servants and staff.

The relationship is a reciprocal one.

Good at looking after their men so the men were willing to follow them.

Compared to the French where the officer / infantry relationship was poor.

By 1918 43% of officers are working or lower-middle class.

Leadership: you put your men before yourself.

Noblesse oblige.

Taught how to behave towards your men.

The need to display gentlemanly qualities. 

Posh twit put back, dustmen sent on a ‘knife and fork’ programme.

Bureaucracy of paternalism. – it did its job.

So important they were checked up on.

Trying to ensure that the men are being well looked after.

Role in prevention/treatment of shell-shock.

Love for men – rarely homoerotic.

Some of it probably was,  it mostly a deep affection for their men.

Some even ‘motherly’ love.

A subaltern’s war : Carrington

Accused falsely of being a homosexual.

Role of the ordinary junior officer in keeping moral high.

Men expected their leaders to be:

  • Paternal 
  • Brave
  • Competent

Offer-Man Relations

  1. Regular strand – distant,  but cordial.

Once in the trenches this broke down.

  1. Auxiliary- strand. Could be quite informal.
  2. TF ‘class corps’ 
  3. Regular came to predominate. Importance of contents.


Starting to bring down the barriers between classes.

What if it goes wrong?

Trade union ethos


Leadership by negotiation

Fragging – throwing a cigarette into an officer’s dugout.

Strike/mutiny – collective bargaining in khaki. Julian Putkowski. Two /three men refusing to leave a cook out, to a large body of men breaking out of Etaples and and going to Paris Plage.

Demob problems.

E.g. ‘Counting down then blowing a raspberry’

Officers listen to their sergeant to ensure that they can a conduit to ‘talk to the boss’.

Officers do not command in a vacuum.

If leadership by negotiation went wrong it could lead to mutiny.

Army very good at containing these problems and resolving them.

Unlike the FR and D, though had demob problems. 

Demob problems – we’ve finished the war, we want to go home.

Military discipline was always flimsy -Richard Watt.  but they believed in the cause 


Military Moloch – faceless bureaucracy.

On parade, on parade … off parade, off parade.

Reactions based on class/education.


Executions 346 – for military offences, only 11% so 89% condemned to execution were let off.

Military justice to justice is like military music to music.

Harry Farr shot because they didn’t want to give men a golden ticket to disobey orders and desert. Not the purpose of disciplinary system during WW1.

Pte Skelton, 22nd RF executed Boxing Day 1916

Repeated deserter, last time from Andre.

Battleline Narratives  H E Harvey – he let his mates down.

British deserted in drove at time during WW2 and had wanted to re-instate the death penalty.

Battle Police 

Posted to point stragglers in the right direction.


BEF well disciplined.

Cohesive. Belief in Empire, King and Country.

Strong local allegiances and ‘belonging’ to societies and clubs that translated into the army.

Yet Ireland, strikes, and politics.

So below the surface, very cohesive.



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