The Wavell Room
British Army Officers
People and Leadership Short Read

Competent, assertive, athletic and privileged? Britain’s future Army officers

Whereas during the 1980s 65 percent of the Sandhurst cadets had attended private schools,1 this number had decreased to 42 percent by 2014. Even though the number of cadets who went through private education since 1990 has decreased significantly,2 the numbers have not changed drastically in the last few years, with 43 percent coming from independent schools in 2011 and 46 percent in 2012.3

Being asked about the relevance of social differences at Sandhurst, particularly in terms of class, views differed. While some cadets reported about social snobbery amongst cadets at Sandhurst, others testified that they have never experienced any form of marginalisation based on class.

“In my platoon there are people who were soldiers and come from, in some cases, quite deprived backgrounds and then they are mixed up with chaps who come from backgrounds where they live in houses with gardens big enough for the public to come and see them at the weekend. Still, there is almost no social friction in my platoon, everyone gets on. (…) But I’ve heard that there is a degree of social snobbery in the other platoon.”

“[Social Snobbery] does exist, but I’ve never experienced it even though I came from the ranks. (…) The strongest indicator [for differences] would be accents and people at Sandhurst don’t have strong accents generally, so it might seem like more people went to boarding school.”

“Some cadets stated that while social class does not influence the training at Sandhurst, it has an impact on regimental allocations. One cadet commented that ‘getting into the Guards is like getting into Oxford or Cambridge’. Especially some of the most senior regiments in the British Army, such as the Household Cavalry or the Grenadier Guards, choose cadets by the criteria of whether or not they will fit in. One cadet stated that if someone cannot afford a particular uniform or sword that, even if it would be partly funded by the army, can easily exceed the five-figure mark, this person will be less likely to consider one of those regiments to be his first choice. Hence class differences appear in a subliminal way: people will not be excluded, but to some extent exclude themselves by thinking that they would not suit a regiment, because of the grouping of a specific class of people in certain regiments.”

“The social elite are [regiments like] the Household Cavalry or some of the old Cavalry regiments like the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards. They tend to select officers that they know will fit in. (…) whereas a chap who didn’t go to a private school like me would probably not be considered. Because I don’t feel I would fit in. Not because they would make me uncomfortable, but because they are generally from a different social background, it wouldn’t be particularly pleasant for me to be there.”

Fitting in as observed by an ARRSE commentator “does not mean that you wear the same shade of salmon pink corduroys. It means that you share a common ethos.” Interestingly this common ethos is not exclusively connected to the specific operating range of the regiment, but the traditions and customs of it. Class-based sub-cultural groupings act like discrete entities which have specific codes of behaviour and specific ways of relating to the outside world which in turn shapes how they are viewed by the outside world.4 The criteria of fitting into the groups in certain regiments acts like a loop that ensures that a degradation of the regiment’s customs is limited due to the people who will commission into it.

You can meet someone and just by a conversation with them you could guess, maybe not the regiment, but probably the part of the army that they go into. Obviously there are always variations that go against the rule, but generally speaking, if someone is going to join the Household Cavalry, you can tell. You need to know about the stereotypes that go with it. (…) Generally speaking, the Guards are seen as quite strict in what they do and very keen on their drill. Compared to the Parachute Regiment… the stereotype that comes with them is: meat heads, like guys who are brawn and no brains. But those are stereotypes and they don’t quite add up all the way.

I think there are elements of truth to people going into certain regiments, but I think it’s not as widely spread as I thought it would be. All the prejudices about what Cavalry officers are like. Mr (…) is a really good example. He is the exception that proves the rule. He’s cavalry and he’s a confirmed cadet. (…) But what sticks out is how he compares to all the other guys going for cavalry, because he is good and they are not. That’s one of the prejudices a lot of people have mentioned. That’s not just me being biased. (…) They are one of the most competitive [regiments], but there is no correlation between the quality of the men going for them. That’s a question of background and who you know.

In an article from 1990, R. G. L. von Zugbach confirmed an unequal distribution of access to power and prestige in the British Army in terms of social class.5 This point was also taken up by a commanding officer at Sandhurst who claimed that cadets who stem from the upper class had generally better chances of making it general. In the interviews, however, only one cadet confirmed this stance, while all other cadets put it into perspective.

[If someone would say “someone who came through the ranks will never make it general”] that’s probably true. Not just in the army. Many jobs in the world, you need to have been to the right schools and know the right people.

[I disagree.] There are ex-rankers who have been Generals. Soldiers do expect officers to be different, but that refers to a separation between soldiers and officers which has nothing to do with background.

Von Zugbach detected that a small cadre of elite infantry regiments produced a very high proportion of military leaders in the British Army. He also reported a divide between ability and background as two currencies for the officer cadets to buy themselves into those regiments.6 However, focusing on the data that was gained for the study at hand, von Zugbach’s findings need to be put into perspective: although it remains true that the British military system is in some parts still driven by factors of meritocracy and background, the vast majority of the cadets in 2014 reported that Sandhurst has become more diverse lately and a persistent drift towards a more heterogeneous officer class was evident. Apparent changes in the training syllabus since January 2015 and the increasing numbers of cadets from state schools and soldiers who came through the ranks contribute to a slow but consistent break-up of the social hierarchy in some regiments.

It is difficult to make a conclusive statement on the impact on social class, since the cadets’ opinions and experiences differed drastically. The widely shared notion was that in regards to regimental choices there is the pronounced criterion of fitting in which is strongly linked to social class. Overall, all cadets agreed that apparent social barriers can be overcome by the cadet’s individual performance at Sandhurst, regardless of the one’s social background. What seemed to divide the Sandhurst cadets more than their social or educational background were previous military experiences and the cadets’ flexibility in terms of an accustoming to the military lifestyle.

This is 1 of 6 short extracts from a large-scale study1for which Sarah conducted more than a hundred interviews and surveyed almost 900 British and German Army Officer Cadets between 2014– 2015. All research results can be found in her book “Identity, Motivation and Memory: The Role of History in the British and German forces” which has just been published by Routledge.

    1. Eager for Combat; British and German views on War
    2. Military Service: A Step in Life or a Profession for Life
    3. Regimental Traditions and Army Reputation
    4.  Sandhurst: A boarding school with rifles

 

Sarah Katharina Kayss received her PhD at the War Studies Department at King’s College London. She has studied Modern History in Britain and Germany and works as a lecturer in War and Conflict Studies. Her main research interest is the development of European defence in the 21st century and the role of memory in contemporary societies.

Footnotes

  1. R. G. L. von Zugbach, ‘Class and Officer Selection in the British Army’ in J. Kuhlmann (ed.), Problems and opinions of the armed forces, the military, internal dynamics and the morale factor, military establishment and society, Forum Internationales/Inter-nationale/International 8 (1990b), 181-189.
  2. R. G. L. von Zugbach, ‘Class and Officer Selection in the British Army’ in J. Kuhlmann (ed.), Problems and opinions of the armed forces, the military, internal dynamics and the morale factor, military establishment and society, Forum Internationales/Inter-nationale/International 8 (1990b), 181-189; R. von Zugbach de Sugg; M. Ishaq, ‘Officer Recruitment, The Decline in Social Eliteness in the Senior Ranks of the British Army’, in H. Strachan (ed.), The British Army, Manpower and Society into the Twenty-First Century (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 75-86.
  3. Email correspondence with M.C., ArmyHQ/Sec/5/4/70126, 9 Apr 2013.
  4. G. Tait, ‘Youth, personhood and “practices of the self”, some new directions from youth research’, in Australia and New Zealand Journal of Sociology Vol. 29 (1993), 40-54, referred to in: P. Hodkinson; A. Sparkes, ‘A Sociological Theory of Career Decision Making’, in British Journal of Sociology of Education 18:1 (1997), 35.
  5. R. G. L. von Zugbach, ‘Elites and the British military system’, in J. Kuhlmann (ed.), Problems and opinions of the armed forces, the military, internal dynamics and the morale factor, military establishment and society, Forum Internationales/Inter-nationale/International 8 (1990a), 154-177; C. B. Otley, ‘Militarism and the Social Affiliations of the British Army Elite’, in J. van Doorn (ed.), Armed Forces & Society, Sociological Essays (The Hague: Mouton & Co. Printers, 1968), 84-108.
  6. R. G. L. von Zugbach, ‘Elites and the British military system’, in J. Kuhlmann (ed.), Problems and opinions of the armed forces, the military, internal dynamics and the morale factor, military establishment and society, Forum Internationales/Inter-nationale/International 8 (1990a), 154-177.
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