Saturday, 8 March 2014

The barbaric habits of the British Army today

Well it seemed Humphrey picked a bad week to go out of the country on business – Russia and Ukraine are dragging the West into arguably the worst crisis of the post-Cold War era. In the Gulf tensions are mounting between Qatar and other GCC nations, with ambassadors now being withdrawn. Venezuela appears to be on the verge of near chaos as a result of riots between opposition activists and the Government. Meanwhile in the UK the worry seems to be that some Army officers have adopted ‘barbaric’ eating practises.

Yes, ‘that’ memo is the subject of the latest article, mainly because it is so much more than just a ‘light hearted email’ but is in fact, to the authors mind at least, a fascinating insight into the quiet social revolution going on in our officers messes. The story so far is that a memo written by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 (UK) Division-  Maj Gen Cowan, and sent out to a fairly small list of 1* officers has been leaked to the media. In it he complains in three distinct areas about conduct today – namely, the conduct of an officer in the mess – particularly when eating. The manner in which some officers conduct themselves at dinner parties and guest nights, in particular the seating arrangements, and finally the standards and use of writing by some officers today. 

The reaction in the media has been one of predominantly barely controlled ridicule, seeing this as yet another example of a Victorian General completely out of touch with the modern nation and the standards of today. The defence being used is that the email was intended to be sent in a manner showing light hearted banter to try and get people thinking about how they conduct themselves.

Personally Humphrey thinks the General has made the cardinal mistake of trying to apply humour to an email, without considering how it may be read by others. No matter how you mean something to be read, the danger is that unless you know the author well, and can interpret the inflections and subtleties as you read it, then the danger is that it can be interpreted very differently. Its far better to have verbally briefed your concerns for onwards briefing, rather than commit them to a medium which can be easily passed on. In this case it has rebounded very badly, causing the Army a minor PR disaster at a point when it desperately needs PR wins.

At its most basic the Generals email highlights the growing social change in the military, and the manner in which it has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 years. When the Generals generation joined the Army, the expectation was one that Mess life was very much the centre of the individual officers personal life, inhabited for most of the year and with a small group of individuals living, working and socialising together. The shared camaraderie and opportunity fostered a strong team spirit, and built bonds which lasted a lifetime. Underpinning this was a shared sense of common values and conduct – one only has to look at the way that the three Officer training establishments used to conduct training in officer like qualities for many years. When people married and left the mess, they would usually inhabit the married quarters, and the Regiment or Service would work around the world as an extended family, particularly as it was less common for wives to hold down full time careers. Thus things like dinner parties and wider social gatherings were very common. 

Today though the mess as a concept is very different – the growth of home ownership or at the very least renting somewhere off site has massively reduced the numbers of full time ‘livers in’ who occupy the mess. The average officers mess is a ghost town at weekends, and the move to commercial catering such as Pay As You Dine (PAYD) means that many of the perks of mess membership seem to have quietly vanished.  Officers have partners and families The explosion in easily accessible social media such as internet, consoles, mobile phones and all the other means of staying in touch with friends means that people have very easy access to their wider social networks. Speaking to senior officers recently, they bemoaned that the modern generation of junior officers arrive in the military with already formed social networks outside of the armed forces which they prioritise above their military colleagues. In other words, there has been a shift between the generation where the military and Mess life was seen as a calling and a way of life to now where increasingly the Mess is seen as a temporary accommodation during the working week, and that real life goes on at home. 

While there are exceptions to the rule, Humphrey has noted that particularly in the last 10-15 years the Mess has played an ever less important part in the life of many military officers. The ease of returning home, the decline of the drinking culture and the fact that many people are just so busy now means that many of the standards and traditions that previously were taken for granted have fallen by the wayside. The dinner party lifestyle which occurred on the Patch, the regular mess dinners and the spontaneous unplanned run ashore seem to have slowly gone into decline. Much of the wider activity that made the military so much more than just a job is quietly disappearing and instead the Mess is becoming much more like a Travelodge – somewhere to eat, sleep and go to work and nothing more. 

What has not helped is that for the last 20 years the Armed Forces have been exceptionally busy on real world operations and the not had the time for living the ‘Garrison Lifestyle’ as was the case during the 1980s. The end of HERRICK though is perhaps drawing into sharp relief that the future for the British Army is going to be a lot more about life in large garrisons around the UK, with very little in the way of ‘real soldiering’ going on. The reaction to this email shows perhaps how much the Army has changed from being a static force, to one that has spent nearly two decades on operations and not having time to worry about the seating order at a dinner party. The large bulk of junior – mid seniority officers will have not known any life other than one where operations were the key driver, and a steady round of OPTAG, deployment, POTL, recovery and repeat was the norm.

Where does this saga leave the Army? Firstly it is hard to see how it is anything other than a minor PR disaster for the Army – having an email leak in this way merely goes to highlight all the concerns that people have about the perception of an out of touch military still fighting the last war. The salient points that the General did make (e.g. the unnecessary use of capitals and long words and other defence writing points, plus working on increasing public exposure to what the Army does) have been missed, particularly by a media gleeful to have pure comedy gold on its hands. Secondly it weakens the case for the Army in SDSR in the mind of politicians who will remember incidents like this – the good work done on operations is easily undone by a new minister who remembers the story of the Army officer more worried about cutlery than combat. The other two Services will doubtless be rubbing their hands in glee as they see an easy way to portray an out of touch Army spectacularly shoot itself in the foot.

The reaction in the Army is also telling. It highlights the growing schism between junior officers who see the Army as a career, but one in which they have to balance off their home, work and personal lives with more senior officers who see the Army as a lifestyle and a calling. There is no denying that society has changed, and that the mental image of the mess from thirty years ago is probably not the mess that many young officers want to live in now. As the Army returns to barracks, one has to ask whether many of the current crop of younger officers would want to put up with this sort of imposition on their lives, or if its enough to make them leave and go elsewhere? There is a fine line to be struck between insisting on the highest standards and conduct, and adding unnecessary and at times possibly ludicrous conditions on how you should eat and behave. Finally the letter does suggest that some in the Army do not recognise that the role of the partner has changed, and that offering marriage guidance suggestions (no matter how humorously intended) to a generation where the wife (or husband) usually holds down a very successful career and probably earns more than their Army spouse is a very easy way to build resentment from both the Officer and their partner, and is one more reason to encourage people to consider leaving.

 It is also probably not unfair to say that this sort of story may make potential recruits reconsider whether they event want to be in the Army full stop – if you were looking at careers, would you want to join an organisation that recognised your time was your own, or one that had senior people get het up over you eating a sandwich?

So, no matter that the memo was sent with the best of intents, it would seem to have backfired spectacularly and caused the Army one of its more easily avoidable PR disasters since the last Crimean War. It has reinforced the ‘General Melchett’ stereotypes so beloved of the media, and tarnished the reputation of an officer who has served with distinction for many years. In short, probably not the Army’s finest hour.


  1. It is a little harder to look at the Army as a calling when one could be made redundant with a stroke of the pen. This turns a potential lifelong career into a "job". His comments also sound like the Army is transforming more into the US Army model with more damage to the Regimental system.

    1. Newsflash, all careers are like that. Only feather-bedded civil servants actually struggle with the concept.

    2. Who are these feather bedded civil servants you speak of anonymous? I'd love to meet them given the attrition rate in the CS over the last few years.

    3. Over the last few years? Try the last generation. The civilian workforce has declined year on year since before the end of the Cold War, with the exception of 2003, when I think the MOD took on a large number of locally employed staff in Iraq.

  2. A nice article Sir H. and I agree with most of what you say. However you fail to mention the differences between a Corp and a Regiment.
    I wasn't a member of a specific regiment but a Corp and I moved around every two or three years, and my loyalty to a specific regiment or Mess moved with me.
    This, plus the PAYD, plus the reduction in the number of regiments alters the Mess life and the perception of military life.

    Military life is changing and not necessarily for the better.

    1. Thanks Ianeon - very good point on Corps too.

  3. Sorry SH I think you've written a less than stellar piece here. What the main meat of the post boils down to is a half mad officer writes email, people interpret it in different ways and it's somehow a PR disaster? That is over egging the pudding by a considerable margin. Whilst I wasn't about in the 80s as an adult, just watching some of the programmes on the iPlayer showing the messes in the 80s and 90s tells me that things have changed for the better. So yes the Army has changed, yes the mess has changed and so has Army life for Officers and ORs, but hardly a bad thing.


  4. I feel that "Anonymous" is wrong in some of his comments - I was around in the 60s, 70s, and the 80s. and I lived in some very interesting messes - Royal Horse Artillery; 16/5th Lancers; Irish Guards; and others. Tradition still plays a great part in Army life and some of the changes are detrimental to the things that make our Army good - These thoughts also apply to the Royal Navy - but I'm not so sure about the RAF - lol

  5. Christ almighty but sorry, if your digs and where you go on the piss effects how well you perform on operations and how well the Army performs on operations then we live in a very ludicrous world. Tea and Taste and drinking from the Imperial Guards chamber pot does not a good Army make.


  6. While the officers’ mess may not be the sole determinant of operational performance of a Regiment, to discount it entirely would be equally blinkered.

    Beyond table manners, given the officers’ mess is also usually the repository of regimental traditions, and their transfer to succeeding generations of officers, I wonder how the decreasing relevance of the mess is impacting that. More so when regimental tradition is often the difference between a sharp, cohesive unit and a 9-to-5 one, especially for armies that are anchored by the 'Regiment'.

    Striking the right balance is critical to extracting the best of what the institution has to offer and ensuring it’s continued relevance rather than getting rid of the tub, baby and all, as tokenism to keeping up with the times.

    Certainly plenty to think about the future of the profession of arms, besides the mechanics of the poor mode of delivery employed (though that’s an aspect that’s very often overlooked)…

  7. Personally I was struck by the angry subtext in the response to the email in ARRSE. The lines about wounded officers not standing and missing fingers is I think not aimed narrowly at General Cowan, though his email provided an outlet. Can it be read as expressing a genuine sense of injustice and betrayal that the General Officer Class have of late not only failed to do their job by speaking truth to political power, but despite the dubious strategic value of these wars, came out of them with gongs and other kinds of career gain? All this stuff about wives, manners reflects a schism that is part generational, but also part class, and part political. But the most interesting part for me is the possibility that this last decade or so of wars has revived a kind of 'lions and donkeys' tension. A similar theme is developed by Hew Strachan's recent writing on Generalship during this period. Essentially the charge against the present generation of senior officers is that they were corrupted. They put the rewards of career interest ahead of their professional standards while others paid the price.


  9. "...a genuine sense of injustice and betrayal that the General Officer Class have of late not only failed to do their job by speaking truth to political power, but despite the dubious strategic value of these wars, came out of them with gongs and other kinds of career gain? ...this last decade or so of wars has revived a kind of 'lions and donkeys' tension. A similar theme is developed by Hew Strachan's recent writing on Generalship during this period. Essentially the charge against the present generation of senior officers is that they were corrupted. They put the rewards of career interest ahead of their professional standards while others paid the price."

    Absolutely - spot on.

    See for a selection of articles highlighting just that view: the futility and selfishness of our ill-advised forays first in to TELIC, culminating in cowering in the Contingency Operating Base while bleeding out casualties for nothing, followed by jumping in feet first in to Helmand, desperate to justify the Army's existence. I sat in the task force HQ in 2006 watching contact reports come in, and seeing the body bags flown back some hours later, while reading plaintive reports of people completely outnumbered and overmatched by the Taliban. Throughout the campaign the metrics were always fictional nonsense: every six months, a brigade came back and it was tea and medals for senior personnel, and amputations and body bags for the more junior. Apparently the latter were an acceptable swap for the former.

    The *only* reasons for these cack-handed management of these wars long after it was clear that nothing was achievable in both theatres, were:

    1. Political obduracy at the highest levels, encouraged by an Army Board desperate to justify the service's size and continuing relevance post-Cold War, and;

    2. Senior officers slithering their way up the greasy pole on the body bags of more junior personnel, in the furtherance of their careers.

    The WIA and KIA that junior officers have experienced in their peer groups appears to have been regarded as 'acceptable collateral damage', or - more bluntly - an acceptable downpayment towards one's second or third star, for task force commanders, and everyone else on the gravy train. The Naval Review expressed it thus:

    "A Perfect Storm. …Abroad, we have been shoved over the side by the Iraqis and are busy turning Afghanistan into a modern Vietnam - complete with specious body counts and a woefully corrupt national government. (Afghanistan of course; who else did you think I meant?) Why are we there? The very sceptical view is that the Army has calculated the blood price that it is prepared to pay in return for the success of its project: to grow to a strength of 120,000 at the expense of both its sister services and a few hundred grieving and utterly confused relatives. If the UK ceases to espouse an expeditionary foreign policy, all the evidence points to a rather smaller standing army - and once which might be required to be rather more efficient…" (The Naval Review, Vol 97, No. 4, November 2009. pp337-339)

    1. Couldn't agree more. There is a senior leadership, some of it now retired, who essentially oversaw two catastrophic and pointless humiliations for the Army (first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan) which have cost the lives and limbs of hundreds of soldiers as well as exposed gross-incompetence both before and during said wars and yet they still get to keep their over-gonged snouts buried in the trough.

      We are now in a situation where the Army looks the least sustainable of the services in its current form and yet we have idiocy like this memo floating around. Its pathetic.

  10. I rather like what "Anonymous" wrote and I can see the logic in most of it.
    Could a reason for the vicious "gravy train" and the "greasy pole" be that there are just too many senior officers?
    I've never been able to agree with Sir H and his justification/reasoning for having so many senior officers in a rapidly shrinking military with a reduced commitment.
    I've never read the 2009 Naval Review so I don't know if its comments are still valid in 2014/5 - perhaps someone could comment on this?

  11. As a civilian with no experience of the forces, you can appreciate I find this sort of thing bizarre and completely outdated. Personally if I was looking to join, it would out me off - you can understand that for people not used to such things, it comes across as little more than institutional bullying.

    I have to accept VKs assertion that mess behaviour actually does count to military effectiveness because he presumably has served. However I suspect that it means little when set against sheer combat power, resources, infrastructure, leadership, organisation, training, logistics etc.

  12. Oh Anonymous! - Mess behaviour is an integral part of Army life, whether it be the Corporals Mess, Sergeants Mess, or Officers Mess. It plays a great part in the smooth running of any kind of operation and is the main link in the chain for communication and knowledge in Peacetime life.

    I'm sad that I can't explain here why this should be, as some is intangible, some traditional, and some is efficiency.

    My military world is more than 20 years ago, and although I can't compare "now" with "then" I am assured by conversations at reunions that it is still a very important part of the fabric.

  13. When I came ashore 45 years ago, the most difficult habit to break was the universal custom of referring to my superiors by their first name. Even after 10 years as MD, I still called my Chairman, 'Sir', although he was 10 years younger and often insisted that I call him, 'Jim', or whatever.
    Most of my contemporaries all to often reminisce about, 'how things used to be', although we are too wise not to realise that, to return to the old shibboleths, we would be condemned to relive those same years and remake all those same mistakes and misjudgements.
    However, the General's comments were not made with the same sense of humorous railing against the failings of the youth of today. They were too constructed, detailed, organised and sharp. Hence the backlash of all the anonymous comments made here of late.
    I, too, was subject to the class ridden nepotism and discriminatory attitudes that populated British industry and it's Victorian views of worth and value.
    Thank God they are a lot less than they were, but beware traditions that mourn their past. Let's move on and create our own values and celebrate them.
    Never go to reunions.


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