Officers and Men

Throughout much of history, there has been a divide between officers and enlisted men up to modern day. However, this was especially prevalent in societies with a much more defined class divide than we have today. It’s traditionally known that officers used to be thought of as a more well bred, more “refined” class and the enlisted men as the uncouth and uneducated rabble.  This was the prevalent view during the Napoleonic era. Of course, many officers did not behave as “officers and gentlemen”, and there was a minority of enlisted men who were educated, and also, many could have a “gentlemanly” character but not be born a gentlemen. Mostly though, the stereotype of enlisted men as a more rowdy uneducated rabble was true, as many who enlisted were from the poorer sections of England and some who couldn’t find employment elsewhere or were ordered to serve for crimes. Officers were often from the upper classes with very few being raised from the ranks, like Sharpe was, in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. This broad overview is what many get when researching into the relationship between officers and their men. However, one source described more in detail, some of the more subtle nuances between officers and men.

It’s a fast and easy conclusion that due to the wide divide between officers and men socially as well as in authority, officers looked upon their men with a condescending and snobby manner. Many cite Wellington saying that the common soldier was the “scum of the earth”. True, some officers did abuse their power and treat their men as inferior


“Hmm… Common rabble…”

beings, but one source, Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteenth Century British Army by James A. Shaw argues that most officers viewed their men in a sort of paternalistic, yet kinder view of the men they led. By today’s standards, this view too is somewhat unacceptable for a modern army, as society emphasizes more egalitarianism in class divides, however, for the time period, that view was not cruel, but more caring and fatherly. Other examples noted included comparing the relationship to an aristocratic landlord and his tenants, or how a lower being can succeed under the guidance of it’s master. The relationship was quite unequal, but more one of firm guidance and caring.

“The inbred distrust of the laboring masses by the gentry was inevitably duplicated in the relationship between officers and men. Reenacting the feudalistic framework of conduct between the lord and the serf, the officer’s attitude toward his retainers was basically paternalistic, not cruel. If one’s servants were controlled effectively, wonders could be performed by the constant conditioning of discipline…Thus, the officers’ view of the enlisted man was a blend of wary suspicion, mild interest, and strict control. Their sentiments about the troops were similar to the feelings that they entertained for their horses and dogs. The enlisted man was regarded by his officers as a mechanical device, capable of valiant service under the stern guidance of his master.” (Richard Blanco, “Reform and Wellington’s Post-Waterloo Army,” 128-129)

This view is no longer in favor, and many today would find the comparison to pets and animals highly offensive and classist,  but one must remember it was a different time period with different values. For that time period, that view is much more enlightened and humane than the usual perception of a tyrant abusing his power.

The common soldiers too had the view mostly, that the officers were more well bred for the job. This is where the “gentlemanly mystique” comes in. The view that the officers unlike the men, were born for the role and handled it the best. They were the ones to look up to, yet they were on a pedestal out of reach for the common man to actually become. The “gentlemanly mystique” was mainly guided by character and virtues, but ones that the upper classes possessed. It was argued that the common soldiers were more “rough and tough” and were very hardy, but the officers were truly the brave ones, according to this view. The common soldier, although could do daring feats in battle, had less to lose basically, than the rich, privileged officer who risked throwing it all away lest they die and endured harsh conditions by choice giving up their cushy life on their estates for duty. The common soldier already had little in life. While I think that common soldiers were brave too, as many had to leave their families and did have things that mattered to them to lose in the call of duty, I do find that argument compelling as I’ve never thought of it that way before. The officers are not “braver” due to their station in life alone, but because they had a lot more to lose and a stake in society that the common soldier did not. Many common soldiers were in awe of the officers. This quote sums up this point nicely.

“The characteristic of a gentleman most closely tied to military leadership was the attribute of “magic.” Wilkinson defines magic as “that mysterious aura of different-ness which distinguishes certain leaders and makes them respected for what they are rather than what they do [italics added].” [32] If Wilkinson is correct, then those of lower social status must have bought in to the notion that gentlemen were somehow fundamentally different – better- than themselves, more suited and able to command men. It was faith in this gentlemanly mystique, backed by a harsh disciplinary code, which ensured prompt, unthinking obedience from the common soldier and, combined with the inherent tenacity and bravery of the men in the ranks, contributed to the steadiness of the British line.”


The officer on his pedestal

I think overall this view had many valid points. The officer’s attitude towards their men as paternalistic fits logically in a time period where the aristocracy would govern the lower classes in civilian life and the good ones would view them as faithful servants who could thrive under their guidance. I find it interesting too, that many of the common soldiers acknowledged the need for strict discipline and firm leadership to keep the men in line.  While I am sure though many did have contempt for the officer who thought himself so above them, and was more privileged, other wiser men knew the need for order and discipline. One rifleman, Benjamin Harris put it like this:

22472172_695821543948445_1836868298_o“Indeed, it requires one who has authority on his face, as well as at his back, to make [soldiers] respect and obey him. They see too often, in the instance of sergeant-majors, that command does not suit ignorant and coarse-minded men; and that tyranny is too much used even in the brief authority which they have. A soldier, I am convinced, is driven often to insubordination by being worried by these little-minded men for the veriest trifles, about which the gentleman never thinks of tormenting him. … for our men to be tormented about trifles…is often very injurious to a whole corp.” ( Rifleman Harris P. 67)

Other soldiers described their ideal officers as ones who were firm in command, but also took the effort to truly get to know their men and care for them. I think the relevance of that today is that they did not mention that they worshiped the officer’s authority, but his character and leadership qualities. Authority alone is not enough to gain respect from one’s subordinates, one must also be a strong leader and role model. This is relevant throughout all time periods :)

Here’s the source that describes this in much more detail : Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteenth Century British Army


About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
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