Raven’s British Army (Revised)


The process of re-reading The Captain – The Life and Times of Simon Raven has prompted some thoughts. It is a book that merits multiple re-readings if only to understand the references to Greek mythology. Unless otherwise stated the quotations offered below are from the book.

There was a temptation to call this piece ‘BAOR in the 1950s – Deterring the Warsaw Pact’ but there is much additional detail about his service in Kenya, including Operation DANTE in which his CO was killed in an ambush set by his own battalion. By an accident of birth, my generation only caught the tail-end of the privileged lifestyle of serving in Germany but I can readily identify with Raven’s claims about ‘the perks of the job’.

Background Perspective of the Army

In terms of the concept of the successful peacetime route to the top via the concept of decision avoidance some will feel quite at home with this thought:

“One of the lessons that Simon had learnt as a National Service officer was that in the Army, ‘it is more important that nothing should go wrong than that anything should go very right’”.

Societal changes in post war Britain did not only impact on the military. “Change was in the air even before Simon ‘withdrew’. Whereas he pursued knowledge for its own sake, the new men who began to arrive in 1950 saw it as a means to an end.

As Frederic Raphael put it: “They belonged to a generation that laid its ladders against the ramparts of the Establishment and swarmed up brandishing degree certificates” (My Generation)

Or as Michael Howard suggested : “Soldiering – that pleasant, clubbable occupation compounded equally of regimental duties, minor imperial skirmishes and field sports”. (Three People.”).

From my perspective some military folk of a certain generation might feel that such thoughts have equal application to an Army that enacted such measures as: The introduction of the Military Salary, the lowering of the ‘earnesty’ threshold with the introduction of the Junior Division of the Staff College (JDSC), the obsession for recruiting Graduates and breaking the link with local society with the abandonment of the County Regiment system. These, and doubtless other, factors have coalesced to bring an untimely (?) end to the Army being ‘a way of life or calling’. Some personal experiences might help to illustrate these elemental changes to life in the military.
In the early 1990s two rather elderly Lieutenant Colonels were ambling down the corridor for afternoon tea when one turned to the other and said: “This is what I joined the Army for – tea in the Mess. I never really relished training and all that stuff”. I suspect Raven would not only have identified with such a thought but also have been delighted that such thinking still prevailed in the 1990s.

In contemporaneous contrast, to the mutually agreed thoughts of the brace of Colonels, a rather startling (depressing?) incident took place in the Staff College Mess. A gaggle of elderly booze-laden middle ranking officers leaning on the bar was approached by a group of fresh-faced Sandhurst Officer Cadets and posed the following question: “What Staff appointment do you recommend we go for?” Such a question to a generation that regarded the prospect of being a Staff Officer as hugely distasteful was something of a show stopper. The elders had been reared on the myths of Oh What A Lovely War regarding Red Tabs as a badge of dishonour; indeed the prevailing modus operandi of junior officers in the elders’ youth was to avoid senior officers at all costs.
My last personal experience relates to a short chat with the Quartermaster General (QMG) – even in maturity I retained a preference for short, rather than long, conversations with senior officers. The background to this brief exchange related to the inequality of opportunity to study for the Staff College Examination; as between cap-badges there was great disparity of ‘time off’ to study. The Gunners were not generous in this regard, except in the case of those golden few blessed with ‘assumed brilliance’ who needed to be afforded a fair wind to achieve future greatness. The high failure of the Gunners in the Examination at that time suggested that there was some merit in my case. Further, it had been observed that the QMG’s Cavalry Regiment had an impressive pass rate for the Staff Examination.

So, fired up with belief in a cause and topped up with alcohol in the Henry The VIII Cellar in the MOD, I posed the following question: “General how is it that your Regiment is so successful in getting officers into the Staff College?”. Of course, remembering words spoken C1975 it is impossible to offer a verbatim version but, in essence, he said this:

‘At my initial interview on joining the Regiment the CO said “Patrick go way and be with your soldiers for the next 10 years and learn your trade after which I will recommend you for Staff College. I will give time off to study when the time comes and all I ask in return is that you pass the Examination.”. In those days Young Officers were kept at the coal-face to learn their trade and mature with those under their command (or do I mean the Sarge’s command?!).

Returning to the Gunners take on helping the non brilliant officer to progress, I recall a brief conversation with the Deputy Director Royal Artillery (DDRA) in my Staff College Examination year.  After a robust dinner night I felt confident enough to raise the issue of the inequality of study opportunity for those sitting the examination.  That conversation unravelled something like this:

“Brigadier, some of us are not too happy that there is a disparity of time off for studying for the Staff Exam not just within the Gunners but in relation to other cap-badges”

Before moving rapidly on, he replied:  “Well it was good enough for me in my day so it’s good enough for you now”.

Although short conversations with Senior Officers are almost always the preferred option I felt like saying “How can the Army ever change with Luddites like you at the helm”.  Needless to say my lips were sealed.

Chosen Extracts.

Allow me to offer some extracts from The Captain that tickled my fancy:

“I loved the Army as an institution and loathed every single thing it required me to do.”.

“Shurely [sic] there must be some mishtake [sic]. ‘No though a better word than ‘institution’ would have been ‘club’. Just as some MPs who never make a single speech in their entire careers regard the House of Commons as an admirable club, so I regarded the Army as an admirable club. But when it came to spending the night in a slit trench or going to the lavatory in a ditch, this had less appeal. And therein lies the dichotomy.”.

“Simon’s distaste for roughing it may have been unusual, but 40 years ago there were still plenty of other officers about who regarded the Army as a comfortable refuge from industrial society. Luckily for Simon, the KSLI had its fair share of them. Not that this was immediately apparent, for no sooner had Simon reported to Copthorne Barracks than he was sent on the exacting two months’ Platoon Commanders’ course he had missed before.”.
Given the way he had spent the past five years it was right and proper, said Simon, that he should be ‘smartened up’ in this way. The trouble was that the School of Infantry did not confine itself to practical instruction; it also went in for the sort of ‘quasi-moral indoctrination’ that he found repugnant. Too much was at stake for Simon to complain about this at the time; but as we shall see he cut loose five years later in Perish by the Sword[1], a polemic that could still call forth an indignant seven-page rebuttal from the Commandant of Sandhurst 30 years after it first appeared.”

He addresses the potential threat of the brainy to the agreeable way of life:

“The news of his recruitment [Raven] disquieted the Regulars, a majority, for whom brains came a poor third behind breeding and character in respect of officers. As the then Adjutant, JD ‘Oscar’ Whitamore, explained, ‘The KSLI was an old-fashioned county regiment, very keen on sport and with strong landowning connexions. I remember thinking when I heard there was a University entrant coming to join the Mess, “Oh God, I hope he’s not one of those wet intellectual types.”’

The KSLI – an upper middle class regiment:

“…with the exception of ‘one or two hard-faced ex-rankers left over from the war, who didn’t care for me’, the KSLI Mess was every bit as congenial as he had hoped. Although a fairly ordinary upper-middle class regiment – ‘not a bit smart by Brigade [Guards] or cavalry standards ‘ – it just happened to have, both among its national service officers and its regulars, ‘a lot of rather eccentric, intelligent, sceptical, “gambly” sort of people. It was one of the last regiments to remain firmly bachelor, too, which was a great relief, because there’s no fun to be had in the Army if everybody’s married and the Mess is deserted after four o’clock.”

[NB. Although married Raven avoided most, if not all, the norms of married life. He saw the move to BAOR as an opportunity to improve his standard of living via the additional payments of: Local Overseas Allowance (LOA) and Marriage Allowance. In the latter case he trousered the money rather than passing it on to his wife who had been left in the UK; this led to an exchange of telegrams: Wife: “Wife and baby starving send money soonest”. Raven: “Sorry no money suggest eat baby.”]


To draw any serious conclusions from the confused ramblings above would be a fraudulent exercise. Suffice to say The Captain – The Life and Times of Simon Raven is a vibrant read.

[1] A similar fate befell Professor Norman Dixon when his book Psychology of Military Incompetence was excoriated in the British Army Review.

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