Disclaimer: Notwithstanding that much of this article talks in the Present Tense, having been out of the Army for more years that I can count on the combination of my hands and feet, it is accepted that things have changed since ‘my day’. I certainly hope that is the case.


It is my understanding that the current talk of restructuring the Civil Service (CS) addresses two main issues:

· Lack of time in an appointment to effect any meaningful improvements

· The shortage of technically qualified/minded personnel in key decision-making appointments

If I am wrong and there are other important issues then, with sincere (ugh) apologies, they will be ignored since they do not suit the purpose of this article.

Technical People

It is understood that a major element of the CS restructuring relates to the paucity or technically literate people in senior/decision-making appointments. In my day such concern could just as easily have applied to the Army and, probably the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF). Back then it was the case that the Army was run by the edge of the sword officers (ie, the Cavalry and the Infantry) and the rest of its activities, from artillery fire to logistics, were simply there to sustain that primacy. No surprise therefore to discover than the only CIGS/CGS during the period from 1946 to 2009 who was not a member of that gilded fraternity was Field Marshal Sir Geoffrey Baker[i]. That said, it is gratifying to see that in C21st the Army has been led by both a Gunner and Sapper – at last a public recognition that brains and leadership are neither the sole province of the Cavalry and the Infantry nor are they mutually exclusive. Indeed this assessment of Field Marshal Montgomery by Lord Chalfont suggests that looking for leaders on a wider plain would be no bad thing: “brutally inconsiderate, unimaginative and monumentally vain”[ii].

In the halcyon pre-Options For Change era we talked freely of Brigades and Divisions with the edge of the sword commanders holding forth on exotic plans, excitedly deploying large hands on small maps and agonising on the best way to hold a particular piece of ground; TEWTs (Tactical Exercise Without Troops) and NEWDs (Night Exercises Without Darkness) abounded and we all played the game – some more joyfully than others. The unwholesome anxiety of reality presented a rather more sombre picture since it actually involved the deployment of troops and equipment; the malfunctioning of the latter suggested that more attention might usefully have been paid to it.[iii] Could it have been that technical matters were the responsibility of the less flamboyant and were inherently a rather grubby subject best left to secretive discussions on the Gun Park?

Admiral Beatty decreed that RN Engineer Officers should overt display their second class status by the sporting of a purple background between the gold rings [not sure that reads too well!]. The Army was more covert in supressing the progress of the technical officer and effecting that suppression by two main means. First, the reporting system required an officer to have commanded troops at each level up to Division; needless to say such command opportunities were either denied to technical and supporting[iv] Arms or made so difficult as to be a rarity[v]. Second, the Technical Staff Course (ptsc) did not carry the same career enhancing potential as the Division III Staff Course (psc). The psc ‘graduate’ had the greater potential for elevation to senior command. Some might suggest that Field Marshal Lord Vincent as a ptsc officer broke the mould but he took out the insurance policy of attending the Division III Course as well. So, in the round, being technical was regarded as lying somewhere between being grubby and dangerous.

Time In Post

The Battery Commander (BC) addressed his assembled Battery with the following words:

“It has taken me two years to knock you into shape and I am proud to hand you over to my successor”

Two weeks later his successor said this:

“I have been watching you closely for the last two weeks and have to say it will take me two years to knock you into shape”

Such a vignette suggests that the Army faces the same time in-post challenge as the CS.

There is surely much merit in the suggestion that leaders/commanders do not have sufficient time in post to achieve anything useful. It really is difficult to claim that much can be achieved in a two year command tour when the planning for Year One has been inked in and Year Two is already in draft. The reporting system exacerbated the position by allowing the, allegedly, particularly gifted officer[vi] to tuck away two Outstanding Reports in 18 months whereas the rest had to wait a full year for each report. Such officers from an early age attracted the classification of ‘assumed brilliance’.

The other obvious downside of rapid appointment changes is that the known limited timeframe of a tour allows the cynical leader to exploit the situation in two ways. First, like the successor BC above, there is plenty of scope in year one to blame a predecessor while devoting the second year getting ready for handover (don’t forget the Posting Order will have arrived at the mid-point of year two). Second, the trick is to implement lots of eye-catching career enhancing year one changes while being cosmetic lest they generate extra work for the commander; whereas in year two he/she can introduce a wide range of exotic fundamental changes that will require strenuous time-consuming action by a successor.

While the cynically ambitious can exploit the two year posting cycle it affects everyone and no more so than those at the bottom of the pyramid who see their alleged leaders coming and going with frightening rapidity. As the Troop Commander says to his soldiers: “I am off to Australia for a two year exchange tour and wish you all the best in your forthcoming operational tour in Afghanistan”. Yes, the officers can drift off onto postings that allow for their batteries to be re-charged.

Let us not forget that within the two year posting period the command element – officers and NCOs – are often away on training courses that too often relate to the next level up the food chain rather than to the task in hand. Such training is a manifestation of the old mantra ‘thinking two up syndrome’ (adjusted to ’thinking three up’ for the really ambitious). And so it is that young officers spent much unnecessary time away from the coal-face learning how to read and write via the Junior Staff Course which in itself merely lowers the earnesty threshold and ignites the bug of ambition. Good grief most of them are Graduates so they have already missed some crucial early learning years at the coal-face. Looking to the future should be left to Operational Requirements and Trainers leaving the rest to get on with the task in hand.


I think Disraeli opined that ‘it is easier to be critical than to be correct’; with that in mind, perhaps the time has come for me to make some more constructive comment.

It seems to me that the Army and probably all Three Services, have already embraced the concept of promoting officers to senior appointments from a far wider base the used to be the case; technical officers are no longer obliged to enter through the tradesman’s entrance. After all in this Century the Army has been led by both a Gunner and a Sapper and the Armed Forces by a Navigator rather than a fast jet pilot, all of which would have been unthinkable in my day. So maybe we are ahead of the CS in this area.

As for the two year posting cycle, it cannot be denied that such a system is disruptive to the ‘led’ as well as offering, more generally, stuttering progression via a lack of continuity; it also allows for cynical exploitation by the ambitious officer. The career planning need for regular postings is well understood, particularly as the Army shrink to a microdot and command/promotion appointments are few and far between. Is there not a case for being more imaginative? Consider such possibilities as:

· A Posting Order that simply says: “You will assume command of 1st Dropshorts on 1st January 2021 until further notice”. Leaving the end date open stymies the plan of the cynical officer who would no longer know when to peak. Further, he/she would have to prove their worth and could be sacked at any time

· Rank ranging appointments seems to make sense. Thus, a Brigade Commander can assume command as a Colonel with promotion being denied or approved at a later date (ie, performance related). Consider also equipment Project Managers (PM) for, say, a gun with an in-service gestation cycle of 12-15 years; instead of rotating the PM every two years, rank range the appointment – arrive as a Major and depart as a Colonel (or a Major!)

There remains one outstanding issue: How does the Army motivate the ‘passed over’ Major? That question, in turn, leads to a second one: How does the Army differentiate between the time server who is content to drift towards the pension and the hard worker who is not but needs motivating to sustain his endeavours? J.C.M. Baynes addressed this issue in his book The Soldier in Modern Society suggesting that motivation could be achieved by a variation in the pay scales. I see some merit in his thinking since, however small the Army becomes it will always benefit from the wisdom of motivated experience.

Apologies again if all the above is woefully time-expired thinking.

[i] Although I am even less of an expert on the RN and the RAF it is my understanding that the same edge of the sword senior appointment philosophy pertained; for example in the latter case only a fast jet pilot could ever hope to be Chief of the Air Staff. I recall my father telling me that he was hanging around BRNC Dartmouth (Circa 1923) awaiting his first posting when a team from the Admiralty arrived to tell all those interested that the age of sail was over and that Engineers were needed. In view of that requirement early promotion was guaranteed to anyone who volunteered to become an Engineer; unwisely my father took the bait and transferred from the Seaman Branch and became a ‘Plumber’. If only he could have predicted that the RN’s cavalryman – Admiral Beatty – would a few years later condemn Engineer Officers to Second Class status.

[ii] Chimes with my thinking from the moment I discovered that Monty banned smoking in the Officers’ Mess in the North African Campaign.

[iii] In our first deployment on a live Field Training Exercise (FTX) only two of our six Guns reached the Release Point. How and why the Gunners ever accepted Abbot into service are questiones that are unlikely to be answered.

[iv] The only exception of which I am aware was the elevation of Paul Travers, Late RCT, to GOC SE District as a means of easing his path to the Army Board (AB) as Quartermaster General – a unique experience to have a logistician as an AB Member.

[v] Military Assistant to the CGS told me that the list for the first Higher Command and Staff Course contained too few edge of the sword officers and his boss told him to ‘go away and get more suitable candidates’. Please note that the course selection criteria had been written by the CGS!

[vi] Then defined as the man most likely to reach the top and fight the corner for his cap-badge.