Love, Honour and Obey – or ‘Serve’ to Kill! Kill! Kill!

July 1971 - Commissioning Parade RMA Sandhurst

A complicated title, but shortly explained. I am blogging in defence of the Army’s method of officer training, currently being depicted in BBC 4’s ‘Sandhurst’, a series following a student intake at Sandhurst throughout their year’s training. Unfortunately, to my mind, the training regime has been unfairly depicted, as picked up in a review in this week’s The Lady magazine with words such as ‘grim and ritualistic’, ‘engage in a lot of polishing and ironing and other domestic chores’, ‘strenuous physical exercise while being constantly subjected to verbal abuse’, ‘it involves a lot of shouting by officers and shouting by cadets in response, a bit like church only noisier and laced with obscenities’. This week’s episode seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time focussing on a period of bayonet drill, probably one hour out of a year’s worth of training in which the cadets were psyched up to advance screaming ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and bayonet sack dummies. I must admit however, that 40 years ago when I carried out this training, I have no recollection of ‘ritualistic shouting’.

Out of 3 one hour programmes covering the whole of the cadet’s year, much of the second programme continually cut to the bayonet drill and covered the relative verbal ‘abuse’ disproportionately – although it is true some abuse is received, although not in an overly abusive fashion. It should be well known by those attending the course what sort of thing to expect, although of course it is quite a shock when it is actually experienced!

The whole purpose of the course is to take raw, sometimes unfit, indisciplined young men and women, and give them an ethos of service, not just to their country but to those who serve under them. The Academy’s motto is ‘Serve to Lead’ which encapsulates that. Drill and fitness training are essential for self discipline and endurance, at the same time instilling the ability to take abuse, endure harsh circumstances of terrain and weather, provide leadership under extreme stressful conditions and enable your men and yourself to survive and to overcome, sometimes overwhelming, opposition. Anything a soldier is expected to do, an officer must be able to do at least as well if not better, and that includes basic soldiering skills. The training also drums into the future leaders the instincts of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and despite some of the bad press the Army has recently received, adherence rigidly to law, the Geneva Convention and the conventions on human rights.  An officer cadet will come out of Sandhurst, despite his regiment or corps, with the inherent ability to command an infantry company in war.  The old fashioned ethics enshrined in the marriage ceremony of ‘Love, Honour and Obey’ are as true for a British Army officer in relation to his country and the now unfashionable ‘patriotism’ as they are for a couple getting married for life.

In my day, when presumably funding was not so short, our course was 2 years, but that  included long academic periods on military history (never wasted), law, sciences, languages, communication skills and accounting. All useful for the all-round officer when he is despatched on a whole range of tasks and responsibilities world-wide. Not as much time as the Americans though. West Point, the US Army equivalent of Sandhurst, provides a 4-year course and the cadets graduate with a commission and a degree!  A major difference between now and my time, I note from the BBC4 series,  is that a large proportion of the officer cadets are older and probably more worldly-wise, although not necessarily more mature, and have often come from other professions. In my day, the overwhelming majority of us were schoolboys, straight out of the sixth form and therefore blanker canvasses and also probably more impressionable – but we still had to grow up quickly and on commissioning as army officers, have the ability to gain the respect of and to lead older soldiers in operational scenarios – in those days the early days of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The Hanover House links with the diatribe above, have been our recent anniversary at Sandhurst and the fact that several of my near contemporaries have stayed with us, not knowing before they came of our connections, but realising on either seeing the photographs on the walls, or indeed of meeting us at the reunion!

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