The Slaughter of the Subalterns

Open letter to the Editor of Legion, the Royal British Legion magazine

Dear Sir,

I was dismayed to read the letter from Elisabeth Wooley in your September issue on officers in the First World War. It is a frequent misapprehension and demands the strongest rebuttal.

I speak from experience. Once, some years ago, I was compelled to intervene at Delville Wood Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France, after hearing an earnest young schoolmistress holding forth to her gullible pupils that ‘the reason there were so few officers’ graves was because they all stayed in the trench, forcing their men to advance at pistol point or be executed for cowardice.’ My (somewhat forceful) interruption to point out that she was talking nonsense and there were only 30 officers in a battalion of 900 men (3 per cent), and the officers led from the front was met with incredulity ….

A century on, we do a grave disservice to the dead young officers of the Great War to allow this disgraceful lie to continue unchallenged. Historical facts and truth are more important than ignorant opinions and prejudice. The Legion has a national duty to set the record straight.

The real truth is that the casualty rates among the junior officers in the Great War were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front in the trenches was just 42 days: ‘The universal expectation of a subaltern was “a hospital bed or interment in the soil”. Many had come straight from the classroom to the most dangerous job in the world, yet nearly all stepped forward, unflinchingly, to do their duty.’

Attacking across No Man’s Land with nothing but a revolver and in a distinctive uniform, junior officers were obvious targets for German defenders; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the officer-students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.

In the UK around 6 million men were mobilised and, of those, just some 750,000 were killed. That’s around 12 per cent. In fact, as a British soldier, statistically you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-6) than in World War I.

However, although numerically the great majority of casualties in World War I came from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately much harder by the global conflict. Their sons provided the junior officers, whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 17 per cent of the British army’s officers were killed, compared with 12 per cent of the rank-and-file soldiers killed during the war. Most of those were junior officers, although – contrary to popular belief – more British generals were killed in World War I than in any other major conflict (including three divisional commanders at Loos in 1915). Also, in 1914-18, most officers came from privileged backgrounds.

Casualty rates for regimental officers have always been proportionately higher than for other ranks.

The reason is simple. Young men as junior officers are needed to command infantry. The basic unit of foot soldiers was – and still is – the platoon under the command of the lowest commissioned officer rank. The official title of these junior officers is ‘subaltern’. A century ago in Britain, any educated young man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, these young men (many of whom were barely out of school) rushed to join the forces; many thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun.

Overwhelmingly, these junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which in the quaint way we British have with the language are actually private institutions open only to those who can afford the fees. In 1914, the student body came almost exclusively from the British upper and professional caste and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.

According to an article by Lewis-Stempel in The Express (9 February 2014), ‘They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders. The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. Manliness, duty, love of Britain, and stiff upper-lip self-denial were the inescapable virtues. So, when Lord Kitchener asked public school boys to step forward to officer the expanded British Army in 1914, they did so in their thousands.’

These products of tough boarding schools had been educated in a regime of muscular Christianity: team games, cold showers, demonstrating ‘pluck’ at sports, and immersion in history and the classics. They read GA Henty and Rudyard Kipling and were brought up on the famous Henry Newbolt poem, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’

In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke, public-school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead, above all to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry. Their soldiers deferred to their young leaders sharing the same hardship in the trenches and acknowledged their courage and devotion to duty.

They were rarely let down. The courage of these junior officers was by and large amazing. A common thread is in the letters of many of these well-educated young men; they seemed to fear to be seen ‘letting the side down’ or ‘not being brave enough’ in front of their men more than they feared death itself. They were schooled to set an example; and they did.

The subalterns – in all armies – were always the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell. Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that ‘To die for one’s school is an honour.’ He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was just 20 years old. His public school, Eton College, sent 3000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War: 1157 (over 30 per cent of them) died on the battlefields.

Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled ‘I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, most anxious lest I show it.’

Another tragic example was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, educated at Wellington, keen to join the fight, but rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and wangled him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In autumn 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going ‘over the top’ he was dead, crying from the pain of his wound, shot through the jaw but still – according to his platoon serjeant – gamely trying to carry on, only to be later blown to pieces by a shell, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that, among subalterns, ‘estimates for the mortality rates among platoon commanders in the attack range from 65 to 81 per cent. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.’  The German and French casualties reflect even higher mortality rates for their officers, and lost over 50 percent of their young males aged 20–24 during the Great War.

Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian AJP Taylor to write ‘The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.’ The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and afterwards described the dead young officers as ‘The Lost Generation’.

Sandhurst’s proud motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. The British soldier expects nothing less from his officers – then and now. The dead young officers of the Great War prove that truth, as a visit to any CWGC cemetery on the Western Front shows.

John Hughes-Wilson
Past President, International Guild of Battlefield Guides
Author, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects (Imperial War Museum, 2014)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s