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Why Did The British Army Have So Many "characters"?


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It seems that of all armies in the world, the British Army seems to have more than its fair share of "Characters". Guys such as Lord Lovat and his cardigan, and his piper, "Mad Jack" Churchill with his longbow and claybeg, Digby Tatham-Warter with his brolly seem to not be looked at too askance in the annals of the British Army. So is it all the spankings and homo-erotic atmosphere at Public Schools which cause such :D ? Or is it that the UK seems to have more than its fair share of "characters"?

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Have you forgotten Terrance (Spike) Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, all three of whom served, and all three of whom would have probably never made it past US recruitment processes.

 

None of them were the result of a British public school education.

 

But they are examples of how the Brits were willing to accept anyone and everyone who could provide at least useful service, no matter about their eccentricity.

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There is a podcast series called 'We have way's of making you talk' that touched on this in an episode. They both concluded that its the British Regimental system. The 'orthodox' British Officer never talked shop in Mess, so orthodoxy was synonymous with stultification. There was one Officer (I think it might have been Monty actually) that absolutely insisted on it, to the point where he was regarded as being a bit weird. And that seemed to happen time and again. The ones whom concentrated on their job, the ones that really rejoiced in learning the trade of killing the Kings enemies, were invariably oddballs that didnt quite fit in. When you look at the likes of Orde Wingate or Percy Hobart, or even JC Fuller, as a theory its got a lot to commend it.

 

https://play.acast.com/s/wehaveways/trailer

 

If you think about it, there isnt a history of such complete oddballs in the Navy or the RAF. It only seems to be the Army and the Regimental system that proved a breeding ground for it.

 

There is a great line in the movie 'Charge of the Light Brigade', where someone says 'I rue the day when officer of the British Army knows what he is doing. It smacks of murder'. :D

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There is also the sexual element. Anybody who joins the British Army knows they are going to get F$$&Ed. The sqaddies know they will be expected to go into very dangerous places with equipment that was built by the lowest bidder led by someone who is more likely younger and less experienced than you are and nobody survives operational tour without some kind of mental damage. If the MOD were to actually screen serving soldiers properly for psychological problems they wouldn't be able to police a fourth devision football match let alone defend a country as nobody in their right mind would join up in the first place.

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Have you forgotten Terrance (Spike) Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, all three of whom served, and all three of whom would have probably never made it past US recruitment processes.

 

None of them were the result of a British public school education.

 

But they are examples of how the Brits were willing to accept anyone and everyone who could provide at least useful service, no matter about their eccentricity.

For that matter, there was no lack of American comedians like Mel Brooks who spent considerable time in uniform. I get the impression it was a popular thing to do in the 1940s and 50s.

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There is a podcast series called 'We have way's of making you talk' that touched on this in an episode. They both concluded that its the British Regimental system. The 'orthodox' British Officer never talked shop in Mess, so orthodoxy was synonymous with stultification. There was one Officer (I think it might have been Monty actually) that absolutely insisted on it, to the point where he was regarded as being a bit weird. And that seemed to happen time and again. The ones whom concentrated on their job, the ones that really rejoiced in learning the trade of killing the Kings enemies, were invariably oddballs that didnt quite fit in. When you look at the likes of Orde Wingate or Percy Hobart, or even JC Fuller, as a theory its got a lot to commend it.

 

https://play.acast.com/s/wehaveways/trailer

 

If you think about it, there isnt a history of such complete oddballs in the Navy or the RAF. It only seems to be the Army and the Regimental system that proved a breeding ground for it.

 

There is a great line in the movie 'Charge of the Light Brigade', where someone says 'I rue the day when officer of the British Army knows what he is doing. It smacks of murder'. :D

Interesting.

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I think eccentricity was always more tolerated in most European armies (maybe excluding Germans..) than in US military. Have to remember that USA was safe haven of puritans and it still shows.

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UK/US armies lacked "special" units to put those "excentrics". If you are an odd French you go to the Foreign Legion, if you are German, to the Schutztruppen or the Branderburgers...

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In the US, because it was bigger and people moved around more, there has always been more pressure to conform, as a way to smooth interactions with those outside of those you can directly establish a personal reputation or rapport with.

British charisma is about being a 'good dear friend', US charisma is more a sort of salesmanship designed to impress strangers. The former is more tolerant, and even somewhat approving of eccentricity.

British academia fit this model very well- look at eccentrics such as Jeremy Bentham, G. H. Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Henry Sidgwick, A. C. Pigou etc.

Edited by KV7
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I suppose the relative lack of standardized doctrine was another reason. Hard to be accused of not following the book, when there wasn't one. :D

 

True. And quite eager to experiment e.g. between the wars with this new fangled "tank" and mobile warfare. And they even found some good lessons in what they found in the maneuvers they conducted. Though actual implementation was maybe not so good before the war. Also the British were the first to establish a proper new separate flying force in the Royal Air Force quite some time before anyone else did. The USA dragged it the longest until after WW2.

 

 

KV7 makes a good point that personal acquaintance makes it possible to be eccentric and weird, because people know you are harmless despite them. Whereas the USA are a makebelive and conform to an assumed standard kind o society. Maybe also american puritanism plays a role, as Sardaukar mentions. All those puritans were expelled into the north american colonies after all. ;) And as Stuart said, the regimental system lead to people knowing each other serving most of the time together. Whereas other armies are just a bunch of random strangers thrown together by orders of high command. Familiarity has something to cemmend for it. But also British society in general has its eccentrics. Just look at the because the UK thread over in the FFZ. e.g. that pensioned teacher that hopped over the Alps on a rubber ball.

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Wealth and eccentricity seem to appear in society hand in hand. It is easier to afford that way, in a social sense.

 

In a military sense, if an officer with those tendencies is both protected and elevated by a strong sense of social class, an Army that respects that order will find a place for him. One that does not respect that social order will beat it out of him.

 

I'd add TE Lawrence and JB Glubb of the Arab Legion to that list.

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I suppose the relative lack of standardized doctrine was another reason. Hard to be accused of not following the book, when there wasn't one. :D

 

True. And quite eager to experiment e.g. between the wars with this new fangled "tank" and mobile warfare. And they even found some good lessons in what they found in the maneuvers they conducted. Though actual implementation was maybe not so good before the war. Also the British were the first to establish a proper new separate flying force in the Royal Air Force quite some time before anyone else did. The USA dragged it the longest until after WW2.

 

 

 

Unfortunately the British took the single flying force too far, including naval aviation, resulting in the Royal Navy being poorly served in that aspect.

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Have you forgotten Terrance (Spike) Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, all three of whom served, and all three of whom would have probably never made it past US recruitment processes.

 

None of them were the result of a British public school education.

 

But they are examples of how the Brits were willing to accept anyone and everyone who could provide at least useful service, no matter about their eccentricity.

For that matter, there was no lack of American comedians like Mel Brooks who spent considerable time in uniform. I get the impression it was a popular thing to do in the 1940s and 50s.

 

 

Many young men got that famous letter that started with "Greetings from the President of the United States" during that era.

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perhaps wealth was a reason. GB being the wealthiest of nations for some time, it began that persons who were a bit daft could be so without starving or being stoned to death. Later it just became tradition.

 

Bit of a misnomer. The sons that went into the Army were usually about the 3 or 4th in line, and not particularly wealthy. There was some line about one for heir, one for clergy one for spare and one for the Army. Something like that. The point being, the Army one was usually an idiot with a bought commission and safely expendable.

 

I exaggerate, but perhaps not so much.

 

 

 

I suppose the relative lack of standardized doctrine was another reason. Hard to be accused of not following the book, when there wasn't one. :D

 

True. And quite eager to experiment e.g. between the wars with this new fangled "tank" and mobile warfare. And they even found some good lessons in what they found in the maneuvers they conducted. Though actual implementation was maybe not so good before the war. Also the British were the first to establish a proper new separate flying force in the Royal Air Force quite some time before anyone else did. The USA dragged it the longest until after WW2.

 

 

KV7 makes a good point that personal acquaintance makes it possible to be eccentric and weird, because people know you are harmless despite them. Whereas the USA are a makebelive and conform to an assumed standard kind o society. Maybe also american puritanism plays a role, as Sardaukar mentions. All those puritans were expelled into the north american colonies after all. ;) And as Stuart said, the regimental system lead to people knowing each other serving most of the time together. Whereas other armies are just a bunch of random strangers thrown together by orders of high command. Familiarity has something to cemmend for it. But also British society in general has its eccentrics. Just look at the because the UK thread over in the FFZ. e.g. that pensioned teacher that hopped over the Alps on a rubber ball.

 

 

I really ought to try and find that 'We have ways' podcast that discussed this (ah, slug through them all, they are all interesting) but basically, the problem being a colonial force, the British Army didnt have time as, say the Germans or the Soviets, to write down and lock in doctrine. There was not much point thinking up tactics and doctrine to deal with the German Army, if the Battalions next posting was the Northwest frontier. So what it did teach us perhaps (this is their argument, and im inclined to buy it) was that it encouraged adaptability, rather than solid doctrine. In fact, the British Army didnt really develop a military doctrine till the early 1980's. The improvisational style was that strong.

 

I think people forget how far advanced the British Army was by WW2. We had radio control of units in the field (OK, so an Austin 7 as a command car is not impressive, but its a start), we had what was the only fully mechanized army in Europe (maybe anywhere). Its true we were nowhere near as good as the Germans in ground/air coordination and putting decision making down to the lowest level. But against that one has to say, who was?

 

Ive always felt the real failure in 1940 was not the British Army in stopping the Germans. They proved reasonably capable at that on the approaches to Dunkirk. The failure was having allies that proved so monumentally inept, at least until it was far to late to make a difference. I think we have to look at how Britain responded against the Italians in 1940 to show that were not quite as far behind the curve as many historians have made out. Even our tanks, at least in 1940, genuinely scared the Germans. On the other hand, we were never going to go far with just 14 Matilda II's......

 

I think the British Regimental system was, unlike other nations, a family. So there was more toleration of say 'monty', 'because at least his chaps are well trained'. So there may have been more toleration of eccentric, even maverick behavior, than you might find in other nations. That isnt to say they were always listened to, but at least when they got promoted, they could bring 'Their' system with them. Which brought in a reasonable amount of new ideas, even if they were not ideas that always neatly dovetailed with other peoples.

 

If you want to study a true eccentric, read up on JC Fuller and his relationship with the occultist Aliester Crowley....

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If you have class system you have a sort of spine, so paradoxically the eccentrics can exist because the center is strong. We should also not forget that the industrial revolution was made by many eccentric characters. So i would say that eccentricity is a speculative behavior that British society allows to exist as a test for the future.

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So because it has so much built in conformity, those who are "eccentric" tend to stand out? I've always been amazed at the number of unusual British Officers who history speaks about as "Characters". I remember my old prof Dr. Malpass telling me once that the British people love an eccentric.

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Crisp is actually a really good example. In the film (which I gather is reasonably close to his book) he was arrested for homosexual soliciting. He actually stood up in the witness box, admitted, yes, he was a homosexual, told them he was no longer practicing, and all the people who the police claimed he had solicited, had actually came up to him to say hello. The Judge accepted all the good character witnesses from a slew of people, and let him off without charge. Although we rightly get a bad rap for the way we treated homosexuals (Alan Turing not least) its difficult to believe that in any other country he would have been let off like that. Perhaps a toleration of individuality played a part in it.

 

Crisp incidentally was the guy Sting was singing about in 'An Englishman in New York'. Which just goes to show, if you are a public disgrace and hang around long enough, inevitably you will become fashionable at some point.

 

There is a whole slew of them. There was a documentary about the first Englishman that might have arrived at the summit of Everest, George Mallory, and it was shown (with unwanted photographic evidence) he was actually a nudist.There was a photo of him and a few of the other chaps at base camp in the nudy. Still wearing Solar Topees no less. Ill be charitable and suggest that might have been down to Oxygen starvation....

 

Lawrence certainly was. Although I think in his case you can speculate about whether it was to stand out, or just an example of a disordered mind. His penchant for fast motorbikes i think was perhaps an indication of someone that really didnt worry about whether he lived long or not.

 

Nelson was an eccentric, whether it was not seeing an enemy fleet at the right time, or his chaotic private life. Churchill in many ways was also a deeply strange man. As a means of combating depression, he learned bricklaying. He even joined a bricklaying Union, which he was secretly proud of.

 

There comes a point when developing an eccentricity can be perceived as being fashionable. I think there was a trend in English society at one time to develop one just to stand out from the crowd. I suppose Boris Johnson is an inheritor of that characteristic, as is Jacob Rees Mogg.

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