Some Staff Duties

By an ex-Staff Officer
Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. LXVIII, Feb to Nov, 1923.

The best education for a staff Officer for the duty to know "his" troops is regimental experience.

The expression "Staff Duties" has a technical meaning amongst the Enlightened. At Camberley it included the exercise of higher mathematics in the calculation of the number of mules or camels required to carry the food of the beasts which carried the food of the men, as well as the draughtsmanship necessary to depict graphically the arrival of troops at some dockyard gates with due regard to the fact that n ships of such and such draught could reach (load up) and leave a quay of length x at in so many hours. These and similar problems gave entrancing tasks to officers of suitable mentality.

We use the term here in its lay sense, i.e., the things a staff officer must do, and do well, the most important of which are to gain and retain the confidence of his general (a question of personality, which has been discussed elsewhere), and to know the troops.

It is not denied that a pleasant personality assists a staff officer to know the troops—all men are assuredly not equal, but the writer maintains that most men can cultivate their personality to reach reasonable efficiency in dealing with troops, and that the rest is just collar-work; not work at the office table, which is unseen (and frequently unread) but long hours spent in personal visits untinted by any suspicion of "spying." It is sometimes exceedingly hard to reach the fighting-lines on the battlefield, while still competing with the office work; it once took the writer eight hours or more to reach the front line, find out what he wanted, and get back. The object of the visit was not only to get away from the telephone, which was indeed preferable to the mud and the enemy fire, but to see for himself what exactly was the state of affairs at a crucial point where horizon blue and khaki were supposed to meet, and what was the mentality of those wearing these most contrasting colours at (one should say near) this point. The mere getting to the troops is important; what the staff officer effects in the way of observation and personal touch is still more important. Now it is obvious that more than a certain number of staff officers cannot be "on the prowl" at any one time, and that, for any one unit or area visited, there are several unvisited; it is beyond the confines of reason to expect the troops to realise that a staff officer spends a large portion of his vim in endeavouring to gain personal touch. The aim is this; not that the troops should say George (or Freddie) was round this morning," but rather "Wonder why neither George nor Freddie has come to see us lately," and that (here is the true test) in a tone of genuine regret. So many people in life turn up punctually for a meeting or function, who might really just as well stay at home! Nevertheless, it is not without value to attend punctually all functions and thus to become an expected, and in time even an indispensable, figure in the picture. It seems to be a rule in life that when an idea is so good as to be selected for routine performance, from that moment it becomes abysmally dull, unless the soul of the performer can throw out something of its own golden sheen. That power is what constitutes personality, but the mere performance of routine, which is work, is not to be despised.

The best education for a staff Officer for the duty to know "his" troops (only don't talk to your general about "your" division!) is regimental experience. Of course, one cannot usually refuse the offer of a staff billet, but certain it is that periods of regimental duty are a necessary corrective against becoming a "Mr. Know—All"; also any soldier who served the war through on the Western Front will admit that the nature of battle there kept changing; can one imagine anything more different than May 1915 and September 1914?—compare March and April, 1918, with June or August, 1917! Before the war, many an officer beloved of the authorities had insufficient intervals of regimental duty—note, this is written in no carping spirit. During the war the same type got no regimental experience at all, on the plea that he could not be spared; it would upset the even tenour of work at headquarters. This was a problem, no doubt, and it seems absurd to keep a highly-trained staff officer in the trenches; but there is another side to the question. Whether it would be possible to earmark a cycle of officers to fill a group of billets, at least one of whom was at regimental duty? Anyway, the writer's conviction is that no man can know troops without a share, and a good share, of regimental duty; and regimental experience gained may even prove later to have been the silver lining to a horrid dark cloud of dégommation.

Starting from the (only reasonable) assumption that more is expected by the troops of a staff officer than one mere human being can perform, there are few things which arouse the ire of the soldier crowd more than to be told by a staff officer "That's not my job." Of course, it is not the job of (say) a junior General Staff Officer to select an Elysian wagon line for a mounted unit, but he must not say "that's not my pigeon"—not for worlds! He will at once hear a whisper in the trees about " watertight compartments," an expression the inventor of which should certainly be receiving pricks in the back from some demon's red-hot trident. If he is wise, the G.S.O. will listen and murmur an intention to mention the complaint at Headquarters. In truth, one should know the elements of one's brother staff officers' duties, which one can quite well do without stealing their thunder. With this laudable idea in his mind, the writer, then senior staff officer of a formation, devised a plan by which the staff officer on duty opened correspondence and selected certain items for entry on the central registry index of the day, a copy of which was placed on each staff officer's table; it was expected, and found, that this system entailed a deal of extra work for the clerks, but those who studied their lists gained considerable knowledge of the work of the staff as a whole; it was less expected, but found, that when George particularly wanted a certain file, Freddie had sent his clerk for it and taken it out in his pocket; what was not expected was that the General was always discovering that his staff kept him in the dark as to what was going on. The first remedy, i.e., not to put a copy of the index on the General's table, failed completely. After some not unhumorous efforts to edit the daily list with circumspection (the next remedy), there was one awful explosion, which rent our earth, and the reverberations of which reached in time as far as the outpost line and "refilling-point," as a result of which the device was allowed to die quietly away.

Understanding of one's neighbours' work is part of the interior co-operation which is so necessary for a successful staff. True, it sometimes ends in Freddie doing what is obviously George's work; perhaps George likes that—many people are thus built; it is less satisfactory when Freddie only says he has done it, and no one does it at all. One must be patient; every "crowd" must have its "leader," and some people do love to do the popular thing for a present body, even if twenty odd absent bodies suffer "some slight" inconvenience.

One of the very important duties of an experienced staff Officer—one does not thus use an inexperienced man—is liaison duty, which reaches the zenith of importance between Allies, or between a C.-in-C. and a Detachment. Examples of these two cases within the memory of all are afforded by the late Sir Henry Wilson, who commanded for a time the British Mission with the French Army, and by the late Oberstlieutnant Hensch, who appears to have misinterpreted the intentions of German G.H.Q. when on a liaison visit to the Armies forming the right wing of the German attack, with whom their G.H.Q. was out of touch during the battle of the Marne. This last example will probably become classic, on account of the inestimable importance of H.'s misliaison. The position of a liaison officer is frequently a sinecure, having been established as a precautionary measure against eventualities which do not arise; it may, however, call for every atom of personality which the liaison officer can bring into play. He must be "in the head of" the Commander who sent him out, and at the same time conceive a certain intuition as regards the staff to which he is sent. To the latter he is often a consummate nuisance, eating up food, occupying valuable accommodation, and hearing a great deal they would rather were not heard. He has, first, to be confident that he is in full possession of the ideas and intentions of his Commander; for his duties consist not only in reporting events, but also in striving to persuade a much senior officer (commanding the formation to which he is sent) to fall in with those ideas and intentions. Between Allies, intimate knowledge of both languages is essential, extending to a delicate nuance; good looks and a pretty wit make a man a welcome guest; but the basis of success consists in complete certainty as to his Commander's wishes, and the reiteration thereof in a stone-wall fashion, sometimes forcibly, to the staff in the middle of which he finds himself. One might say, if the duties entail a perfectly pleasant time only, then the liaison officer need never have been sent; if he is really needed, it frequently happens that the atmosphere is hostile to him, and he has need of patience, firmness, and all his tact. The minutest details of the staff work about him are worth noticing, even if not recording. He is in fact an ambassador sent by "A" to get something "A" wants. An artillery liaison officer with the infantry plays in addition the piquant rôle of a hostage against short shells, which not even the most technical and fanciful lecture on gunnery can explain away.

Synchronisation was a minor but troublesome G.S. duty in the last war—troublesome, as the following incident will show. A brigade was to make a limited, but not unimportant, attack for which it was receiving the support of a considerable amount of artillery. Two divisional staff officers, one G.S. and one artillery, gave the time to the infantry brigade-major and departed, with the divisional watch. By a devilish concatenation of circumstances (into which it is not necessary to enter), the representative of one field artillery brigade obtained the time from the wrong watch, and its barrage opened next morning five minutes too soon. The infantry on that particular front advanced with their barrage and were well on when the correct zero hour struck, and the main body of the guns opened fire. Rumour had it that the Nero commanding the division wished "the Gunners" had but one head; a prolonged inquiry showed that a number of officers were free from blame, but could select no one individual who could with justice be beheaded. It is not well, however, to laugh, for the incident held tragedy. The lesson appeared to be that on every occasion and in each formation or unit, one person, and one person only, should be definitely responsible for synchronisation.

There has recently been correspondence as to the advisability of having a chief staff officer, instead of two branches "of rank equal, but glory unequal"; a humorous correspondent to Truth speaks of one branch as "the clever boys." Now the General Staff may have more glory attached to it, but, after the early days of the war, its opportunities for the exercise of its somewhat vaunted imagination, except perhaps in very high formations, were extremely limited; whereas Q. had to deal with every conceivable subject from brevets, court-martial sentences, and other awards, to the supply of foot-grease, road-metal, flapper-fans and amusements; there was often a lot of imagination about Q's compliance with the demands of the troops, who, of course, wanted everything sent to them ("as soon as possible, if not sooner") with the same haste with which returns and reports were required from them. Positions on either "side" of the staff were easy enough logs to fall off, but, after the supply departments once got working, a Q. officer might, given good health, reasonable intelligence, and not ôtrop de zèleô, amble fair safely excelsior; whereas responsible positions on the General Staff were subject to accidents arising from the will of the enemy, an ill-regulated factor which the staff next above one's own never seemed to credit. Now it is obvious that somewhere or other on the ladder, G.S. and Q.) duties must be divided; also that that individual wields the greatest power who can first control both branches. Much of the correspondence on the subject of a chief staff officer seems to leave out of consideration the existence of the Commander, to whom the staff are but servants, or at any rate who is president of the oligarchy; the writer's experience was limited chiefly to staff work within a division, where he can see no serious reason for taking power from the Commander and giving it to a chief staff officer. It is one of the few advantages appertaining nowadays to command (allowing always a lien on the best car and the sunniest room in the chateau), and is a poor exchange for the first right to a bowler hat, should the enemy interfere with the staff's arrangements.

While on this subject, it is worth mentioning Q.'s perquisite in the shape of patronage—i.e., the preparation of lists of lucky individuals whose names would later appear in the newspapers as "men who have made their mark," with corresponding advantage to the social status of their families at home. This list is in fact one of the most powerful weapons in the hand of a Commander, but it is distinctly double-edged; for the recommendation of a man, considered by the troops as unworthy, deals a serious blow to moral; the troops never will understand that a man's suspected capabilities for worthiness are the cause for his selection to fill a billet, that his ability to retain the crown against all comers proves his worthiness, and that the honour is awarded him as an outward and visible sign that he has done so. One may crab and criticise, of course; that if a man stops long enough in one place, he gathers the moss which invariably collects round stationary objects—it is after all something to be able thus to remain stationary; that the half-yearly despatch pained more people than it pleased—but wait, joy will come some June or January morning! That foreign decorations, (to, &c. But in truth all men are not equal, and the world would be but a dull spot if the element of luck were quite eliminated. The preparation of these lists gave more anxiety to those who had to prepare and sign them than the troops at large will (or did) ever believe.

A harder task than the selection of the fittest is, for a kind-hearted man, the elimination of the unfit. One can turn an old hunter out to grass, but even that costs something; at any rate the grass cannot object. It is not so with men. The more it is attempted to soften the blow, the longer the agony; the creation of new posts to occupy those eliminated is no sound policy. On these, as on many other occasions, doctors are a godsend. And, if one is in the delightful position of being "unstuck" oneself, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: "Cold, heat, hunger, good report, and ill report, follow one another in due course." It is a sign of an inferior man to hang his head, and the careers of some people during the war afforded to the world spectacles of a most switchback nature.

Corresponding to the preparation of honours' lists by Q., the G.S. has the duty of preparing that other kind of despatch, the story of the battle. There is much in this besides the pleasure of "lingering too fondly on a past achievement." The basis of the story is, of course, the war diary, and the keeper of an inaccurate diary should be cast with his diary into flames; the trouble is, that what appears true to A., some—times looks to B. like a ruddy tarradiddle. Now there is no military object in study of the past except as a basis for study of the future—and this applies on the widest scale, for military history is grounded on the various despatches, to be studied by future students of future war. One's first duty is, therefore, to write the truth and not an "apologia pro mea vita"; to reach that ideal one must write the war diary each day, while the events themselves, and one's appreciation of the circumstances leading up to those events, are fresh in one's mind. One might write a book on this subject; perhaps the writer will try to do so one day; bound in a nice scarlet binding, with gilt letters—if he can afford it; but at present he will only jot down, with all humility, a few points which have come to his notice in the attempted performance on several occasions of this literary task. They are as follows:—

(a)     Write up your war diary each day from the messages in and out. Battle days want recording by hours (and minutes); on non-battle days, a few lines should record decisions reached on important points. Note that use of the telephone has made diary-keeping harder, the remedy for which is, as far as possible, to record at once in writing important telephonic communications.

(b)     Attach a copy of the final edition of the despatch as an Appendix to the war diary, just as one attaches a copy of Operation Orders.

(c)     Military histories have been blamed for taking insufficient account of psychological factors, the principal of which is based on the daily life of the men. What you should write in this vein needs judgment, but it is not necessary to describe the purple of the hills against the golden sunset. Nevertheless, a certain condition of moral—your rivals may call it "illusion"—accounts for a number of incidents, successful and unsuccessful.

(d)     It is difficult to collect accounts after an action. Not all men can conceive a detached view of the necessary width. Some, at times a great many, of the participants in the action have been killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, especially if it was unsuccessful.

(e)     Illustrate your story with maps. A little impressionism is useful to bring out the points as you wish.

(f)     Do not issue the final edition too soon. Better evidence may come in with time, and reflection will often cause you to see things in a truer light.

(g)     Remember your story is not of yourself and your immediate neighbours, but of the whole of the troops comprised in the formation, not all of whom may have "gone over the top," but whose action has nevertheless been important.

(h)     Do not, unless you can help it, write anything injurious to other formations with which you have had dealings during the action; if you do, you ought to tell them what has been written.

(i)     Litera scripta manet.

A young staff officer on promotion to a higher Sphere of influence was asked by his new "boss" if he understood the use of carbon paper. Quite a sensible question, but a better one would have been: "Do you understand the proper use of a telephone?" Telephones vary; so do the people who are listening at the other end; so do the tempers of the listeners. Errors of judgment must have been innumerable during the war. The writer once found he was speaking to a very "big gun" whose furious voice roared at him: "If you must ring me up to tell me there are no mines on your front, why the —— should you buzz the —— thing in my ear!" An irate staff officer, after expressing his notion as to the listener's fitness for life outside a lunatic asylum, discovered he had been talking to the Prince of Wales. It is rather ungentlemanly to bluff by telephone a listener very junior to yourself (say, a "learner" on duty during the dinner hour). It is not so good to speak to a man over the telephone as to speak to him face to face, but it is often (not always) better than writing. In all cases, Patience!

Nearly the most important staff duty is to have a sense of humour. One cannot always spot the ridiculous in what one has written, which is one reason for letting someone else read it before its intended recipient. Some phrases have become classic; and there was a historic document (with reference to the military training of officers' batmen), in which it was stated that many officers had been found entirely ignorant of their duties, a humorous typist having omitted the word "batmen." The writer in his salad staff days referred to the ideal that artillery officers Should be imbued with the infantry spirit, the obvious retort to which was that it was all drunk up. A Trench Mortar Battery (establishment 24, strength 13) was ordered to supply a lecturing medico with several men suffering from ingrowing toe-nails.

The writer trusts he will not be considered sententious in saying that one staff duty is the cultivation of domestic happiness at head quarters. It is possible to bear fools gladly, and it is even possible that your opinion as to your neighbour being a fool is incorrect. Pretty well all trouble in this world originates from somebody's sin, and one sin in particular is sometimes found amongst staff officers, as elsewhere. "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ———."

But l'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace.

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