The Lord Down Here. Discipline Lessons from RSM John C Lord MVO MBE
By Maj Will Meddings
RSM John Lord MVO MBE is a legendary character but one that is less recognised these days than he should be. He achieved two notable firsts: the first RSM of 3 PARA (on its formation) and the first Academy Sergeant Major at Sandhurst. To this day the WO1s at Sandhurst are nicknamed ‘Lords’ in honour of him. Two of the Academy’s rooms there are named after him (one of which, appropriately, is the bar in the WOs’ and Sgts’ Mess).
RSM Lord fought with 3 PARA in North Africa, Sicily and at Arnhem as part of Op Market Garden. After the war he was RSM at Sandhurst and later became its first Academy Sergeant Major. But it was after he was injured and captured at Arnhem that he had the most remarkable post of his career. He was the senior Warrant Officer at Stalagluft XIB until its liberation on the 16th of April 1945.
RSM Lord was famous for his exacting high standards and his iron discipline. It is hard to read the story of his life, To Revel in Gods Sunshine: The Story of RSM J C Lord MVO MBE, without thinking that he might just be the archetypal WW2 (and post-WW2) Sergeant Major.
The Power of Discipline
RSM Lord believed in the power of discipline to give a body of soldiers the strength of will to fight, survive and win.
After being captured at Arnhem he, with others from the 1st Parachute Brigade, were transported as POWs to Stalagluft XIB at Fallingbostel. When he arrived he found a camp of allied soldiers, some of whom had been in Stalagluft XIB since Dunkirk, who had largely given up on themselves. They lived in squalid misery and had defaulted to the lethargy to which captivity often leads. When prisoners died they were transported out of the camp in an old cart normally used to transport swill. None of the POWs cared enough to try and do anything about this sad reflection of the helpless situation they were in. Given the meagre rations and medical care available, the lack of will to survive would undoubtedly have led to most of them eventually taking the cart ride to an untidy and unmourned grave.
Over a period of 7 months RSM Lord turned the camp, and the lives of the POWs, around. He took control of the prisoners’ morning roll call, turning them into smart morning muster parades. He insisted in the smartest turn out possible under the conditions (reprimanding officers for not shaving) and instated a routine of daily exercise. And he changed the burial routine into a formal ceremony of such discipline and precision that the German officers became embarrassed at the turnout of their guards who oversaw the burial party. In short, he turned them from captives back into soldiers.
“We were all dirty and unshaven and in various stages of dress and undress. The door opened and in came RSM John Lord, also a POW. He was dressed in immaculate battledress, trousers creased, and he had an arm supported in a snow white sling. Without a word he turned his head slowly to look at each individual in turn and then said in his brisk voice ‘Gentlemen, I think you should all shave!’ He then turned about, stamped his foot and marched out of the room. The effect was electric.” Maj Frank Lindley
By the time the camp was liberated the British POWs had taken over the running of the camp. Concerned about the safety of the POWs once it became obvious the Nazis were losing the war, RSM Lord ensured British POWs were involved in providing camp sentries. In the last five days before liberation the camp guard was entirely taken over by the British POWs. The effect he had on Stalagluft XIB was demonstrated by what Major Ralph Cobbold found when he paid the camp its first visit upon liberation.
“At the gate was an impressive guard in maroon beret. We thought that the 6th Airborne Division must somehow have got there first but when I asked the guard commander when he’d arrived his answer was, ‘Just after Arnhem, sir.’ It was faultlessly turned out, that guard. It could have gone on duty at Buckingham Palace and done credit to the Corps.
Then a majestic figure appeared, the RSM himself, with gleaming brass, immaculate webbing, razor-edged trouser creases, dazzling boots, a spectacular salute. As the officers walked with [RSM Lord] to his office hundreds of prisoners, though wild with joy of liberation, saluted with precision. In the office he produced chairs and offered cups of tea. Asked for numbers and particulars of prisoners in the Stalag, RSM Lord rang a bell. ‘Bring me the personnel files, Corporal,’ he ordered when the door opened, and the fullest details were handed over.
Passing through the camp, the officers were able to judge the magnitude of the task performed by RSM Lord and his team of Warrant Officers and NCOs, several of them ex-guardsmen… A smoothly running organization had been worked out and maintained. Daily inspection guard mounting, most unpopular when introduced, had restored the prisoners’ self-respect and revived their military bearing, and all had been accomplished amid appalling conditions of over-crowding and undernourishment.” Major Ralph Cobbold
The Cost of Poor Discipline
RSM Lord also knew the cost of poor discipline. Although he didn’t realise it at the time, he (and the 1st Parachute Brigade) felt its effect in Arnhem.
As paratroopers, RSM Lord and his soldiers were not allowed to carry marked maps. After the war, Lord came across a translation of the German war diary from the Panzer Grenadier battalion he had faced at Arnhem. It was from Sunday 17th September 1944. The first landings had been made and the German commanding officer was considering the problem every defending commander has against airborne landings – where to deploy and how to hit out to disrupt the attack when it was at its weakest. Which bridge were the British heading for? Or which airfield?
The war diary read: ‘Sunday. Battalion Headquarters. From maps found on a captured British despatch rider, we discover that the enemy has two main lines of advance; one along the railway cutting and one in the direction of the hotel to the north-west edge of Oosterbeek … To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’
RSM Lord later commented, in his speech on discipline to the Army Staff College,
“One private soldier neglected to obey an order… Who can say, by that one man disobeying an order, how many lives were lost and what it cost the 1st Parachute Brigade in their effort to get to the bridge. There you see why we stern sergeants major, the purveyors of the orders of the commanding officers, are so insistent that the orders, once issued, are intelligently obeyed to the letter.”
He was known at the Academy as a strict upholder of standards of discipline, on the parade square and off. He was famous for gripping the future King of Jordan just as even-handedly as any other Officer Cadet. And he was also famous for a sense of humour that still, somehow, managed to inspire fear and respect. As Maj Gen Dato’ Selvarajah of Malaysia, an Officer Cadet at Sandhurst under RSM Lord, related
“His very first words [to the Officer Cadets] were, ‘Gentlemen, my name is JC Lord. JC does not stand for Jesus Christ. He is Lord up there (pointing up to the sky with his pace stick) and I am Lord down here (pointing to the parade ground). I will address you as ‘Sir’ but I won’t mean it. And you too will address me ‘Sir’. But make sure that you do mean it!’”
RSM Lord was an inspirational leader who passed away in 1968. You can read more about him in the book To Revel in Gods Sunshine: The Story of RSM J C Lord MVO MBE which is available here. You can also read the transcript of his talk to the Army Staff College which is reproduced here.
Based on his life and the recollections of his friends and colleagues, here are three lessons on discipline from the life of RSM Lord.
1. People will only follow orders in a disciplined manner if they understand why, or if they trust you
One of the things RSM Lord established in Stalagluft XIB was a chain of command. It wasn’t just to help administrate the organisation. It was also to help communicate what was happening and why he was making changes.
For example, at the start of his captivity he decided that, even if his captors weren’t going to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, the British would. And so once his arm injury was healed RSM Lord announced that he was going to begin saluting German officers. Starting with the Commandant. But, he explained to his fellow captives “when I do salute him I shall look him straight in the eye and shall say to myself ‘Bollocks!’”
Saluting German officers soon became routine (much to the Germans’ pleasure). One of the first steps towards discipline was established. But everyone knew why.
As RSM Lord said to the Army Staff College,
“…there [seems to be] this doubt about [following] orders. First of all we must make sure that the orders are as few and as simple as possible and that the men understand what the leader is after. There is a great deal of lip service paid to telling men ‘why’.
It doesn’t mean to say that you’ve got to explain every single action that you want them to carry out. But if the explanation is made, if they are with you and understand your mind and what you are working for, they will obey the orders and they will see the sense behind them.
And if any order later on is not explained they will at least believe and know that you have done it in good spirit and for the mutual benefit of all concerned.”
2. “Trust men and they will be true to you. Treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” (Emerson)
RSM Lord believed in Emerson’s statement. He believed in trusting is subordinates, having built up a strong relationship with them.
Whenever he managed to get concessions from his captors in Stalagluft XIB he trusted the other POWs to follow the rules under which those concessions had been made. He did this having explained the responsibility each man had in maintaining the concession.
During the winter, there was no firewood. RSM Lord convinced the Commandant to allow a party of men out, under guard, to collect some. The Commandant eventually relented and RSM Lord handpicked the firewood party. Each one had to promise not to attempt escape whilst outside the camp. Every man returned.
“I agree with Emerson when he said, ‘Trust men and they will be true to you. Treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.’
It’s jolly easy to say that, and it’s jolly easy to think that all you’ve got to do is give an order, and we go out and they get on with it. Well, it’s not so. Because to do that, you’ve got to train with them. You’ve got to give of your best, and set the standards.
Then you can trust them and they will trust you. You treat men greatly by briefing them properly or working with or bringing them along in the right lines. Now that, I firmly believe, should be the approach of soldiers and leaders throughout all armies and all services.”
3. If you want to instil discipline, people must know you still have their best interests at heart.
Some leaders have the ability to make you feel safe during the most dangerous of circumstances. RSM Lord was one of those leaders. Sometimes it was through fear. But sometimes it was when he let his fearsome character slip and show how much he cared for his soldiers.
Ken Prosser of 3 PARA relates a story from the fight for control of the Tamera Valley in Tunisia:
“Our Company had been detailed to act as ammunition carriers for the 1st Battalion, which was to mount an attack on an important hill position. It was the hell of a place and we were being stonked with mortar bombs and had taken cover in a railway cutting. RSM Lord was there organising the allocation of the ammunition … By now we were really getting strafed and suddenly a chap came running up from the rear echelon, poor sod, he must have been terrified, as we all were. He gasped out ‘Where’s the RSM?’ and in all that din John Lord heard him and bellowed ‘RSM? RSM? I’m the bloody Regimental Sergeant Major!’
Who but [Lord] would have thought of such a thing at that time? But the point was that it pulled that chap up by his bootstraps and he delivered his message more calmly, and it helped us to grin and carry on.”
Ray Sheriff, also of 3 PARA, was wounded in the chest in North Africa. He was staggering back to find the medics when he came across RSM Lord.
“I rolled and staggered to the bottom of the hill, and then after a pause to readjust the dressing and check direction, went on my way. My progress was rather a stoop-stagger-and rest. Moving towards the headquarters I had not been mobile for long when I was abruptly halted by a roar, ‘Corporal Sheriff! If you can’t walk in a soldierly manner, lay down!’
Naturally I quickly obliged and I saw RSM Lord standing over me. As he was carrying a sten gun in his right hand I thought he might just shoot me. ‘What’s your trouble Corporal?’ he asked. I replied that I had a chest wound, hoping vainly for some show of sympathy. John Lord glanced me up and down for a brief moment then said ‘You haven’t shaved this morning Corporal.’ ‘No sir’, I admitted, ‘I didn’t have time as the Germans attacked at dawn.’
There was a pause as JC growled that this was no excuse, but he then softened, suddenly stooped and made me comfortable and handed me a cigarette. He then went away to find a couple of men to carry me in, and still affected by the confrontation, I was laying in a position of attention and smoking-by-numbers when he returned. As we waited he spoke of the days gone by and of the many men of the Battalion who were now missing.”
RSM Lord’s fearsomely high standards, standards he adhered to himself irrespective of the situation, rubbed off on others. When he combined them with a human touch it demonstrated that nothing but the best was good enough for him, or for his men. And it showed that those high standards were not enforced through malice but in order to raise-up his subordinates.
Discipline and Self-Discipline
Field Marshal Brammal described discipline as ‘having the capacity to carry out an essential, irksome or arduous task without supervision; keeping going and staying awake when fatigue is overpowering; obeying unpleasant but necessary orders; and above all continuing the fight when the instinct of self-preservation is advocating something totally different.’ For him it underpinned fighting spirit.
For RSM Lord, discipline was ‘a moral, mental and physical state in which all ranks respond to the will of the commander whether he is there or not.’
He was quite possibly the greatest example of iron-hard discipline and self-discipline you may ever read of, and an inspiration to soldiers and officers alike. If you want to learn more about him you can read the book chronicling his life, To Revel in Gods Sunshine: The Story of RSM J C Lord MVO MBE, here. You can read the transcript of his speech, On Discipline, that he gave to the Army Staff College here.
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