On Discipline: A Speech By RSM JC Lord MVO MBE
In July 1963 RSM John Lord was invited to lecture the officers at the Army Staff College in Camberley on the subject of discipline. RSM Lord, then the Academy Sergeant Major of Sandhurst, was the epitome of discipline and self-discipline. You can read more of his story, and some lessons on discipline, here.
The lecture is as relevant today as it was in 1963 but, sadly, it is not as well know or as often referred to as the lectures of the great WW2 generals. It is reproduced here to remedy that.
‘There seems to be a great deal of confusion, doubt and uncertainty in the minds of many soldiers, whether they be officers, sergeants major or sergeants, about some of the age old and important topics such as discipline and leadership. And it would be strange if it were not so with all of the changes taking place nowadays.
When we discuss these matters, I always tell people to try to get away from the clutter and the doubt by reminding ourselves of what is the first duty of an officer. It was clearly defined by the great Duke of Wellington. Now as soon as I say that, up go the eyebrows and they say, “Hello, here we go again. We’re back at Waterloo!”
But he was a very wise man. When he was protesting that the amount of paperwork in Spain was stopping his officers from carrying out their duties, he said “The first duty of an officer is, and always has been, to so train the men under his command that they may without question beat any force opposed to them in the field.” I believe that it is true today and always will be true. That is the most important thing. It cuts away a lot of the fog of doubt.
Nowadays, a lot of people regard discipline as a watertight compartment. You hear of it in the other two services, you hear of it in some of our Corps. You hear it said in the Sergeants’ Mess. “Oh, he’s on the ‘discip’ side.” Now this to me is arrant nonsense.
What is discipline? Well, there is a definition which I always quote: “A moral, mental and physical state in which all ranks respond to the will of the commander whether he is there or not.” The key word there is ‘respond’.
It was Napoleon, I think, who said that there are two levers for moving men: interest and fear. And you can take your pick. Now, obviously, in young men and young soldiers there is bound to be a certain amount of mild fear which doesn’t do any harm. Fear of letting down himself, or the team, or the squad and fear of being late; but those are minor fears.
The instructor has to get the response he wants if he is going to achieve the ultimate, which is self-discipline. I believe that the great thing about the British Army today is the encouragement to the young man to give of his best, to do well and be interested. There is far more of that in the Army today than, in my opinion, there ever was.
There are some armies which believe this awful principle, that to make a soldier, you must first unmake a man. They say it. This is their policy. This is what they do. The result may produce a soldier of sorts but he would be a soldier of narrow outlook and it wouldn’t work with the sons of this country, I’m sure. If anybody does follow those principles, in my opinion, they are out for a great deal of trouble and very often get it. We believe that if you take the positive qualities of the soldier and develop them along the right lines to the proper response and the encouragement, you will achieve the result you desire. The flexibility and the cheerfulness which is so important in the soldier.
Thank goodness for a sense of humour, one of the characteristics of the British Army, and the British soldier. There has never been a good instructor yet, a good sergeant major or sergeant, who didn’t have a twinkle in his eye, however fierce he may be. I must admit in mine it’s lurking a bit far back these days, but it has got to be there somewhere.
Then there is this doubt about 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.
As parachutists during the war we were not allowed to carry marked maps when taking part in parachute operations or exercises. The reason is obvious. From a very interesting document, which is the translated German war diary of the Panzer Grenadiers and never meant for British eyes, comes the following account:
On Sunday, 17th September, 1944, when the first drops had been made and when he is thin on the ground in the town of Arnhem, the German commanding officer is wondering where to deploy his forces, where to hit us hard and quickly. He does not know whether we are going for a railway bridge or another bridge over the river. He does not know if we are going for the airfield.
Then we 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.” He continues, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”
One private soldier neglected to obey an order. I won’t go into all the implications of how it could have happened. Had the soldier had the habit of obeying orders and had it been that orders were seen to be obeyed in day to day life in the battalion, the chance of this happening would have been reduced a thousand-fold. Who can say by that one man disobeying an order how many lives were lost, 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.
We now get to the leadership of those who have learned their own self-discipline and appreciation of it. That great man, General Eisenhower, gave a definition of leadership, “The art of leadership is getting somebody else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Here again, we find the same themes, the same thought, the same background to discipline and leadership. The soldiers are being brought along, they are being encouraged and they want to do these things.
Let me tell you a story of something that happened to me in the prison camp after the battle of Arnhem at Stalag XIB. Things were pretty bad and the men were in bad shape. It was a tremendous blow of course. A thing that never happens to you, like being run over by a bus. And the more spirited the soldiers are, the bigger the blow it is to their pride. They were all wounded except for a few, and I was very disturbed that they were not behaving as the British soldier normally behaves. They were doing, of course, exactly what the Germans wished them to do. I’d been wounded in the arm and hadn’t been able to salute the German officers which, quite rightly, by the Geneva Convention, they insisted that we do.
The time came when my arm was all right and the next day I would have to salute. So I thought I had better explain to the little committee which met quietly in one of the huts that they would see me do this the next day, otherwise they might get the wrong idea. So I said, “Tomorrow I’m going up to the German Commandant when he comes into the compound and I’m going to pull my tab in and I’m going to salute him.”
They looked at me a bit suspiciously, these chaps. We had got to know each other fairly well by then. I said, “Do you know, I’m going to give him the best salute I’ve ever given an officer in my life,” and the doubt increased in their eyes. I said, “But mind you, when I salute him I’m going to be saying something to myself: I shall look him in the eye and when I salute I shall say to myself ‘Bollocks’.” Well, I know it’s childish and crude, but spontaneous, and their eyes lit up and off they went.
Next morning the compound was full. I dressed up for the Commandant and saluted him. And off the prisoners of war went and you’d never seen such saluting in your life. Never. They were seeking out and saluting German officers a compound away. The Germans thought this was marvellous. But this was the point: from that moment on their shoulders squared back, their heads came erect and the light came in their eyes. And the rehabilitation, the spirit and so on, had started so that eventually we finished by taking over and controlling the camp. Five days before our relieving forces arrived, the good old 8th Hussars, we took over the camp from the Germans, including the German guard, and we handed the whole thing over as a going concern.
In these definitions which I have given you: the moral, mental and physical state in which all ranks respond to the will of the commander, whether he’s there or not; and getting somebody else to do something you want done because he wants to do it, there are always snags.
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.
It may be airy-fairy and it may be wide in its approach. But if that basic principle is true then I believe that the other essential, and probably the greatest essential, in the officer is this: having got all the things I’ve already mentioned, there must be one other quality in the leader, and that is honesty. He must be an honest man, and I’m not talking about financial affairs or anything like that now. He must be an honest man. His belief must be well based. And then by practising what I have said about discipline and leadership, all will be well.
Nowadays we get worried about being “idle”. People are very suspicious about it in some places these days. Let’s have a look at it. Outside the service “idle” means that a factory is doing no work at all. It’s shut down and the machines are not turning over at all. Or that a man is out of work.
We don’t mean that in the Army. Goethe put this right. He gave the finest definition of idleness in the Army when he said, “That man is idle who can do something better.” All the time in drill we are trying to persuade the cadets or soldiers to give of their best, and they do.The split second thought and the split second action, how important are they?
Loyalty to command. How do you learn loyalty to command? You get a sergeant, a fire eater, taking these young soldiers and making them get a move on, doing them a world of good, giving them mental shower-baths, a series of them several times a day. But they find very quickly, these young men – and they are the quickest to pick it up – that this very chap is the one who has their interests at heart and is the one who’s going to look after them and their welfare. He’s the one. And probably for the first time in their lives they learn loyalty to command in drill, if it’s properly handled. That loyalty to command will become a habit and they will get loyalty to the commanding officer and the company commander.
They learn directly and indirectly the value of censure and praise, which is very important indeed, and how to get the best out of young men. Some people say that it’s very wrong to say “well done” to anybody. You’ll give them a swollen head. Of course that’s nonsense. As long as it’s not done too often, as long as it’s due to them, give them a pat on the back and it does both sides a world of good. We must have cheerfulness and endurance in all circumstances. We don’t want long faces walking about all over the place, everybody so highly technically skilled and so intense that there isn’t a smile to light up the dull day.
Many young men today have no sense of awareness at all. They see, but do they observe? You can prove to them that they don’t, and you can get them trained so they do. In these days, with our ears bombarded with traffic in the cities, juke boxes, radio and television sets blaring out, very few people listen anymore. They hear but they do not listen. I get them on the square up here, standing at attention or standing at ease and I say, “Now listen to the sounds of Sandhurst.” It’s amazing what you can hear. Try it some day. It’s amazing what sounds they pick up. Of course, you can see the importance of that quality in a platoon commander in the field.
Training and serving
In all this training, of course, we have the sergeants major and the sergeants. I think there is a grave danger today of captains trying to do sergeants’ jobs. The core of the British Army, the sergeant major and the sergeant, has been built up over generations and centuries. The officer, with all his other interests, quite rightly and properly, lays down the policy and the sergeant major and the sergeant get on with it. If they do not get on with it and something goes wrong, woe betide them. And that’s fair enough because they were probably idle.
This has built in the sergeant major and sergeant of the British Army, probably without them realizing it, a tremendous feeling and sense of responsibility towards the regiment. If this is ever taken away, and if you don’t trust men, they may not be true to you. If you don’t treat them greatly, they may not be great. If this is interfered with, then it may be very dangerous for the future of the Army. (Now, I’m not taking away from the officer’s duty at all. There are greater problems these days than ever, and the officers must be free to take care of them!)
In all these ranks, whether they are regimental sergeants major, company sergeants major, colour sergeants or sergeants, we have this one word which is common to all: sergeant, which is derived from the word “to serve”. We are the servants of the regiment. We are the servants and proud to be so. We cannot claim to be members of the family but we do proudly claim to be the retainers and to serve the family to the best of our ability. We are responsible to the country, to parents and to relatives, that no effort of ours shall be spared to fit these young men for their first duty as an officer. Because we are dealing with simple, straightforward and good soldiering things. Therefore, you could say that the Regimental Sergeant Major is the chief servant of the regiment, and is the link between commanding officer and the others.
I mentioned that very important subject of honesty, the honest man. If those things happen, then you will get as a product, possibly the greatest product of all, which is respect. Two-way, mutual respect and understanding.
I am going to relate to you something that happened to me which I think highlights this business. In my parachute battalion we had a Corporal Sheriff. He was a good corporal but he had his share of rockets and so on. He didn’t make sergeant when there was plenty of promotion flying about but he was a good battalion man, and a good company man. He joined us in ’41, fought with us in North Africa, Sicily and Italy and finally at Arnhem, and it was at Arnhem that he was wounded. I had been in the prison camp for, I should think, about three months with no knowledge of him at all, when I was told that he was in the reception hut. So I scrounged a few cigarettes which were available, because I was told he was in bad shape, and went up to the hut.
I shall never forget it. As I opened the door everything stopped: there was a deathly silence and everybody looked round as they do under those circumstances. The hut was full of foreigners of various nationalities, a smell of unwashed bodies and a strange atmosphere. I looked around and saw Corporal Sheriff in some strange uniform, if you could call it a uniform, which had been supplied to him. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, head hanging down, looking very dejected.
I walked across towards him, and you could have heard a pin drop. I went up to him and I said something to the effect of “Hello, Corporal Sheriff, how are you getting on?” And in front of all those foreigners he stood up. It was three months since we had seen one another and he had no particular cause to love me. In front of all those foreigners he stood up and he stood to attention and you could almost hear their astonishment.
He turned his head towards me and said, “Hello sir, it’s good to hear your voice.” He was blind. Even in those circumstances he was a member of the family, he felt he belonged again and he was back in the bosom of the family. Now that’s soldiering, that’s spirit, that’s understanding. That’s all the things I’ve been trying to say.”
You can find this speech, along with the story of RSM John C Lord MVO MBE in the book To Revel in Gods Sunshine: The Story of RSM J C Lord MVO MBE, here.
You can read more about RSM JC Lord and his lessons on discipline here.
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