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Remembered Today:

Fighting ability of officers?


Alastair

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It may sound like a silly question however........................ generally officers are portrayed going 'over the top' armed with a pistol, I do not think that I have seen anything to suggest that officers carried rifles as a general rule. That being the case, in conflict like Gallipoli where the general orders were to use bayonets alone (i.e no ammunition during an attack on the enemy), were the officers virtually unarmed? If they did in fact carry rifles/bayonets, was that general practice in all campaigns during the War?

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As the war went on more and more officers armed themselves with long arms (rifles or sometimes shotguns) but this was to make themselves less obvious to snipers (and a shotgun can be useful in a trench) However it was not part of an officer's duty to become personally engaged in hand to hand fighting (although it did happen) as this would distract from his ability to direct his men. The revolver was for personal protection and in extremis to enforce discipline. In close quarters combat in the confines of a trench a revolver was often easier to use than a rifle.

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I dare say that practice varied and I cannot comment on Gallipoli. John Stanley Strange joined the Swansea Battalion as a private and ended up a captain with an MC and a DSO. Serving on the Western Front he was involved in a trench raid (gained an MC), was at Mametz Wood (10 July 1916), at Third Ypres (Passchendaele)where he gained a DSO; and rallied the attackers after they had been mistakenly shelled by their own artillery at Aveluy Wood in May 1918.

At Aveluy Wood he was seen to shoot three Germans, kill a fourth and over power a fifth. The overpowered German escaped but Captain Strange pursued him down a trench and killed him - how he does not state. He later did state that he had dropped his RIFLE after shooting the first three. This account was verified by others; Strange was captured in Aveluy Wood, having advanced beyond any comrades.

More here:

http://swanseabattalion.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=section&id=25&Itemid=66

Bernard

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at Third Ypres (Passchendaele)where he gained a DSO; and rallied the attackers after they had been mistakenly shelled by their own artillery at Aveluy Wood in May 1918.

Wasn't 3rd Ypres in 1917?

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A few years ago (2001) I was tasked to support the Nova Scotia International Tattoo which was honouring the Canadian VCs that year. For the show's central scene, the intent was to dress 94 volunteer actors as the Canadian VCs in period costume and I, with another tasked officer, were given the job of sorting out their uniforms from available costume stores.

In preparation for the show, we examined each of the VC citations to determine appropriate uniforms and hand props. It may not be a very scientific result, but based on the descriptions in their citations, these are the hand props carried by Canadian officer recipients of the Great War:

  • 1 swagger stick
  • 1 walking stick
  • 2 pistol
  • 2 cavalry sabre
  • 1 medical bag/kit
  • 1 stretcher
  • 3 lewis gun
  • 12 rifle
  • 3 rifle and bayonet
  • 1 wire cutters and (dummy) explosive charges

The rank distribution for the same group was:

  • 16 Lieutenants
  • 7 Captains
  • 1 Major (swagger stick)
  • 3 Lieutenant-Colonels (all with rifles)

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It may sound like a silly question however........................ generally officers are portrayed going 'over the top' armed with a pistol, I do not think that I have seen anything to suggest that officers carried rifles as a general rule. That being the case, in conflict like Gallipoli where the general orders were to use bayonets alone (i.e no ammunition during an attack on the enemy), were the officers virtually unarmed? If they did in fact carry rifles/bayonets, was that general practice in all campaigns during the War?

Read Some Desperate Glory, the war diary of Lieutenant Edwin Campion Vaughan, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He describes in detail how officers donned privates' uniforms and carried rifles as a matter of course from early 1917 on. His accounts of trench warfare during Passchendaele are horrifying and unforgettable.

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Yep, Third Ypres was in 1917; the semi colon indicates a different event (Aveluy Wood) that was in 1918. Could have expressed it a bit better, perhaps by typing '1917'... :wacko:

Bernard

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Thanks so far for all of your comments - however, I suppose that I am particularly interested in 1915 and particularly Gallipoli. The assaults of Turkish trenches were often across flat ground, the trenches not being that far apart, sometimes around 100 yards against machine guns and rifle fire. That does not allow much time for encouraging your men to go forward and I suspect that most of the Scottish Rifles officers having arrived only a fortnight or so before Gully Ravine did not appreciate the need for a disguise. In that case, I think they left the British trenches pretty much unarmed and this may account for the high death rate, Lt Colonel and Brigadier General included. Any further ideas?

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Alastair, in a conversation long ago with an Australian platoon commander who landed at Gallipoli with the initial wave at 4:30 am on 25 April, he recounted the anecdote that at training (Morphetville racecourse, Adelaide 1914), all officers were told to report to the Quartermaster to have their swords sharpened. I still remember him laughing as he said as soon as they were out of sight of Outer Harbour, they threw them overboard. The 10th Battalion museum held for a number of years in a glass case, until it was stolen, a Webley revolver from the initial landing so I think you will find that is what the Australian officers carried.

LT Loutit was one of a handful of soldiers who reached the highest point of the advance, ultimately returning with less than a third of his platoon.

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In that case, I think they left the British trenches pretty much unarmed and this may account for the high death rate, Lt Colonel and Brigadier General included. Any further ideas?

I suspect it has less to do with being unarmed than with being distinctively dressed, and displaying obvious signs of leadership.

Firstly, the officers were (I suspect) wearing Sam Browne belts, rather than webbing. That alone would identify them. Add to that the fact that the troops, at that stage of the war, would be properly "dressed", with officers in prominent positions, urging the men forwar, and they become an even more obvious and appealing target.

Finally, as mentioned, the officers would probably be carrying swagger sticks; that would make little difference to their survival than a stick of rhubarb or a rifle (against an entrenched and hidden enemy), but again would serve to attract attention.

I would say the weapons they officers carried made extremely little difference: it was dress and action that drew attention.

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I think that the reality is that they were a target due to their uniforms, and had little or no way of defending themselves if they did make the mistake of engaging with the enemy. No wonder their tactics changed as the war went on!

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I agree with Broomers. The officers would stand out a mile and the 9th Bn Sherwood Foresters had all but the MO wounded or killed between 9th -22nd August 1915. The CO was wounded on 9th but led his men on 22nd. In 'The Sphere 20th Nov 1915' a quote from a General had the following ' He must have done well, for he was close up by the enemy, ahead of most of his men, who were stretched out behind him, never a one with his back turned and all in perfect alignment' The CO was mentioned in despatches for this action.

In those early days he saw his job as leading the battalion from the front. He had been recalled to the colours at the outbreak of war aged 53 years. He had retired in 1911.

It would seem from the records that he and his men were mown down by machine gun fire.

SM

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When officers and men crossed no mans land it was with the intention of engaging with the enemy. That was not a mistake. While crossing NML. none of the attacking troops had any means of defending themselves. The point that Steve and others have made is that defenders could choose a target and that was likely to be an officer, given a choice.

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It would be interesting (and possibly enlightening) to study officer/WO/senior NCO casualties in the Hundred Days. By that time, I would expect offciers to be pretty much equipped like the Tommy, but still taking higher per capita casualties.

Trouble is, in warfare, being a leader has a risk: you put yourself in harm's way, whatever you wear and whatever arms you bear. A defender worth his salt (or her salt in the case of female Turkish snipers in the Gallipoli examples) will pick out the bloke who looks like he's in charge - that might be less apparent from clothing,equipment ot whatever as it would be from the fact that he's the silly sod at the front! I well recall, in my TA days, winning a posthumous VC for a splendid one-man attack on an enemy mg post. The rest of the platoon had (for reasons I never fathomed) decided Lance Corporal Broomfield was the man for the job....

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A defender worth his salt (or her salt in the case of female Turkish snipers in the Gallipoli examples) will pick out the bloke who looks like he's in charge - that might be less apparent from clothing,equipment ot whatever as it would be from the fact that he's the silly sod at the front!

Quite right - anyone giving hand signals to others or apparently shouting at them or giving orders, whether in front of a group or even behind, is the one to aim at first.

Of course, if you are charging a MG post alone, the enemy's decision as to who to aim at is relatively straightforward.

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I suppose that I am particularly interested in 1915 and particularly Gallipoli.

Hi Alastair,

Here’s something from Gallipoli, 1915 – not Helles though, but Suvla. It’s from a letter written by 2nd Lt Elliott of the 9th West Yorks who landed on the first night and took part in 11th Div’s bayonet assault on Lala Baba. When Elliott was wounded two or three days after this action, he wrote:

‘There was a hole on each side of my leg. I put the field dressing on the largest. Took the bolt out of my rifle and chucked it away. I was too tired and weak to carry my equipment so I slipped it off and put my revolver in my pocket. I scrambled to my feet and with my arm round a man's neck, hopped off to the rear.’

So it seems Elliott and, I assume, his fellow junior officers were equipped with rifles and bayonets for the initial attack. Elliott was still carrying and presumably using his rifle in the engagements which followed, while all the time also being armed with a revolver.

As regards uniforms, I read an account of a wounded Australian veteran being shipped from Anzac to Mudros, shouting warnings across to a passing boatload of green British reinforcements that officers and NCOs should remove their insignia because of snipers. Another account from a Suvla soldier mentions that for the same reason it became the practice for rank insignia to be shown only discreetly on tunics in indelible pencil. The exceptionally high officer casualties among the British at Suvla would indicate that this precaution was not in itself sufficient.

Tunesmith

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Brigadier Frank Maxwell VC, went into action on first day of Arras wearing a Pte's uniform, with his insignia attached and sporting a Lee Enfield, he was forever in and around the front line and was shot (and killed) by a sniper at Frezenburg in September, 1917.

Officers always seem to be a prime target for the enemy, making yourself conspicuous to your own lads makes you stick out to every one.

John

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Thanks so far for all of your comments - however, I suppose that I am particularly interested in 1915 and particularly Gallipoli. The assaults of Turkish trenches were often across flat ground, the trenches not being that far apart, sometimes around 100 yards against machine guns and rifle fire. That does not allow much time for encouraging your men to go forward and I suspect that most of the Scottish Rifles officers having arrived only a fortnight or so before Gully Ravine did not appreciate the need for a disguise. In that case, I think they left the British trenches pretty much unarmed and this may account for the high death rate, Lt Colonel and Brigadier General included. Any further ideas?

Alastair

I have not researched Helles in as much detail, but in the August offensive at Suvla Bay (the last phase of Gallipoli) Officer casualty rates were extremely high - in the region of 86% in one Bde. I have pasted below an extract from something I wrote on another thread on this subject. At Suvla, there are more than a few examples of officers going into action unarmed. The one that sticks in my mind is Capt Wedgwood Benn (later Lord Stansgate) recording how foolish he felt when faced at close quarters with the enemy and discovering that he had forgotten to arm himself. The issue of high casualties among Officers (and ORs) at Helles and ANZAC triggered a change in tactics. For the first time, in August battalions had to leave a small reserve of Officers and men so that a Battalion might have some leadership if it sustained catastrophic losses.

The Officer casualty stats are horrific and might serve to illustrate the extent to which they led from the front. I am sure that their conspicuous uniforms and the ethos of leading from the front contributed to the catastrophe. It is something that is difficult to prove, but my sense is that it was the leading from the front that had the greatest impact on the Officer casualty rates. The diary accounts are full of anecdotes of officers standing up and encouraging their troops in a hail of rifle fire. In some cases, officers having to literally kick their men to go forward - this on the first day of the Suvla landings. One record of an officer charging forward with his men across open ground, only to find on arrival at a small bank that afforded the only cover that only 3 men had followed. There are dozens of accounts (many written by ORs) of officers taking almost suicidal risks to instill confidence in their men as they came under fire. Regardless of what uniform they were wearing, if there is the only one person standing up, walking about shouting encouragement to the men crouching behind ditches under the little cover available, it is only a matter of time before that man is shot. It is interesting to note the proportionally higher casualty rates among the Officer corps compared to the ORs (see example below).

Later on the Suvla front, officers were ordered to dress like soldiers and carry rifles in order to make themselves look less conspicuous. I think it was some time in September. I can dig out the exact date if you are interested.

Data from the 32nd Bde War Diary shows the extent to which these Kitchener Army Battalions were led from the front.....:

Eff. Str on 5th Aug (Off & ORS).......Eff. Str on 6th Aug (action)........Reserves at Imbros.......Eff Str on 22nd Aug^ .......Total Casualties & % Casualties

9th Bn W Yorks.........28 & 894...................25 & 750..................................3 & 144..........................3 & 194............................25 & 700...........89% & 78%

6th Bn Yorks..............27 & 923..................25 & 750..................................2 & 173..........................1 & 295............................26 & 628...........96% & 68%

8th Bn DOWR............25 & 904...................24 & 725..................................1 & 179..........................3 & 316............................22 & 588..........88% & 65%

6th Bn Y&L.................28 & 908..................25 & 750...................................3 & 158..........................8 & 361............................20 & 547..........71% & 60%

Total for Bns.............108 & 3,629..............99 & 2,980................................9 & 654.......................15 & 1,166........................93 & 2,466.......
.86%
& 68%

32nd Bde Bde HQ......5 & 39........................5 & 38....................................0 & 1............................4 & 33...............................1 & 3.................20% & 8%

Total 32nd Bde.......113 & 3,668..............104 & 3,013...............................9 & 655.......................19 & 1,199........................94 & 2,469........83% & 67%.

^ Includes the reserves which had been deployed on 12th Aug.

Essentially the Officer Corps and 2/3rds of the ORs at Battalion level are destroyed in 2 weeks. These are very typical stats for the 10th, 11th and 29th Divs at Suvla. It is interesting to note the small cadre of Battalion Officers (8%) left at Imbros and the relatively larger cadre of Battalion ORs (18%). Tragically the reserves when deployed on 12th Aug simply followed the same fate and were destroyed in the subsequent actions, particularly the failed assault on Scimitar Hill on 21st Aug 1915. Again, the acting COs in many cases were killed at the head of their Battalions.

In all cases the Bn CO would go in with the attack as the casualty rates will attest. Suvla Bay officer casualties were approaching the scale of the Somme with many Battalions incurring over 85% Officer casualties (KIA, WIA and MIA) and most (over 84%) of the COs becoming casualties in a 2 week period 6th-21st August 1915. That includes the reserve officers. The 8th Bn Northumberland Fusilers had every officer killed or wounded except one, who was to be accused of blatant cowardice by a brother officer in sharp correspondence with the Official Historian of Gallipoli. Battalions would typically be left with 3 or fewer officers, often including the MO. The 11th Northern Div as one example: of the 13 Battalions COs in the Div (including Pioneer Bn) who landed on 6th/7th Aug 1915, 8 (eight) were dead within 2 days and a further 3 were wounded within the same period. Only 2 survived. This was the first time Kitchener's Army had been used en masse in a deliberate attack. I have done a considerable amount of research on this and an Infantry subaltern's expectancy to survive being killed or wounded at Suvla in August 1915 (depending on how it is calculated) was probably less than 6 days. The COs did not fare any better.

Regards MG

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As regards the commissioned officer in the Great War and the Second World War.In the former,the commissioned officer generally directed killing although there were exceptions in close quarter engagements.

In the Second World War,the commissioned officer was more involved in killing as demanded by his particular leadership role. He had to have the capability and courage do this in battlefield conditions and demonstrate this ability in front of his men.

In the end,commissioned officers are no different to those in leadership at the heart of industry and commerce......they become the "thinkers or the doers".These traits become apparent through training and being tried and tested.Usually structured training and assessment gets quite close to picking the right ones but there is no better limus test than that which is informally applied by subordinates.So often heard' "I would not go over the top for him" or "I would not like to be in a lifeboat with him"

Uniforms,the less conspicous the better for self preservation.Remember the Indian chief in all his regalia being picked off on a ridge at quite a distance.I can imagine he was surprised.The Chinese army uniforms seems to be the best for the battlefield,they all look alike and it would be hard to recognise the officer leadership by uniform dress.

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A few years ago (2001) I was tasked to support the Nova Scotia International Tattoo which was honouring the Canadian VCs that year. For the show's central scene, the intent was to dress 94 volunteer actors as the Canadian VCs in period costume and I, with another tasked officer, were given the job of sorting out their uniforms from available costume stores.

In preparation for the show, we examined each of the VC citations to determine appropriate uniforms and hand props. It may not be a very scientific result, but based on the descriptions in their citations, these are the hand props carried by Canadian officer recipients of the Great War:

  • 1 swagger stick
  • 1 walking stick
  • 2 pistol
  • 2 cavalry sabre
  • 1 medical bag/kit
  • 1 stretcher
  • 3 lewis gun
  • 12 rifle
  • 3 rifle and bayonet
  • 1 wire cutters and (dummy) explosive charges

The rank distribution for the same group was:

  • 16 Lieutenants
  • 7 Captains
  • 1 Major (swagger stick)
  • 3 Lieutenant-Colonels (all with rifles)

There is an account here of leading a charge with a spade.... here

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An anecdote from an earlier war might be pertinent here.

A few years ago I was taken on a guided tour of the battlefield of Spion Kop in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. The guide was an africaner, and he explained how, in the initial phase of the battle, the British troops stormed the Kop at bayonet point. The first Boer to be killed, he told me, was bayoneted by a british lieutenant.

Now if that occurred in the Boer War, when officers were, if anything, more aloof from ORs than they were to be in 14-18, I would guess that the Great War officer was expected to engage in close combat.

Remember that Lt. Bernard Law Montgomery fought hand to hand with a German soldier in Flanders in October 1914, and disabled his foe by kicking him in the balls.

Phil (PJA)

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I imagine that an officer leading a body of troops on the offensive would resort to whatever he needed to do and the courage displayed will have been immense (even going over the top in the first place) although by and large, and rightly so, the despatching of enemies would and should have been secondary to the role of rallying, directing and correctly exploiting tactical situations as they changed.

The human being, man the tool user, has long been inventive beyond compare about ways in which to hurt or kill his fellow man and I expect there was a good amount of initiative used when a long arm was not the primary means.

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There is a famous photograph - probably a still from the Malins film - of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers fixing bayonets before going over the top on July 1st 1916.

One of the fellows fixing a bayonet to his rifle is an officer.

Officers had to be proficient in the use of bayonet and bomb. They were supposed to lead, and if that meant literally getting stuck into the enemy, then so be it.

All this stuff about swagger sticks, swords, revolvers and knee boots has been exaggerated or invented, in order to present a more caricatured view to the public.

In order to survive, officers had to dumb down a bit....the very high casualties they sustained resulted from the leadership they excercised rather than from conspicuous dress. We read about the enemy "picking off" the officers, whom they could easily identify : that might be true of the early battles, but I reckon that as artillery came increasingly to dominate the battlefield, so the individual identity of the troops became subsumed into the industrialised killing fields, where so many fought and died without seeing the enemy, let alone identifying the officers.

This is what I believe, and it's suppositional ; if I'm wrong, please enlighten me.

Phil (PJA)

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There is a famous photograph - probably a still from the Malins film - of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers fixing bayonets before going over the top on July 1st 1916.

One of the fellows fixing a bayonet to his rifle is an officer.

Officers had to be proficient in the use of bayonet and bomb. They were supposed to lead, and if that meant literally getting stuck into the enemy, then so be it.

All this stuff about swagger sticks, swords, revolvers and knee boots has been exaggerated or invented, in order to present a more caricatured view to the public.

In order to survive, officers had to dumb down a bit....the very high casualties they sustained resulted from the leadership they excercised rather than from conspicuous dress. We read about the enemy "picking off" the officers, whom they could easily identify : that might be true of the early battles, but I reckon that as artillery came increasingly to dominate the battlefield, so the individual identity of the troops became subsumed into the industrialised killing fields, where so many fought and died without seeing the enemy, let alone identifying the officers.

This is what I believe, and it's suppositional ; if I'm wrong, please enlighten me.

Phil (PJA)

Phil - I am sure that you are right about circumstances in 1916, but I suspect there must have been a period of transition from 1914 to the brutal realities of 1916, especially among the Non-regular formations such as the Territorial Divisons. At Gallipoli, the TF was used for the first time en masse in the offensive role. The landing at Suvla Bay on 6th/7th Aug 1915 by the 10th (Irish) Div and the 11th (Northern) Div followed within days by the 13th, 53rd, 54th and 2nd Mtd Divs (all TF) has provided a wealth of personal accounts that strongly suggest that Officers' personal tactics were radically different to those of 1916. There is hard evidence that the practise of keeping a reserve of Officers (and men) was borne out of the disastrous Helles and ANZAC landings and the high casualty rates. The troops landing at Suvla Bay were led by men who had (with the rare Boer War veteran exception) not see action before. There are many dozens of personal accounts which provide a wealth of evidence that the Officer corps was ill prepared and inappropriately armed. Not all of them, but enough to leave an imprint in the memory of many which was to contaminate early published accounts in newspapers and the early Regimental histories written in the 1920s.

The real issue is the way that the media handled the material. There is strong evidence that the media, through newspapers and illustrated journals (strongly encouraged by the Govt) created a visual propaganda that has infected the way our society perceives WWI and this process continued for many decades. Once the distorted iconography of heroic actions, led by Officers (allegedly) armed with weapons more suited to a public school housemaster entered the public domain, it became (and remains) difficult to redress these gross distortions. Only hard work by revisionist authors in recent years has had any impact on how our society understands WWI. Stephen Badsey in his "The British Army and Its Image 1914-18" covers this in great detail.

A few examples spring to mind. The iconic painting of the Lancashire Fusiliers landing at Helles depicts Capt Willis leading his men armed with nothing more than a cane. Whether he did or did not carry a cane (eyewitness accounts suggest he probably did) become superfluous once the imagery entered the public consciousness through the media. The picture is Here . As one of the most famous VC actions, it is fairly representative of WWI propaganda that served to focus on romantic heroic ideals rather than the appalling losses of some of these actions.

Another example from 1914 (from Badsey's book). The VC action of Capt Grenfell, 9th Lancers on 24th Aug 1914. The 2nd Cavalry Bde made a disastrous cavalry charge on the German lines which included some German guns held further back., an action that failed to reach any objective and resulted in the 9th Lancers and the 4th DG being cut to bits by German Infantry. Later that day in a separate action, Capt Grenfell 9th Lancers helped recover some guns. The two incidents were melded by the media machine and resulted in a painting showing Capt Grenfell VC galloping over a German gun positions, sword in hand, despite Grenfell's own admission that he never got within 800 yards of the Guns . The image is Here. The media distorted the facts to suit its need to depict heroic victories - this example being the first winner of the VC in WWI I believe, so a very early example of the truth being subordinated to political needs for good propaganda.

Badsey also highlights a bloodless charge by the Scots Greys very late in the battle of Creizy on 28th August 1914. The action was illustrated by Caton-Woodville depicting the Scots Greys charging into action with kilted Black Watch infantrymen hanging from their stirrups in a blatant updated copy of his earlier work showing the Scots Greys charging at Waterloo with highland infantry men hanging off the charging Greys here. The fact that the Waterloo action probably didn't happen that way and that the 1914 action definitely did not involve any infantrymen (the nearest infantry were apparently miles away) did not prevent this image entering the public consciousness.

I think that it is the imagery of War that had a much greater impact on the deep rooted misconceptions. There is little doubt that early on, some officers did go into battle completely inappropriately armed. and that as the casualty rates rose No matter how limited these events were, the imagery of this kind of action has dominated the media and left a lasting distorted impression and perhaps the idea that 'all' officers went to war with little more than a revolver. Modern media productions such as All the King's Men, and My Boy Jack have served to reinforce these deep rooted ideals of Officer conduct in WWI. Badsey even argues that Blackadder Goes Forth has had a huge impact on the common misperceptions.

Any mistakes are mine. Regards MG

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