17.05.08, Changes to the Class System

In doing a revamp to the blog, and in recent years hearing officers of the rank of colonel talking with regional accidents, made me evaluate the vast changes in our class system in the services, since 1914. These changes have mainly been brought about by the First World War, World War II, technology and growing ambition.

Before 1914 the officer class in the Army and the Navy was recruited from the ranks of the titled, the very rich and in some cases as a matter of purchase, and rarely by promotion. I may be wrong, but I think suitability was low down on the requirement list. The stupidity of the approach to battle of the senior officers in WW1, sending huge waves of troops ‘over the top’ to face snipers and machine guns, cleared away a vast swathe of those officers who were educated, and came from wealthy backgrounds. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if you want to cause disruption in an attacking army, have a few strategically placed snipers and machine gunners with instructions to kill the officers and non-commissioned officers. It was this fact that changed the cap badges of many of the Rifle Brigades from being polished brass to dull black. The phrase ‘an Officer and a gentleman’ came down to us from this period.

In 1939, in the officers’ messes and the wardrooms were people who still came from the wealthy classes, and it particularly applied to the Royal Navy, the Household Cavalry, the Blues and Royals, and the Guards. There might have been a slight touch of regional accident, but the overall was the speech of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Even today in some areas there is still this class selection. The effect of the incredible race to build up the war machine meant that, in the selection of officer material, education was more important but not dominant to the class system. In my school we had elocution on inception and our accents were thought of as BBC, and would have been acceptable in most officers’ messes, but that wasn’t the only yardstick. In the 40s, there was still, in the wardrooms of the Navy, that discrepancy between the products of Dartmouth, and those who had risen from the ranks, and the latter were never allowed to forget it. The Port Wireless Officer in Belfast with whom I worked, was a ‘thin ringer’, a Warrant Officer, who was entitled to all the privileges of the wardroom, but was also looked upon by the lower deck and the rest of the wardroom as a fish out of water. On the destroyer, when I joined it, we had a Commander RN, as skipper, and flotilla leader. When he was promoted the new skipper was RNR, Royal Naval Reserve, which generally meant he was a maritime captain, and in consequence our ship got all the dirty jobs. Both the wardroom and the lower deck felt downgraded, the class system was so imbued.

I never had ambitions to be an officer, while quite a few of those I joined up with had. In retrospect I think that my life, a bit tough at times, was far more interesting and rewarding than it would have been if I had been an officer. At the end of the war they tried to persuade me, with a place at Dartmouth, to stay on and become commissioned, but I had had enough, In the 50s, with a university degree, and being well up the professional ladder working for the Admiralty, I had a rank equivalent to Commander, and was entitled to the privileges of the wardroom. I kept my lower deck rank of Chief Petty Officer to myself on these occasions. At the time of Suez, because of my training as a frogman, I was informed that I should be prepared go into the uniform of a Commander to be sent to the Middle East. Fortunately it never happened. I quote this to show the change that had taken place by the 1950s, where it was what you knew, not who your parents were, that counted.

Since then the tremendous increase in the amount of, the complexity of and the workforce needed to operate all the technology that we have today, has meant a total change in the conception of what makes an officer, thank God. Even in 1941 when I joined my ship as a radar technician, and through the period that I was on it, the size of the crew steadily grew to accommodate the appetite of technology to the extent that the ship was heavily overcrowded.

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