December 10, 2014 | Simon Barrow

A WW1 Private soldier’s insights into management shortcomings — 100% relevant, 100 years on

I have just finished reading the recently published diaries of a WW1 Private – the lowest rank in the British Army – doing a job as an orderly in a casualty station, carrying the stretcher cases, cleaning the makeshift operating theatre and supporting the overworked clinical staff. He had to cope with wave after wave of grievously wounded and dying men. Page after page of his diaries describe the errors and omissions of the system and the culture which dominated how it worked. So many of the problems reach out to me over the years because they remain so familiar in conversation with experienced employees – railway company staff, postal workers, policemen, social workers, hospital and retail staff. And further up the chain too since Managers themselves often also fail to tell their bosses how it really is. Yet they open up in private. When qualitative research is done by external advisers like us highlighting such failings these audiences are rarely surprised by the findings. All we have done is hold up the mirror.

This was no ordinary Private soldier. For a start he was 43, a lot older than the rest. And he’d been MP for the Lancashire town of Chorley for the past thirteen years. His family owned the Wigan Coal and Iron Company employing 10,000. He was the 27th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, Scotland’s oldest peerage. He had form when it came to doing the unusual. When he left Magdalen College, Oxford, he did social work in Bethnal Green in the East End. This is a disturbing and relevant book – ‘Private Lord Crawford’s Great War Diaries – from Medical Orderly to Cabinet Minister’ edited by Christopher Arnander.

What I have done is to list a number of 2014 management and leadership failings in many organisations whether commercial or public and below them list what Crawford had to say in his reflective yet telling way one hundred years ago. In my headings I have used the terms ‘management’ and ‘employees’ rather than ‘officers and men’ since what he writes has a much broader message far beyond the military.

Incompetent matrix management

“Today there are twenty five officers, five nurses, one resident medical officer – thirty one people in all who are entitled to give orders to twelve NCOs and men! One does not get a moments peace, and when one man has given one an order, a nurse promptly countermands it and in doing so fires off two or three extra commands.”

Management privileges abused

“Officers luggage is immensely heavy. I fancy that thirty five pounds is the limit allowed to the normal regimental officer – but in fact many of the kits weigh up to 200 pounds. We have to toil up to the attic, and when it is there, the officer sends for it as he wants to find toothpicks or some old number of the Daily Mail. The mass of luggage is astonishing. One hears of the privation of the trenches but officers come in and one will often find three or four pairs of boots, a couple of extra overcoats and two spare uniforms.”

“Yesterday a smart young officer in a lofty dog cart drove a spanking pair of polo ponies past our gate – it is all an unbelievable combination in this time of war. The French territorials watched it as one would look at a good turn in the circus. How often have we heard the natives say ‘English soldiers bons, English officers no bons…’ the impression left by our officers upon our allies is unfavourable.”

Managers reactions to adversity

“How disagreeable some officers are. Their nerves of course are awry but as a rule the effect of shock, worry and apprehension upon the rank and file is to produce a somnolent reaction on entering hospital; the man becomes quiescent and relieved, the officer snappish. The man is grateful for attention, the officer vexed because he does not get enough of it.”

Managers lack of real interest in subordinates

“They are a curious study these officers. Their conversation, so far as it relates to military matters, is tactical not strategic, but they talk chiefly about their billets and personal grievances. One never hears a word about the men of the army. I take it that there is now a greater variation in status among officers than ever before. Many of them take pride and pleasure in ordering their servants about with merciless pressure.”

Failure to react to the obvious

“Sore feet are inevitable and numerous, wounded feet not uncommon. I have seen a man with a hole in his heel almost big enough to carry a marble then sepsis follows and the danger point is reached. Men ought to be allowed to break in their boots just as their physical training proceeds, by regularised steps- but in being served with new boots the old friends have to be surrendered.”

Employee relationships

“‘Rank and quality’ – I wonder who evolved this gargoyle of a description – how much better if the simple old style ‘officers and men’. The distinction between the two is tending in point of fact to reduction, though in practice the new born officer is just as stand offish as ever was the old pre war officer- more so I fancy in some cases where the officer is forever perched upon a precarious dignity.”

“I note the unerring intuition and speed with which an officer is assessed by his men. He is watched a thousand times more closely than he knows. His manners, skill, conversation, kit, tastes, friends and frailties – they are all known, scheduled and docketed.”

Employee upward feedback

“The army is the army, my rank is negligible and technically I have no access to the colonel, who in turn has no technical right to receive a report from me. But on broad grounds it is impossible to tolerate this condition of things much longer- after all one does owe a duty to oneself. I am doing my best to stimulate the courage of our very hesitating sergeant.”

Group instructions without prior investigation

“One asks oneself why GHQ sends out a fiat without making the smallest enquiry as to the need for action or the possibility of carrying orders into effect. Some smart young major on the general staff must have done this without the smallest regard for the waste of time and energy required.”

Downside realities not communicated

Crawford describes a troop train of 1200 cheerful reinforcements for the line being backed onto a platform where numerous wounded men were waiting for an ambulance train.

“Gradually the shouting and chaffing subsided. Those who had the front view slowly realised who were the occupants of the platform- why so many men had arms in slings and heads bound up- why others had both feet swathed in white cotton boots, why so many RAMC men were standing there, why there was a long row of tenanted stretchers. All this they gradually realised … For the first time these men were in the presence of the real thing.”

Character failings in a new leader

“We have now re-erected our marquees which will accommodate 200 or 300 cases in the event of an emergency (which seems not unexpected). It is four months since Loos and we have a new C-in-C who may make the mistake of being in a hurry to assert his personality.”

Opinion of own management compared to managers in the competition

“The officers! They are the pivot alike of failure and success. How many failures have I seen – abject irremediable failures. I feel instinctively that the junior German officer is a very different personage – arrogant, robust, self-assertive, confident in his mission and in his cause. He is a bully, with the combination of forces and obscenity which is ruling characteristic of modern Germany – but he has force, he has impetus, he can strike and he can drive. He is a power, emulating his seniors in all that counts in hard war, and, even if he be loathed by the subordinates, whom he treats like slaves, he can and does do things which too many of our men are quite incapable.”

Failure to understand cultural failings

“It is our unprofessionalism (in the Army) which is so mordantly contrasted with the keen and alert temperament of the sailors. There is still a fatal atmosphere of taking things easily, of trusting to luck and tradition. I see officers (and men too) who I feel instinctively have never yet fought, They have been in action, and they may have behaved pluckily too, but they had never put out the whole strength of the true fighting man because they don’t know what supreme effort means. The average soldier comes from a different stock and even if his experience of strife has hitherto been limited to industrial troubles, he knows from the struggle for his livelihood what sustained and self-devoting effort really is.”

Lack of recognition

“What seems to annoy our men more than anything in the sergeant major’s scold was the absence of any acknowledgement of good work accomplished.”

Tuesday April 25th 1916

“Today is the secret session in Parliament. I would give much to be able to tell them the truth as I know it from a thousand and one sources, I doubt if any officer, with the exception of some who have risen from the ranks, could give Parliament the information at my command. Neither has Parliament been told that Neuve Chapelle and Loos rank as the greatest tactical defeats of the western campaign… Yes, I would give much for the chance of telling them the truths so persistently withheld.”

He was to have his chance to do that since in July 1916, Lord Crawford was asked by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to become Minister of Agriculture. Did he take that chance? It would be good to know whether his opinions on the conduct of the war were listened to by his cabinet colleagues. It would also be interesting to know to what extent the leadership of Wigan Coal and Iron reflected his opinions on people management so tellingly expressed in these extracts.