Review: Quick Training for War (Baden-Powell)


Quick Training for War

This pocket-sized book was written and published during the first few weeks of The Great War, in four “editions” or printings amounting to 65,000 copies, but there’s no evidence that any of them ever made it to the battlefields. Who bought all those books?

Baden-Powell is sufficiently vague about some topics, that one can be forgiven for finding a marketing motive behind the simultaneous pairing of references to his Scouting books along with his hints of sage advice. But British military officers, NCOs, and the adult soldiers they led presumably were all at least a few years beyond reading such publications.

A careful examination of the cover illustration reveals the book’s true audience. It portrays, in silhouette, a dapper, tight-capped, mustachioed military officer, who is haranguing a quintet of raw recruits who have apparently just reported for duty (despite their possession of rifles). Four of these, by virtue of their poor posture and mismatched, unmilitary headgear, are obviously meant to be slack-jawed yokels. The fifth silhouette, shorter than all the others and at the far end of the ragtag and bobtail rank, but nattily attired in regulation paramilitary pinched-crown sombrero and crisp neckerchief, is clearly identifiable as a Boy Scout.

The message: The Boy Scout is The Officer of The Future.

Unfortunately, The Future had already arrived, and it needed more and better officers (and it needed them sooner) than the retired Baden-Powell could produce. The fact that the author had begun his military career back in the days when people wore woolen or flannel belly binders in the belief that they prevented cholera (and because he didn’t bother to define the term “cholera belt” when telling that story), is but an early instance of the kinds of incongruities that would plague the prosecution of the First World War by its illustrious leadership.

For example, his suggestions for the construction of trenches and their appropriate placement are insightful, but they’re still governed by the assumption that warfare would always be a matter of brisk movement, with heavy dependence upon horses to carry the day, instead of the immobile abattoir that modern artillery and machine guns had already made of it, by September of 1914.

When he makes the apparently perplexed statement, “In the South African campaign we had 18,000 men admitted to hospital for wounds, but nearly 400,000 for sickness, though South Africa is not such a very unhealthy country,” only to follow it 30 pages later with, “The old soldier who carries his ‘billy’ filled with the scraps from the last meal and merely has to heat it up on a little fire at a convenient halt is the envy of all his comrades, and is the healthiest and cheeriest among them,” we can tell he’s writing purely from the position of an officer who’d always had a batman to cook fresh food for him at every meal not eaten in an officers’ mess.

In 1914 the importance of refrigeration was well known (even if a refrigerator was still an icebox), and the microbiologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) had long before established the principles of bacteriology (including his verifying the bacterium that causes cholera, which previously had been isolated in 1854). If Baden-Powell had ever had to eat unrefrigerated leftovers that had been incubating bacteria for many hours in an unsanitary mess kit, he might have made the connection between food poisoning and the excess morbidity among the troops during the Second Boer War. There’s nothing enviable, healthy or cheery about nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration (with its risk of death) from food-borne gastroenteritis.

Novelists will find Quick Training for War to be a handy period resource for character attitudes, as well as some combatant practices of the day. But for safety’s sake, a casual reader should confine attention to the author’s motivational aphorisms, which do have some psychological validity.

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