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The Secret of Efficiency? Social Relations and Patronage in the British Army in the Era of the First World War

Dr Aimee Fox

Lecturer, Defence Studies Department

14 December 2020

Writing in early 1901, the energetic and reforming Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher reflected that ‘favouritism was the secret of our efficiency in the old days’. ‘Let us have favouritism back again’, he continued, ‘and Nelsons at 40 winning the Battle of the Nile!’

Fisher’s oft-quoted aphorism has been held up as an example of his bombast, or as a means by which he justified his practice of appointing protégés—from his so-called ‘Fishpond’—to key positions within the Royal Navy in order to achieve his own personal aims. It can easily be read as advocating a return to something like the ‘Old Corruption’ of the previous century—a seemingly retrograde step for an ardent moderniser like Fisher. Yet the admiral’s intent was entirely the opposite: he sought to cut through the superfluity of mid-ranking and senior naval officers who had reached their positions owing to the seniority accrued from their length of service in the Navy. In other words, he sought to use what he referred to as ‘favouritism’ to allow talent to supplant time served as the key criterion in selecting the future leadership of the senior service; this was meritocracy by another name.

What Fisher’s effusions demonstrated was a keen awareness of the fundamental importance of people, and the social and political relations between them, to the functioning of an organisation. Fisher brought these attitudes with him when asked to contribute to the Esher Committee, a body charged with reforming the administration of the British Army, in 1903–4. In the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Boer War, the Army was widely perceived to be inefficient, expensive and(to some) incompetent. To remedy these supposed ills, Fisher sought to get ‘the “old gang” out of the War Office’. Pursuing a policy of‘new measures, new men’, the admiral ruthlessly insisted upon the expulsion of several notable senior officers (including a future Chief of the Imperial General Staff) from the War Office, much to the disgust of several military observers who complained about such ‘harsh and arbitrary treatment’.

The work of the Esher Committee has been praised by scholars as providing for crucial reform to the structures of Britain’s military leadership. Yet, as Ian Beckett has argued, the Esher Committee’s reforms succeeded only in changing the personalities at the top of the Army, rather than the processes through which officers were selected for senior roles. To be truly effective, reform required a dual track: appointing the best people to senior jobs in the present,while simultaneously creating the structures and processes to ensure that they would be replaced by equally capable officers in future.

A sophisticated body of work exists on the political and social life of the armed forces in this period. However, few studies seek to understand the British Army explicitly in terms of the interaction between the individual and the organisation. By foregrounding this complex interplay, this article presents a fresh perspective on the internal life of the Army in the First World War. It illustrates the vital importance of viewing the Army in a holistic sense—as both a ‘formal’and ‘informal’ organisation—a perspective which requires us to explore and interrogate the connections and relationships between individuals and the structures within which they operated.

In essence, it seeks to understand the Army not merely as an institutional structure, but rather one that was shot through with personal ties and powered by individuals with their own ideas and perspectives. By viewing the military in this manner, we see how the existence and development of social relations were a manifestation of the Army’s organisational culture and that, rather than such relations being suppressed or prevented,they were recognised as an enduring and ubiquitous part of Army life.Furthermore, these social relations often acted in support of formal structures, rather than necessarily subverting or undermining them...

To access the full article, please visit the English Historical Review

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Aimée Fox

Aimée Fox

Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies

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