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Exploding a Popular Myth:

Is There Democracy in Britain’s Army?

(15 June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 24, 15 June 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last year there was a great deal of fanfare about so-called radical changes in the caste-bound British army. It was turning into a “people’s army,” no less – though, of course, in the service of the same old imperialist masters.

Then suddenly very little was heard about “democratizing” the British forces. And one wondered. Therefore, of great interest is a letter from London by S.L. Solon, published in the American Mercury of June, 1942, on the subject of Why British Soldiers Complain.

One has to conclude from the facts Mr. Solon presents that the process of democratization has been stymied – that is, if it ever even got started. The following from the English magazine, the New Statesman, summarizes the situation:

“The new generation of subalterns, with the approval or by the orders of reactionary commanding officers, have gone back to the polished cross straps, swagger canes and Mayfair moustaches of another day. The officers’ mess is again a class stronghold into which men who may be fine soldiers but are not considered ‘sahibs’ find their way with difficulty. Our new conscript armies are less democratic than our professional army of two years ago.”

Mr. Solon amplifies the above. He says that examination boards are more interested in the class background of applicants for officers’ rank than in their military and intellectual qualifications. Boards are known to ask such pointed questions as “Have you any private income?” “Can you afford to be an officer?” “Have you ever ridden to hounds?” Foxhunting, as everyone knows, is the sine qua non of a British upper class snob.

Lacks Spending Money

Of course, the worries of the average private are not that he cannot become an officer. Mr. Solon reports that Tommy’s big headaches are his family and his finances.

“The British married soldier,” he says, “after family allowances are met, is left with only a few cents a day spending money.”

Last winter a pitched battle was fought in Parliament, over soldiers’ pay. There was a proposal that the allowance to a soldier’s wife be increased to $8.00 a week with $2.25 more for each child, the soldier-father to have the munificent sum of 30 cents a day, or about $2.00 a week. The government rejected this increase, picayune as it obviously would have been. The total cost of the increase for the entire army would have been less than nine days’ current British war expenditures. Mr. Solon comments on this unfair allotment of war expenditures:

“There appears to be little doubt that hidebound notions of economy afflict the Treasury whenever service pay is brought into question.”

In the course of the debate in Parliament, a Capt. G.C. Grey quoted a soldier as saying:

“It seems to me that cannon fodder is the only form of unrationed commodity available in unlimited quantities at pre-war prices.”

To this frank evaluation of the situation by a soldier, Captain Grey added his own comment:

“That is a bitter remark, but there are tens of thousands of men who feel bitter, too.”

A lieutenant commander told the House of Commons that thousands of young men are being financially ruined, and concluded:

“We are laying up an awful legacy of social unrest when this war comes to a conclusion.”

At long last the government agreed to increase the total allowance for a soldier with a wife and three children by just $1.00 a week, namely, from $12 to $13. Mr. Solon reports that

“A general army horse laugh greeted the announcement that the increased allowances would be tax-exempt.”

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Last updated: 8 September 2014