Captain X and his lost dream for a British army of the people

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The Independent Online
MY FRIEND, who had been a professional soldier, picked the little book up on a stall. A Soldier Looks Ahead, published in 1944 and written by a "Captain X"; it looked intriguing, and he bought it. Now he has lent it to me, and I am as fascinated by it as he was.

This is a manifesto for a democratic army - or an army fit for democracy. It burns with all the marvellous left-wing optimism of its times. "Captain X", a young hostilities-only officer in a tank regiment, looked forward not only to radical military reform but to a new world after victory.

He wrote the book, as he says, while waiting impatiently to be moved overseas and go into battle against Fascism: "Much of the thinking for it has been done trundling along in a tank". The Captain was an active member of the Labour Party, but his passionate admiration for the Soviet Union - not only as ally but as political model - seems strange to us today. He is shocked that some of his fellow officers enjoy the idea that the "Second Front" might be being deliberately delayed in order to let Germany weaken the Soviet Union. He registers - accurately, I suspect - the feelings among private soldiers. "The common expression among soldiers when some foolish order has been given, `What would Joe say?' does not signify an ideological acceptance of Marxism, but it does mean that many soldiers look on Marshal Stalin as the embodiment of goodness and commonsense..."

In his final chapter, "What the Soldier Expects After the War", the Captain foresees the outcome of the 1945 general election which swept the Labour Party to power. "Last time a great deal of fuss was made over the ex- service men. But ... the end of it was that the word `ex-service man' came to conjure up the picture of somebody selling matches in the gutter." The returning soldiers would be a great political force, and "I do not doubt that the Labour Party can have the support of the soldiers at the next election for the asking".

He puts forward a five-point plan for a Labour appeal to the soldiers. It includes a great house-building programme, wide-reaching nationalisation so that "we can plan for maximum output and maximum employment", and "the Beveridge Plan, at once and in full". There should be punishment for Nazi war criminals but "no Vansittartism" (ie no vengeful collective punishment of the German people). Most of this was to come true.

But his programme for the Army itself was reformist rather than revolutionary. He was in favour of retaining the insignia of rank, of keeping separate messes for officers, non-commissioned officers and men, even of spit-and- polish (the Red Army, he remarked, had a high standard of turn-out). He acknowledged that the war and the inrush of conscripts had already transformed the stiff, class-bound peacetime army out of all recognition, but he warned that "a British People's Army, far from being lax and easy-going, must be an army with an even sterner discipline than the old army".

Captain X wanted an army which was a meritocracy, in which officers were drawn from the ranks, in which leadership had to be won by personal skill and achievement rather than by social origin. He wanted a discussing, alert army which taught its men politics as well as technology. In the tradition of the New Model Army, he wanted the Army to be the sheet-anchor of liberty: "All the democratic armies of which we know - Cromwell's, the French Revolutionary, the Spanish Republican - have been full of intense political life".

In the past 50 years, our armed forces have certainly moved a long way towards meritocracy. But it is 40 years since Britain abandoned another of the Captain's beliefs. He was in favour of peacetime conscription. This was for frankly political reasons. He did not trust the officer corps of a professional army to obey a democratic (socialist) government: "The small highly trained army was the ideal instrument for policing the Empire and if need be for policing the homeland as well". But a large citizen force made up of and led by all classes of the community would be "a more trustworthy servant of the people".

This is the right time to be reading Captain X. All across Europe, the problems he raised have become acute once more. At the centre, in these queasy times since the end of the Cold War, is this question of citizens' armies, professional soldiers and conscription.

France recently staggered the British by announcing that there was - after all - much to be said for Britain's military system. Instead of a sullen horde of conscripts, sweeping leaves in barrack yards, France should consider the establishment of a small highly trained army of volunteer professionals.

This was the first time in living memory - perhaps since Waterloo - that France had complimented this country on its military arrangements. But the announcement shook the French as well. Over here, with rare exceptions like Captain X, nobody sees army structure as a question of politics. In France it has seldom been anything else, and the record of professional armies there has not been happy. Officers who spend a lifetime in the regiment, especially in peacetime, often grow seditious and develop ultra- right-wing views.

The republican tradition warns that democracy is only safe when it is defended by "the people in arms". This is a rather optimistic description of a conscript army. But it is true that sometimes, when their generals go completely off their trolleys and threaten civil war, the ordinary French recruits do lose patience - as they did in Algeria.

In Germany, meanwhile, the French move is being looked at with some misgiving. No country has suffered more from the existence of a professional army which became a state within the state. As a result, the modern Bundeswehr is an easy-going "citizens' army", relying on conscription, and a German soldier is entitled to refuse an order if he thinks that it is unconstitutional. Now, however, limits are beginning to appear.

In the 1930s, the satirist Kurt Tucholsky was prosecuted for saying that soldiers were murderers. Last year, the German constitutional court decided that it was lawful to repeat his words. But now the Bonn government is introducing a bill to make "degrading the public reputation of the army" an offence punishable by three years in jail. Liberal Germans are outraged. Behind the bill, they sense the decay of the "citizens in uniform" idea, and the return of an arrogant officer caste which is treated in a similar way to a priesthood.

It's strange, and very moving, that the People's Army of Captain X's dreams should have come nearest to reality in Germany. In the book, he talks with sacred joy about taking part in the coming Second Front, "that great and liberating prospect", and "fitting himself for the final assault on Nazism".

Wanting to find out more about this ardent young man, I dug up his real name: William Shebbeare, an ex-president of the Oxford Union who had previously been a Labour councillor in London.

What happened to him after 1945? There was no trace. I began to guess the reason for this disappearance. But it was still shocking when the voice from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission baldly stated: "I am afraid we do have a Major William Shebbeare. His name is on the Bayeux memorial, dated 18 July 1944, military number 140513, from the 23rd Hussars. But he has no known grave."

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