During the Covid-19 lockdown, the question arises for each of us: To dress properly, or not? To maintain one’s appearance, and deportment, and flair, or not? To continue to do what one does, what ones believe to be correct, even if no one else is looking?
We all know the correct answer. Standards are to be maintained precisely when it is difficult. No one disputes that moral standards must be maintained even if they are difficult, even if no one is watching. That is almost the point of having them at all. But standards of civility, or self-presentation, of dress, of grooming, though of less importance, are not to be despised or lightly dropped. These standards are the outward signs of our self-respect. They are the tangible manifestations of our personal identity. Such standards are a reflection of a certain ideal each one of us has for the world, an ideal which we can only aspire to, but never entirely reach.
Militaries know this. Soldiers are placed under the most extreme possible stress. They suffer fatigue, hunger, confusion, danger, and they risk death or devastating injury in battle. Everything must be done in peacetime to strengthen the soldier for the time of testing, for the terror of battle, the hardships of the march and the field, the suffering of defeat, or the rigor of captivity. The wisdom of many centuries is that the soldier must believe himself to be a soldier, carry himself as a soldier, and present himself to the world as a soldier. And he must look like a soldier. That is no small thing. It is foundational to cohesion, to pride, to survival, to victory. In practice this means meticulous, even obsessive attention to the details. Countless men over the centuries, making weapons gleam, making boots shine, making trousers and tunics free of any wrinkle or stain, have grumbled and wondered what it all had to do with their real job. The older and wiser ones knew the answer.
The massive armed conflicts of the Twentieth Century gave rise to many heroic and inspiring life-stories. One such story is that of Regimental Sergeant Major John Clifford Lord, of the British Army. His story may be read in a short biography “To Revel in God’s Sunshine.” John Lord was an exemplary leader and trainer of men. And he was legendary for always being immaculately turned out, and demanding nothing less from the men under his command. During the Second World War he held the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major. He parachuted into Holland with the 1st Airborne Division, the “Red Devils,” fought at Arnhem, was wounded, and was captured by the Germans. The portion of his career relevant to our current discussion occurred at that time.
What John Lord found in the German Stalag was a group of men who were demoralized, who were cold and hungry, and who felt themselves to be beaten. He took charge, and began to restore their pride. He imposed order on the British POWs. He insisted that their uniforms and appearance be as soldierly as possible under the circumstances. He held himself to the highest standard and led by example:
I made sure that my personal turnout was as good as I could possibly make it. Without missing, once every evening before the lights went out I cleaned my boots. We managed to get a small supply of polish. I placed my trousers between boards and slept on them to gain a crease. I ‘whitened’ my webb belt with German soap which we had for washing but rarely used because it was useless. There is little doubt that the men gradually tried to make the best of themselves, and their appearance improved over the months.
One captured British officer was in a room with twenty other POWs, and recalled:
We were all dirty and unshaven and in a various stages of dress and undress. The door opened and in came RSM John Lord, also a POW. He was dressed in immaculate battledress, trousers creased, and he had an arm supported in a snow white sling. Without a word he turned his head slowly to look at each individual in turn and then said in his brisk voice “Gentlemen, I think you should all shave!” He then turned about, stamped his foot and marched out of the room. The effect was electric. The motley group of officers, Infantry, Gunners, Engineers, stirred themselves and started to clean themselves up. It was an unforgettable experience.
Another tells this story:
He saw the condition we were in and knew that our morale was very low, so he set about to change all that. Initially our attitude was that as POWs we were finished with soldiering. Many men were walking the camp in an unshaven, dirty and dispirited state. When RSM Lord saw this he began to issue orders and everyone was formed into companies, with senior NCOs in charge. He managed to get a bugle so that orders could be sounded. He made us all shave even at the expense of sharing a razor blade between five or ten men! We were able to ‘blanco’ our gaiters with lime used for the ablutions.
RSM Lord even managed to establish a moral ascendency over the German guards:
Each morning he took the roll call parade, and if he saw any German soldier being idle he would scream at him – even though the man didn’t understand English! If a German soldier below his own rank spoke to him, he would make him stand to attention, and he had many of the German guards shaking in their jackboots.
Survivors of the Stalag later said that Lord’s discipline and organization saved many of their lives. Of course, we must not over-dramatize ourselves. What we have to face, being lightly and temporarily confined to our homes, is nothing at all compared to parachuting into occupied Holland, fighting the Germans, being wounded, getting captured, and spending a hungry winter behind barbed wire in unheated shacks. But we can still draw inspiration from RSM Lord. He kept his shoes shined, his pants creased, his face shaven, and his presentation impeccable, under appalling conditions. It was a matter of pride for himself, and an example to others. Should we insist on any less from ourselves? — MICHAEL J. LOTUS