The Oxbridge OCBs: Producing Officers and Oarsmen

This picture from 1917 was recently offered for sale on eBay. It shows the Eight of “B” Company, 6th Officer Cadet Battalion (OCB), a unit that was billeted in Trinity College, Oxford.

14 April 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on some of those who went from the River Somme to the River Isis.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the small British standing army of 247,000 expanded greatly. This, plus disproportionate officer casualties, soon produced enormous problems in producing men who could take command. 

The pre-war system of training officer cadets at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, or, initially, in one of the university or public school Officer Training Corps (OTC), could not cope with the numbers required in wartime. Further, by late 1915, high casualty rates among junior officers forced the British army to seek candidates for commissions from “lower” social classes, men not of the traditional “officer class” who before the war would not have been considered officer material. 

Thus, in February 1916, a new system of officer training was introduced whereby temporary commissions could be granted to men over eighteen-and-a-half who had been in the ranks or in an OTC and who had then done a four-month (later six-month) course with one of the newly established Officer Cadet Battalions. 

The four-month courses ran over 540 hours, a gentle 35-hours work a week that allowed plenty of time for leisure activities. It took in field skills, map reading and tactics, drill and physical training; use of firearms, bayonets and gas; military law and administration; field engineering and trench warfare; and also some “social training.” 

As some cadets were from the so-called “lower classes”, there were formal and informal lessons on the social etiquette of the Officers’ Mess. It conjures a strange picture of bayonet drill followed by instruction on the use of the salad fork. Other advice allegedly given to aspiring officers included to avoid wearing fancy socks, to keep both lady friends and personal drunkenness out of sight of the ranks and to “walk like an officer” (that is, as if you owned the street). Further, working and middle-class cadets were encouraged to not feign interest in upper-class pursuits or to imitate the manners and accents of the traditional officer class.

Some despairingly called these “Temporary Officers”, those commissioned solely for the duration of the war, “Temporary Gentlemen”. A Wikipedia page on “TGs” states:

The term was used by traditional officers to remind temporary officers that they were expected to resume their former positions after the war and was considered offensive by most of those to which it was applied. The use of the term declined once the new officers had proved themselves capable on the battlefield, though some temporary officers adopted the term in an ironic fashion.

A magazine advertisement from June 1918.

Costs were a concern for cadets who had yet to be commissioned but who were still expected to buy an officer’s uniform and equipment, including a revolver costing about £4.60. Handgun retailers included Harrods Department Store – which also sold kits containing cocaine and heroin that were promoted as a relaxing present for those at the front. However, from early 1916, a £50 kit allowance was granted for officer cadets yet to receive a commission. When commissioned, an infantry Second Lieutenant received 7 shillings and 6 pence (37.5p) a day.

Eventually, twenty-four Officer Cadet Battalions were established all-round the country. They needed to be housed and, as university undergraduates rapidly enlisted (there were 3,181 at Cambridge in Easter 1914 but only 491 by Easter 1917), increasingly underused college buildings were obvious places to commandeer.

A contemporary postcard recognising Balliol College as the home of No 6 Officer Cadet Battalion.

Thus, Officer Cadet Battalion No 2 was billeted at Pembroke College, Cambridge, No 5 Battalion at Trinity College, Cambridge, No 22 (Garrison) Battalion at Jesus College, Cambridge, and No 6 Battalion at Balliol College, Oxford. 

While No 6 Battalion was headquartered at Balliol, its men were billeted by companies in Balliol, Keble, Wadham, Hertford, New, Magdalen, Trinity, St John’s and Worcester Colleges.

At Cambridge, the Companies of No 22 Battalion divided between Jesus, Sidney Sussex, Trinity Hall, Magdalene and Caius. No 2 Battalion had companies billeted at Queens’, Pembroke, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi, Peterhouse, Downing, Christs and Ridley Hall. The total strength of No 2 Battalion across all the Cambridge colleges averaged around 800 men, although it reached a peak strength of over 1,200 in May 1917.

Officer Cadets in the dining hall of Trinity College, Cambridge. Picture: © IWM (Q 30322).

PhD student Charles Fair has made a study of OCBs and much of the information here is gleaned from his work. His comments on Cambridge’s OCBs in the 2018 anthology, Queens’ College during the Great War would also apply to the Oxford OCBs:

Officer cadets in Cambridge were not members of the University or of the colleges in which they were billeted… The War Office was effectively renting the colleges… 

Academic staff of the University lamented the silence which had befallen their colleges before the arrival of the cadets. HF Stewart, The Dean of St Johns, wrote in a cadet journal: “A Cambridge college does not exist entirely for the sake of its undergraduates …” but “without its junior members it hardly lives a life worth having. … the college needs young blood in order that it may truly live.” With the arrival of the cadets “our pulse began to beat again. Young men were moving among us once more; the Hall was filled thrice a day; some lecture rooms resumed their use for instruction and smoking concerts…” 

Probably for this reason, the cadets were not discouraged from thinking of themselves as quasi members of the colleges in which they were billeted. The journals of the Cambridge OCBs usually contain a welcome from the respective Master or Dean encouraging them to think of the college as “theirs’’ and to enjoy the facilities…

The OCBs “endeavoured to generate something of the peacetime atmosphere of university life.” Whilst military training formed the core, several afternoons a week were typically devoted to sport, and the cadets had sufficient spare time to take part in theatre and musical activities. 

Malcolm Graham, Oxford in the Great War (2014):

A bugle and drums began the day and gentle explosions accompanied gas drills. The cadets had lectures at the Oxford Union and trained in the hills around the city, but they still had time for inter-college sport and became virtual members of the university before returning to the war.

From The Cambridge Independent Press of 24 August 1917.

“The facilities” to be enjoyed by the officer cadets naturally included sport, and sport at Oxford and Cambridge naturally included rowing. It is interesting to note that, though not members of the university or of a college, the officer cadets in the above “B” Company Eight picture are wearing Trinity College Boat Club vests. Presumably, the old boatman included in the photograph (wearing a TCBC cap) and the remaining dons were just happy to have young men in college vests on the Isis (and the Cam) again, even if the newcomers were not strictly entitled to wear the colours.

Very much in the student mould, many of the OCBs published magazines or journals. At Cambridge, “C” Company, No 2 Battalion quartered at Emmanuel produced The Glad Rag (“A Chronicle of… Work and Sport During The Course”) and No 5 Battalion at Trinity and St. John’s produced The Blunderbuss. At Oxford, the Balliol College archive holds copies of two editions of The Souvenir, a journal produced by “A” Company No. 6 Battalion covering their time in the college, 10 November 1917 – 26 February 1918  and 5 April 1918 – 23 October 1918.  

The “A” Company Eight pictured in The Souvenir of 10 November 1917 – 26 February 1918.

The “Sport” page of the above edition of The Souvenir reports on association football, rugby football, field hockey, tennis and rowing. Of the latter it says:

This club, though little seen and less heard of, has done thoroughly well. Warne, the Captain, has been untiring in his efforts and the success of the club has been due to him. 

The Balliol “Four” has suffered two defeats, Trinity and St John’s being the victors, and latterly succeeded in turning the tables in fine style on St John’s.

The Balliol “Eight” won a hard fought race against Keble on Saturday, February 9th, and deserve every credit.

Again, it is interesting that the college names, Balliol etc, and not the military designations, “A” Company etc, were adopted for the crews, especially surprising as soldiers are usually fiercely parochial in their loyalty to their unit. Similarly, the “A” Company theatrical group called themselves “The Balliol Boys.” 

HA Warne, the untiring Captain of Balliol’s cadet rowers in late 1917 to early 1918, was originally a lowly Lance Corporal in the unfashionable Northumberland Fusiliers. Stroke of the eight and presumably an oarsman before the war, Warne doubtless never expected to be associated with one of Oxford’s most distinguished colleges (dating from 1263) or its boat club (dating from before 1823). I suspect that he rather enjoyed the experience.

Probably No. 4 Company of the Garrison OCB, which was based at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Picture: Lewis Rogers / The Great War Forum.

The other copy of The Souvenir in the Balliol archive, that for 5 April 1918 – 23 October 1918, had under “Sports Results”, reports on cricket, tennis and rowing. Of the latter it said that, “The Balliol Eight beat Trinity, Hertford, Keble, and (the nearby school) Radley College. They were beaten by Worcester and the RAF.” Also included was a parody of Kipling’s If— made relevant to those in an OCB. The third stanza runs: 

If you can make one heap of all your knowledge
And dole it out when needed at Exam;
If you can start the morning on “Hall” porridge,
And never think of coffee, rolls and ham;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To pull your oar when really you are done,
And so keep on when everything around you
Is misty; you will hear the words “You’ve won.”

The Balliol Eight from The Souvenir for April – October 1918.
More from the late 1918 edition of “The Souvenir”. Left: The Balliol Tub Four, winners at the Battalion Regatta in June. Right: “Glad Rags”, a cartoon showing the feeling of pride generated by wearing an officers’ uniform in public for the first time.

Those in the Officer Cadet Battalions who had been plucked from the ranks fighting at some foreign battlefront to spend several months of pseudo-student life among the Dreaming Spires and Ivory Towers must have found it a very surreal experience, more so for those from the “lower classes.” 

A screenshot from the Balliol archive’s photo album on Flicker originally put together by an Australian, JH Brian Armstrong, a member of No 6 Officer Cadet Battalion at Balliol, July – October 1917. 

Charles Fair writes on the number of men from the Dominions (autonomous white-run countries within the British Empire) who were in the Oxbridge OCBs. He says of “A” Company billeted at Queens’ in 1918:

This particular group was especially notable as it included a group of (Māori) – the first native New Zealanders ever to be commissioned in the Army. This was at a time when the Manual of Military Law forbade men not of “pure European descent’’ from becoming combat officers. 

A decision appears to have been taken that officer cadets from the Dominions would only be sent to the OCBs in Oxford and Cambridge. It is not known on what grounds this was made, but one contemporary account describes it as “a happy decision” and that the Dominion cadets had the “opportunity of drinking in the fine traditions” and felt “most deeply” the “haunting charm of these old seats of English learning and civilisation.”

The 5th OCB pictured in Queens’ College, Cambridge, on 5 July 1917.

In the above picture, a number of New Zealanders are cadets (as shown by their distinctive “lemon squeezer” hats). Standing in the fourth row from the front, sixth from the right (and looking to his left) is Albert Victor Waetford of the Pioneer (Maori) Battalion. The man in the same row, fourth from the left, may also be Māori. Picture submitted by Waetford’s grandson, Thomas Stearn, on the Cambridge Community Archive Network

Part of a picture of No 6 Platoon, No 2 Officer Training Battalion, Pembroke College Cambridge, 1917. The State Library of Queensland identifies seven Australians in the full picture and their biographies are given on the library’s website. Picture: State Library of Queensland.

In a piece titled Worcester College and the First World War posted by archivist Emma Goodrum on a blog run by the Worcester College, Oxford, Library and Archives, a letter of 26 June 1918 from an Australian cadet billeted at the college was reproduced. The un-stereotypically Australian named Lionel de Souligny Stapleton Kingsborough from Adelaide wrote:

Dear Mother, As you see I am still holding this front, and I guess it would do me for the duration. We’re getting more used to the discipline and work, it doesn’t seem so hard as it did. Time hangs a bit heavy sometimes on our days off… I’ve spent most of it on the river as I think I told you. Last Tuesday we held a regatta and I entered for a sculling race but did not expect to do anything with only a week’s training and I didn’t. I had to row the Colonel to see who would represent the company and beat him easily but was badly beaten in the semifinals. Then two of us entered for a canoe race and came third out of six, another canoe from here coming second. We finished up with a gondola race. Eight men with paddles in a punt and it’s good fun especially for the onlookers…

Remaining in Oxford but as an aside to the story of the Oxford OCBs, the women’s college, Somerville, was moved to Oriel College’s St Mary Hall between 1914 and 1919. The blog, Somerville and the Great War notes that returning Oriel ex-servicemen were not always pleased to find female students in their college: On 19 June 1919, a crowd of revellers “celebrating a triumph on the river,” attempted to breach the brick wall built in 1915 to divide St Mary Hall Quad from the rest of Oriel. The pickaxe-wielding invaders were repelled, the hole guarded throughout the night by members of the (Senior Common Room) and the episode passed into college legend as “The Pickaxe Incident.”

In 1917, the professional footballer, Walter Tull, became one of the first mixed heritage infantry officers in a regular British Army regiment after he trained at No 10 Officer Cadet Battalion, Gailes, Scotland, in spite of the fact that to commission a black man was against the rules.

The expansion of the officer corps from 28,000 to over 229,000 was a surprisingly successful operation and the OCBs generally produced remarkably competent officers. The popular view of leadership in the First World War, that of “lions led by donkeys”, is nowadays increasingly questioned particularly with reference to junior officers. 

Among the reasons for the success of the Officer Cadet Battalions was that they largely ignored social class (and sometimes even race) in favour of competency. It was a radical approach for the time. 

In 2005, Laura Root of the University of North Florida produced a paper, Class Consciousness and the British Army Officer, 1914-1918She noted that:

…diaries and memoirs reveal that, on the front lines, an “efficient” officer was highly valued, whatever his social background.

The terms “efficient” and “inefficient” were contemporary euphemisms for those who could and could not properly do the job of an officer.

In her conclusions, Root wrote:

Temporarily, in the trenches, social class had ceased to be the measure of an officer.

It is easy to imagine how this view was carried back into civilian life. Indeed, it could be argued that Officer Cadet Battalions were, strangely and unintentionally, rather subversive organisations. With the coming of peace, it was clear that the pre-1914 world of deference had gone forever, particularly to those not from the traditional “officer class” who had enjoyed their (albeit brief) “Oxbridge Episode” and who had gained experience of command, the salad fork and the oar.

A podcast hosted by the Western Front Association with Charles Fair talking about Officer Cadet Battalions is online.

That’s enough of Oxford and Cambridge for now. Other rowing universities are available.

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