GENERALS I HAVE TRAINED
By STEPHEN LEACOCK
In this essay, written shortly before his death in 1944, Canada’s most famous humorist turned his attention to R.M.C. The essay first appeared in Last Leaves (1945), and is reprinted here by kind permission of the publishers McClelland and Stewart.
Article previously appeared in the 1959 REVIEW
It is a great pleasure to me in these days, when war has shown how necessary preliminary training is, to look back to the fact that I have myself trained a very great number of army officers now serving at home and overseas. In particular, I have trained no less than six Canadian generals. So much so that I may regard myself, in a sense, as a professional general-trainer.
I thought nothing of it at the time. Those who can remember as far back as a little over fifty years ago will recall how little we thought then of military things. This was because it was known that war was quite obsolete and bygone, and was a thing only to be applied to savages such as the Matabeles and Mashonas. These were called “tribesmen,” and it was understood that every now and then they would “rise” and when they rose they would be mowed down again by Mr. Gatling’s new gun. After which the British government would lend them to rebuild their kraals and they would crawl back.
But apart from that, there wasn’t any idea that war could come back to us a terrific reality. In fact, we lived in a world of which no one of a later generation can ever dream. I remember in my student days in Toronto how ridiculous we thought a little group of obsolete students, way behind the time, who kept up military drill, calling themselves, “Company K” of the Queen’s Own Rifles. They used to “form fours” out in front of the Varsity Building, with only two or three to each four, while we others stood around and laughed at them. You see, they had been organized in 1861 to repel the American Civil War and apparently they didn’t know it was over. One of them was called Howard Ferguson (even then very bossy; he was an officer, of course), and one afterwards wrote Flanders Field, and several others now sleep there. But all that we couldn’t know. We stood and laughed. So did the world.
But the time when I came to train generals personally was just after that. I had become a resident master—the senior resident master—at Upper Canada College. This school had been founded originally with the idea of training (turning out, they called it) Christian gentlemen. That was all right as an ideal. As a matter of fact, it was found that the school had to turn them out before thy got trained into Christian gentlemen. Those are hard fellers to make. In fact, the “gentlemen” part of it proved quite impossible. I do not know to this day just how you train a gentleman. I admit he’s unmistakable when he’s trained and anyway you can tell him by his old school tie. But it didn’t seem to work at Upper Canada College. Year after year the Principal used to announce from the platform in the Prayer Hall that this was a school for Christian gentlemen and that its aim was to train boys for a Christian life. Everybody was glad when they gave up the idea of training Christians and it was announced that the school would train boys for the Royal Military College at Kingston.
That was a much better aim. And it was good musketry, too; aim low and you hit something. So for years after that and all through my resident time (1891-1899), one of the successful features of the work at Upper Canada College was training boys for the R.M.C. That’s where my generals came in; they passed from me to the R.M.C.; from there (in those days) to the Imperial Army: and from there all over the globe. But I was the start.
Hence I thought it might be of use to record my methods in training generals. Well, in the first place, I began with kindness. When a new general came into my hands, I used to go along to his room and sit on the bed and talk to him, mostly about his home. Not a word about discipline, about his having to take a bath once a week and that sort of stuff. Give him a chance. He might want to do it. But just at first, kindness.
I recall in this connection one particular general, one of the smallest and sturdiest generals I ever trained—in fact, he looked hard and tough and bullet-headed even at eleven years old, this little general. He told me he’d come down all the way from the Yukon, had taken nearly a year to make the trip; spoke of his Husky dog teams that he’d used for his sleds and about his portages after the “break-up.” I forget if he mentioned other people coming with him; at any rate, knowing him then and later, I’m sure that he didn’t need them. He seemed to think a lot of the North but very little of the school and the staff. He said he doubted whether any of the masters he’d seen in the school that day would make much of a showing in a canoe. And he said he had a friend, Siwash Indian, who could have thrown the Principal over the fence.
I recall the similar case of a general, newly arrived from Hamilton, Ontario, his home at the time, though his address just now is North Africa and Italy. He wasn’t feeling so good, just sitting on the edge of his bed and looking downhearted. So I asked him where he came from and said Hamilton was a great place, and the general said it was the greatest iron and steel centre in Ontario. As he said it, the tears broke into his eyes at the thought of it… I saw it mentioned in the papers the other day that he is a man of iron determination. They got it wrong—iron and steel, rolled iron, ingots and steel bullets—in other words, from Hamilton. Yet I am sure that he still keeps the softer side that I first saw. If anyone whispered, “What about Burlington Bay in the moonlight of June?”—his iron (and steel) reserve might break.
But I found out that soft stuff alone would never make a general. There comes a time when you need firmness, the iron hand. If I found a general burning his light after hours, with a rug over the fanlight so as to fry sausages for a grou0p of junior officers (as they turned out to be), I never spared him. I’d condemn him to five hundred lines of Virgil as quick as I look at him, friend or not. I see the result of it now, though heaven knows I get little credit for it. “General So-and-so,” said one of the Sicilian press reports, “can put more into a five hundred word dispatch than any man in the army.” Of course he can; he wouldn’t waste a word. He counts them as he writes them.
Of another of my generals the press said, “General So-and-so has no knowledge of Italian, but he astonished some of his staff by addressing a few words of well-chosen Latin to a Neopolitan delegation.” Yes, but who chose it for him? I did fifty years ago. I chose him the whole first declension (but without the irregular Dative Plural) and the whole of the second declension, including the Vocative Case. He spent all one Saturday afternoon (the incident arose in connection with his having jumped over the school fence on Friday) in writing out these declensions again and again and again. They were the only ones he ever knew. He never went further. And wasn’t it lucky? They are the only ones that Southern Italians use anyway! And the Vocative Case, the only one he needed to address them. The papers said it seemed marvellous that he had kept his grip on Latin! So it does, unless he opens up his hand.
So that’s the way it went. Steady day-to-day work on these generals gradually taught them duty, self-reliance, the need of a bath once a week, love of country, the folly of jumping fences, the acceptance of discipline and the power of written Latin for the redemption of sin. With that they passed out of my care to what they thought was the beginning of their military life as Cadets in the old “Stone Frigate.” But the real beginning, the channel in the sand that later is the fold in the rock, was mine.
All this is true. Yet perhaps I have spoken too much as if I did it all alone. I was reminded of this in receiving letter the other day from my old friend, Sir Edward Peacock, of London, England. He is now one of the Empire’s greatest financiers but in the days of which I speak he was my colleague at Upper Canada College and of no more account in the world than I was—in fact, both nothing. He wrote, “Do you know that you and I taught six of the chief Canadian generals at Upper Canada College?” I have answered, “Take three and give me three; I prefer to keep my staff as a unit.”