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Etiquette tips from stiff upper lip: UK general berates boorish behavior of troops

Published time: March 06, 2014 05:39
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:40
Soldiers of the British Army (Reuters/Nigel Roddis)

Soldiers of the British Army (Reuters/Nigel Roddis)

​A British army commander has penned a letter to his troops and officers, in which he vents his displeasure at slovenly manners, a lack of respect and a general want of behavior worthy of a gentleman.

In the three-page letter, Major General Cowan unleashed an attack on the “frankly barbaric” eating techniques used by his soldiers and officers and that “a gentleman and a lady use a knife and fork.”

Cowan is in charge of the third UK Division of 20,000 soldiers and 2,500 officers, mostly based at Bulford in southern England.

He addressed the letter to “chaps,” a familiar term used by the English upper classes.

Quite a few officers in the divisional mess seem to be under the illusion that they can eat their food with their hands. The practice of serving rolls and sandwiches must stop,” Cowan writes.

He also suggests that respect between the ranks is slipping and that junior officers don’t have much to say for themselves.

“Ten years ago, officers would stand up when the commanding officer walked into the room. This doesn’t happen anymore. I expect a junior officer to make an effort at conversation. Start by introducing yourself and talk on any civilized subject outside work,” he recalled.

In other tips on acceptable etiquette for soldiers, he advises that holding either a knife or fork “like a pen is unacceptable.” Traditionally in Britain, although mainly in England, it is only the lower classes that hold their knives like a pen, which can often raise a disapproving eyebrow from the ‘more enlightened’ at the dinner table.

James Cowan in Iraq in 2004 (Reuters/Maurice McDonald)

If at a dinner party, Cowan is quite clear that a husband and wife should not sit next to each other, as this “displays a marked degree of insecurity.”

On the subject of conversation at dinner, he was equally disapproving.

“A good party relies on good conversation. This requires you to come prepared to be free, funny and entertaining. Thank-you letters are an art form, not a chore. It is generally considered better manners if the spouse is the person who writes,” Cowan advises.

The Major General was also disparaging about the state of his juniors’ grammar and writing techniques, advising against abbreviations and advocating simple, engaging language.

“In common with officialdom the world over, military writers love to use pompous words over simpler language. Combined with underlining and italics, the wanton use of capitals, abbreviations and acronyms assault the eye and leaves the reader exhausted,” he says.

A spokesman for the army insisted that the three-page note was light-hearted and meant to be taken as a bit of fun.

Cowan’s remarks are likely to be welcomed by traditionalists in the British army, which is based on a centuries-old regimental system, which they say has been weakened by recent government spending cuts on defense.

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