Best Defense

Churchill’s dislike of athleticism in generals: Such officers don’t succeed

"A colonel or general ought not to exhaust himself in trying to compete with young boys running across country seven miles at a time."

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Prime Minister to the Secretary of State for War, 4 February 1941:

“Is it really true that a seven-mile cross-country run is enforced upon all in this division, from generals to privates? . . . It looks to me rather excessive. A colonel or general ought not to exhaust himself in trying to compete with young boys running across country seven miles at a time. The duty of officers is no doubt to keep themselves fit, but still more to think for their men, and to take decisions affecting their safety or comfort. Who is the general of this division, and does he run the seven miles himself? If so, he may be more use for football that war. Could Napoleon have run seven miles across country at Austerlitz? Perhaps it was the other fellow he made run. In my experience, based on many years’ observation, officers with high athletic qualifications are not usually successful in the higher ranks.”

Indeed, he seems to have been a bit alarmed a few years later, when Bernard Montgomery, after being informed that he would command at D-Day, scrambled up a steep Moroccan hillside like a goat. Churchill told Montgomery that “athletics were one thing and strategy another.”

U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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