In the summer of 1899, no one would have pegged Colonel Robert Baden-Powell as a potential military hero. He had spent the first twenty years of his army career in small colonial wars in Afghanistan and Africa, involved more often in map-making and scouting than in battle. When he wasn’t spying, he spent his time on polo, pig-sticking, and amateur theatricals. He supplemented his income writing instruction manuals for the British Army and exaggerated accounts of his adventures for the popular press.
As far as the British public was concerned, Baden-Powell’s well-publicized defense of the siege of Mafeking was the only bright spot in the morass of British failure and inefficiency that marked the first months of the Second Boer War. When Baden-Powell returned to Britain in 1903, he discovered that he was not only a popular hero, but a role model. His military manual, Aids to Scouting, was being used as a teaching tool by boys’ groups, especially those directed at salvaging young urban “wasters and slackers”*. Encouraged to create a similar manual specifically for boys, Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boy.
Published in January, 1908, the book was a crazy quilt of adventure tales, practical tips on woodcraft and other “frontier” skills, and high-minded rhetoric that caught youthful imaginations in a way no one expected. In a matter of months, existing organizations formed scouting troops all over Britain. Where no adult-sanctioned troops existed, groups of boys, and a few enterprising girls, formed themselves into patrols.**
Scrambling to catch up, Baden-Powell founded the Boys Scouts at the end of 1908. By 1910, the organization had 100,000 members, more than all the other youth groups in Britain combined.
*The Edwardians had no concept of political correctness. Today the phrase for this group is “at-risk” youth.
**A home-grown patrol of this kind plays a central role in one of my favorite adventure novels: Huntingtower by John Buchan. The “Gorbals Diehards” are a hard-scrabble group from the slums of Glasgow that would reduce any scoutmaster to tears. More than a match for the adult villains of the piece, they prove themselves to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty and heart-stoppingly brave. Courteous, clean and reverent, however, are beyond them.