The Birth of the Boy Scouts

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.

Who Ya Gonna Call? Osprey

One Christmas long, long ago–back in the days when My Own True Love was no more than my buddy and business partner–we exchanged packages that looked oddly similar. I gave him a book on the battle of Dunbar, part of Osprey Publication’s Campaign series.  He gave me a book on Attila the Hun, part of Osprey Publications Elite series.  Both gifts were references to inside jokes, made funnier by the shared impulse.

In the intervening years, I’ve come to have a great deal of respect for Osprey’s  little books on military history.  They’re only fifty to one hundred pages long.  Each volume focuses on a specific battle, campaign, regiment or leader.  They’re beautifully illustrated and what a friend of mine used to call “pelucidly clear”.  The reading lists in the back are well chosen. I’ll admit that the books are a little short on color commentary.  I wouldn’t curl up with an Osprey, the cat, and a cup of tea on a rainy Sunday.  But when I need to follow the course of battle at Gettysburg, understand how armies were organized in the 30 Years War, or compare the gun power of Tudor warships with that of their sixteenth century Spanish counterparts, I turn to the Osprey catalog.

Speaking of which, I have some books to order.

Splitting the Difference

“Split the difference” is My Own True Love’s favorite way to solve a difference of opinion.  It’s a pretty effective tactic when you’re negotiating a contract, eyeing the last piece of pie, or deciding what time you need to leave the house to catch a 6:00 AM flight.  Win-win.

When it comes to settling geopolitical differences that same strategy can lead to lose-lose.

Over the last few months,  I’ve read a lot about Britain untangling itself from empire in the first half of the twentieth century.*  (Sometimes that’s the way the assignments crumble.)  In the process, I connected some dots I’d never connected before . Faced with competing nationalisms in Ireland, Palestine, and South Asia, Great Britain used a one-size fits all strategy:  Partition.

It works better with pie.


*Want to read along?  Try these three:

  • Troubles J. G. Farrell’s satirical novel about Ireland in the uprisings of 1919,
  •  The Makers of the Modern Middle East I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is an excellent account of how Britain jerked the strings in the Middle East after WWI
  • Tamas   Indian novelist Bihisham Sahni’s heart-rending story of loosing home in the name of nationalism in the Indian Partition