Officer! I moustache you a question: The Science of Selecting Soldiers in WWII

Which type of fine- follicled fellow would you pick to be an officer: trimmed, divided, clipped, line or bushy?

Wartime researcher G.R. Perberdy gave the matter considerable thought, compiling data on the facial hair of hundreds of participants – whom he helpfully notes were male –  that went through the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs) set up to choose officers for the British Army in World War II. Perberdy figured that moustaches probably reflected their wearer’s personality, and that some personalities were more suitable to be officers than others, so perhaps this was reflected in what sort of moustaches passed Officer Selection Boards.

This doesn’t sound terribly scientific, and as you may have noticed, this blog post is connected with a History of Science conference… so what does science have to do with choosing army officers?

Well, whilst Perberdy notes that his moustache investigation, “was an outcome of a personal curiosity… never in any way connected with the sternly practical task” of officer selection, the decision was made that a scientific procedure for selecting officers was required, and social scientists were brought in to help the Army. Beginning with the first experimental WOSB in January 1942, a huge project was undertaken to choose officers: despite a late start, approximately 140,000 men passed through the new scientific WOSBs during World War II.

Raven's Progressive Matrices: An example of the sort of visual intelligence test administered to officer candidates. Are you officer quality? Can you spot the correct missing piece? Source Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Raven’s Progressive Matrices: An example of the sort of visual intelligence test administered to officer candidates. Are you officer quality? Can you spot the correct missing piece?
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

So why was this enormous application of a scientific approach used when it was? And how do you scientifically select an officer? Factors that influenced this decision to use scientific methods included:

  • A serious lack of officers. Britain had fewer people to choose officers from than other nations, many of the most able recruits joined the RAF and Navy instead of the Army and there was a crisis in officer numbers after the Dunkirk evacuation. Also, the largely “static” war meant that there was little chance to see possible officers in action. Scientific methods promised a reliable way of testing potential officers without experience, and making the Army and officer rank more attractive to talented men.
  • A need to appear more democratic: as it was noted in the House of Commons, fighting fascism in the name of democracy looked a little hypocritical when the officers were all chosen based on what schools they went to. Also, because of the perception of the influence of the “old school tie”, some promising candidates were unwilling to undergo selection. Using science to select appeared fairer.
  • Officer Cadet Training Units (OCTUs) had a very high failure rate – some men even found their way into the system who were still receiving disability pensions for neurosis from World War I; scientific filtration of men promised to improve candidates.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses, but on a national scale. Other nations were using the human sciences to help them with military problems. British social scientists often said “look at the USA!” when making the case for the value of their expertise, but the most cited example by politicians was that of Germany. In the aftermath of Blitzkreig, including the swift rise of the Luftwaffe, and the Dunkirk evacuation, arguments that the Germans had superior leadership from using scientific selection methods were widespread.

So, since moustaches were out, what sorts of methods were introduced by social scientists? The core scientific techniques which were considered successful in selecting candidates and used at the three day residential selection boards included:

  • Intelligence tests (officers had to be above average intelligence): these used visual patterns to judge a person’s basic ability to reason, and thus measure intelligence independent of what sort of education they had. This suggested a more unbiased, scientific method better at finding potential than the “old school tie”.
  • Projection tests, including word association – “beer” could show if you’re officer material! – and telling a story about an image. These tests were seen as providing a scientific indicator of personality traits such as “war mindedness” and attitude to authority.
  • Leaderless Groups. Candidates were set tasks as a group, including assault courses and giving a lecture, but not told whether they were to be assessed as a group or as individuals. Recommendations for setting these up cover even such details as where to position ashtrays and where to sit/stand, indicating how seriously this was taken as an experimental practice.

Although the British social scientists modelled their techniques on German methods, they decided not to include techniques whereby candidates were subjected to electric shocks and watched for their reactions. Rorschach tests were also experimented with before being dismissed.

The social scientists didn’t just have to figure out scientific ways to select officers, though; they also had to negotiate resistance from military leadership, politicians (including Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself), and the soldiers to whom they applied their science: the psychiatric interview was particularly contentious, for instance. Each of the different forces worked with different social scientists, and after the war there was much discussion of which approaches were truly scientific and which could be useful in peacetime, adapted for businesses to use. At ICHSTM, I will discuss conflicts over the science of measuring men, and how the solutions briefly mentioned above that the human scientists devised were constructed to achieve consensus and acceptance of their expertise: I hope to see you there!

For more information:

  • Watch this film by the Ministry of Information on the selection methods used for all army recruits, hosted on the Imperial War Museum website
  • See this account of the WOSBs from the psychiatrists’ point of view (click “Volume I: the Socio-Psychological Perspective”, and then “Hugh Murray: The Transformation of Selection Procedures: The War Office Selection Boards”)
  • Or check out Jeremy A. Crang’s excellent book, The British Army and the People’s War, 1939-1945.
  • And if you’re desperate to read all about moustaches and officers, you’ll have to pay to access it, but the article information is as follows:
    G.R. Perberdy, ‘Moustaches’, British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 107 (1961), pp. 40-47

by Alice White

PhD Student and Assistant Lecturer

This article was originally posted on the excellent ICHSTM Blog, the blog of the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

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  1. […] at Kent – Alice White – wrote a post about (the excruciatingly close to being named) G.R. Perbe(a)rdy, who during the Second World War researched what kind of facial hair a man ought to have when selecting soldiers. War and pubes featured in another post from Kent, as […]

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