Be Prepared…

As a former member of the 7th Leamington troop, I can personally attest to the remarkable longevity of the Boy Scouts.    Undoubtedly the most successful of the late-Victorian and Edwardian youth movements, such popular durability is in part a tribute to the organisation’s ability to evolve.  One clear example of the level of such change is the continued re-writing of Robert Baden-Powell’s 1908 seminal work Scouting for Boys, an effort Wilkinson describes as “the most obvious evidence of the Scout leadership’s care to adapt their message to changing public attitudes and conditions.”[1]  As such, the pronounced internationalism and inclusivity of modern day Scouting certainly differs from its original Edwardian form.

What exactly this form was is the subject of some debate, particularly surrounding the question of military reform.  Conceived as an organisation at the height of the Edwardian campaign for compulsory military service, the Scouts straddled an awkward boundary separating traditional British volunteerism on one side, and continental-style militarism on the other.  Accepting that the Scouts were “an organisation of national preparedness in an era of scaremongering”, Sam Pryke has placed the root of their popularity precisely in their difference “from youth organisations which modelled themselves on military lines”.[2]  Though not suggesting a total absence of military qualities, he frames the importance of promoting kindliness and generosity, horizontal class identities, social autonomy and a sense of self determination as elements of an equal if not higher emphasis in the organisation’s approach.  Crucially, the Scouts did not represent “an insidious effort to capture British youth through sugar coating a militarist core”.[3]  That said, as Paris has highlighted, the Scouts were heavily influenced by military ideas and understandings.  Though not ‘militaristic’ in the then maligned sense of the word, boys who enrolled “were exposed to a constant diet of patriotic nationalism and pro-war propaganda.”[4]   As with many facets of the Edwardian cultural facade, the Scouts seem to offer themselves to contrasting, even contradictory interpretations.


It is interesting to note that the contemporary reception of the Boy Scouts within invasion-scare fiction displayed a similar split.  In spite of obvious common ground in commitment to preparation and vigilance, the genre’s authors were not always enthusiastic supporters of Baden Powell’s vision.  Forthright as ever, the author William Le Queux wrote in his 1909 novel Spies of the Kaiser of the fallacy of “teaching boys how to scout and instructing young men in the use of popguns.”[5]  For men, such as he, intransigently committed to the cause of military compulsion, training a minority of the nation’s youth in pseudo-military, even anti-militaristic ideology could only ever be a half-measure.  Conversely, those opposed to conscription-like reforms often saw the Scouts as a contemptible manifestation of invasion alarmism.  In P G Wodehouse’s incomparable 1909 satire The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England, Clarence is a model Boy Scout;

“He could do everything that the Boy Scout must learn to do.  He could low like a bull.  He could gurgle like a wood pigeon.  He could imitate the cry of the turnip in order to deceive rabbits.  He could smile and whistle simultaneously in accordance with Rule 8 (and only those who have tried know how difficult it is).”[6]


Invaded simultaneously by nine separate aggressors, including Germany, Russia, the Swiss Navy and “a boisterous band of Young Turks”, England’s predicament is “rendered still more disquieting by the fact that, except for the Boy Scouts, England’s military strength at this time was practically nil.”[7]  Filling this parodist void, the Scouts absurdly become the nation’s last line of defence.

In the dystopian, German occupied England of When William Came, Saki offers one of the genre’s few positive assessments of the Scouting movement.  The novel’s final scene sees the great and good of London’s Anglo-German social elite gathered at Hyde Park to observe a symbolic Boy Scouts march, with Kaiser Wilhelm as the guest of honour.  Representing the climax in German efforts to win the hearts of Britain’s youth, the notable collaborator Lady Bailquist saw the Scouts as

“the Janissaries of the Empire; the younger generation knocking at the doors of progress, and thrusting back the bars and bolts of old racial prejudices.  I tell you…it will be a historic moment when the first corps of those little khaki-clad boys swings through the gates of the Park.”[8]

Hoping for a moment of significant reconciliation between victor and vanquished, the tale ends with the young Scouts having failed to appear, leaving the waiting Germans on increasingly frustrated tenterhooks.  As the lead character Murray Yeovil recognises, while he himself had reluctantly laid down his arms, “there were others who had never hoisted the flag of surrender…young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.  The younger generation had barred the door.”[9]  It is hard not to agree with Samuel Hynes that, in spite of reservations over the dangers of continental-style militarism, Baden Powell “must have loved that brave conclusion.”[10]

Such examples provide excellent insight into the varied contemporary attitudes displayed towards the Scouts in their earliest years.  For seasoned alarmists such as Le Queux, they were worth nothing but contempt, representing as they did a peculiarly British example of misplaced effort.  A young Wodehouse, by contrast, saw the Scouts as a suitable vehicle for satirising men like Le Queux who were convinced that the country was blissfully ignorant of its evident peril.  Finally, writing on the eve of war in 1913, Saki saw Scouting as a potential force for national redemption, defying enemies where the older generation had entirely failed.

[1] P. Wilkinson, ‘English Youth Movements, 1908-30’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 4, No. 2, (1969), p10.

[2] S. Pryke, ‘The popularity of nationalism in the early British Boy Scout movement’, Social History, Vol. 23, No. 3, (1998), p320.

[3] Ibid., p310.

[4] M. Paris, Warrior Nation: Images of War in British Popular Culture, 1850-2000, (London, 2000),  p108.

[5] Spies of the Kaiser, p147.

[6] The Swoop, p11.  Here Wodehouse makes derisory reference to Rule no. 8 of the Scout’s Law, “A Scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances”.

[7] Ibid., p17-18.

[8] When William Came, p177.

[9] Ibid., p182.

[10] S. Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, (Princeton, 1968), p52.


Top: ‘Baden-Powell, imperial hero, 1900’, from Paris, Warrior Nation, p106.

Bottom: ‘The boy scouts save the United Kingdom’, from P. G. Wodehouse, ‘The Swoop!’in I. F. Clarke, ed, The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914, Fictions and Fantasies of the War-to-come, (Liverpool, 1997), p316.

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