It was in part thanks to Napoleon that Sandhurst was established to turn callow young men into capable military commanders.
Having been at the receiving end of some hefty defeats at the hands of the Frenchman in the early 1800s it seemed that British aristocrats did not necessarily make good leaders in battle. The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was designed to produce professional officers in a move that bore fruit when the British Army and its allies defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
Since those hard won lessons learned in the early days, the academy has trained many thousands of officer cadets, from the sons of working families to the scions of nobles. The most recent passing out parade in December saw Sheikh Zayed bin Mohamed and Sheikh Humaid bin Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi of the UAE among the officers proudly watched by their fathers.
Over the last two centuries, 113 royals from Britain, Spain, Luxembourg, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tonga and elsewhere have completed Sandhurst’s arduous officer training course, ironing their own shirts and cleaning toilets while barked at by colour sergeants from dawn till dusk. The lineage of its cadets is one of the features of the job for the man who runs the institution.
"There's a great history of having very senior folk here and we don't make a big deal of it," Sandhurst's commandant, Maj Gen Duncan Capps, told The National in an interview. "Regardless of background or position, officer cadets are treated the same. Monarchs are treated just like everyone else. Where else would that happen?"
Since the Second World War the military academy has received officer cadets from across the Middle East and beyond. Three current heads of state – the King of Jordan, the Sultan of Oman and the Sultan of Brunei – passed through Sandhurst.
The UAE officers that so proudly stood to attention in the sunshine in December were among 323 cadets from the Emirates who since 1969 have marched off the parade ground shoulder-to-shoulder with British comrades. They had spent 44 weeks performing menial tasks of self-reliance, such as ironing their own tunics, to being tested for battle, freezing in ditches and going to the limits of physical endurance. Those muddy, damp trenches house a multicultural melting pot of soldiers from the US, Jamaica, the Middle East, Australia and South Korea. Cadets from 131 countries have proudly marched up the grand steps of the military academy’s Old College building, ready to lead men and women into battle.
Sandhurst teaches leadership, its simple motto being "Serve to Lead". Its sought-after education is in such high demand that the academy this year increased its overseas intake, which is now 10 per cent of the 800 annual recruits.
All officer cadets are treated in the same fair but tough manner. "You want those that will take over power in the future to learn what the nature of leadership really means, which is about service," Gen Capps told The National.
Sandhurst is a place that gives cadets an understanding of what it means to motivate and inspire others. The commandant has a ready list of "pretty good examples of things that might not happen in other places”.
Gen Capps remembers former King Hussein of Jordan striding across the parade ground with one of his sons in tow, carrying his ironing board and bags. The king was fond of praising the academy he himself attended in the 1950s. “No man can rule a country without discipline, and nowhere in the world do they teach discipline as they do at Sandhurst,” he frequently said.
Nestling among oak trees and lakes in 728 hectares just outside the Hampshire town of Camberley in southern England, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst has ‘passed-out’ an eclectic alumnus from future prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, an astronaut in Tim Peake, actors, artists, Olympic athletes, rugby internationals, celebrity chefs and even the pop star James Blunt.
Among the royals Sandhurst has commissioned are 57 from the Middle East and seven monarchs. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, attended Sandhurst in 1979, as did the future British monarch Prince William along with his brother Prince Harry in 2006.
Foreign nobility first arrived as officer cadets in 1828 and after the Second World War Sandhurst accepted overseas cadets regardless of background. It is that egalitarian ethos, whereby a corporal who has come up through the ranks to get a commission can find himself on guard duty next to a royal prince, that perhaps helps to produce quality leaders.
“Leadership is about not trying to be something you're not,” the commandant said, from his office adorned with paintings of generals on horseback. “Leadership is not about standing at the front and running around, it's the small things you do with individuals, to develop them and build them into a team so that when you need to, you can do things as a team.”
Sandhurst can be an experience that shapes an individual’s life. Gen Capps was an overweight 18-year-old from a state comprehensive school with no military connections, lacking in confidence and world experience, when he joined in 1985. A year later, all that had changed. “I was a completely different character in outlook, confidence and ability. Sandhurst gave me a crash course in maturity, humility and the ability to get on with everybody. It's no small exaggeration to say that it changed me fundamentally and it was all for the best.”
Like many before him, he realised his experience was only the start of a journey, but one in which he had become far better equipped to handle life’s challenges. “Whatever your background, your ethnicity, you understand that whatever start you’ve had in life is not a barrier to where you can get to.”
While the British officer cadets today know that they are not likely to be heading out to lead a platoon into battle in Afghanistan, for some Middle East officers there is a realistic chance of fighting insurgencies or terrorism on their return home.
Countries generally choose their finest for Sandhurst. “They don't send people here who are not going to shine,” Gen Capps said. “They are picking some of their very best people to come and receive what they consider to be the best military training.”
While the UAE helps its officer cadets with fitness, language and cultural differences, one difficulty is preparing for the cold British winter.
Another adjustment that international recruits have to make is dealing with being shouted at by the colour sergeant in front of their peers. There is nothing like a dressing-down to learn from a mistake, although these days the shouting approach is more nuanced.
“We’ve found that generally people don't respond well to being shouted at all the time, they just switch off and this is about training them and educating them,” said Gen Capps. “If people get something wrong, you say, ‘would you accept this standard from your soldiers?’ If they can't be self-governing, motivating and policing, then they're not going to be very good officers.”
But surely the drill sergeants on occasion let rip with the tirade that usually ends in “you horrible little man…sir”?
“There will be times when someone has done something that potentially could endanger someone’s life in training,” Gen Capp said. “And that isn't the time to sit down and say, ‘hey, how do you feel about that?’”
The bonds made at Sandhurst are also useful to the UK, not only in defence diplomacy but when things go wrong, and when British troops need to deploy abroad there is usually a friendly face who knows their ethos well. “When you meet someone who you've trained with, you've got an immediate link, you have a shared background and a similar perspective on things,” the commandant said. “From a UK perspective, that really helps us because it means we've got friends across the world.”
Despite its long history and traditions, Sandhurst moves with the times, Gen Capp said. “One thing we have learned through Covid is that we all need good leadership. Civilians are craving authentic, honest, leadership by people who've got integrity. So I think Sandhurst is probably more relevant than ever.”
That crossover has been particularly evident in the crisis triggered by the pandemic that brought much of the UK to a standstill for parts of 2020. Frontline National Health Service workers told The National at the height of Britain's Covid crisis that their bosses should have called in the military far earlier. When they did, the officers provided "resilience in leadership through a crisis that was unprecedented", Gen Capps said.
With ISIS an increasing threat and conflicts continuing, the most recent Sandhurst graduates will no doubt find their leadership tested in the years to come. After watching his son’s parade Sheikh Mohamed expressed his confidence in the character forming calibre of the Sandhurst experience as he took his leave, posting on Twitter: “I was proud to attend the Sovereign’s Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I met with our Emirati cadets.”
Before leaving, the Crown Prince spoke briefly with the commandant. “He told me that there was absolutely no question about him sending his son to Sandhurst,” Gen Capps recalled.
Earlier, Sandhurst had asked Sheikh Mohamed if he would stand in at the podium for Queen Elizabeth for the sovereign’s parade. He politely declined, according to Gen Capps recollection of the conversation, saying: “I'd rather like to come as a father.”