Sandhurst should send back King Hamad's soiled donation

Feb 19, 2013
Crispin Black

Mons Hall commemorates an epic WWI battle: renaming it after Bahrain's despotic ruler is wrong

MONS HALL at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst is to be renamed King Hamad Hall after a £3 million donation from Bahrain's ruler Hamad al Khalifa. It takes its current name from the Officer Cadet School at Mons Barracks, Aldershot that trained wartime and short service officers from 1939 until 1972. The name ultimately commemorates the Battle of Mons, the first major British engagement of the Great War. 

Until now, each time they marched past or into the hall, officer cadets would be reminded of one of the epics of our military history.

On 23 August 1914, a heavily outnumbered and outgunned British Expeditionary Force dug in along the line of the Mons Canal and fought a desperate defensive battle against General Von Kluck's First Army. The BEF's bolt-action rifle fire was so accurate and disciplined that Von Kluck thought his soldiers were facing massed machine guns. I can't think of a better lesson for leaders under training in a military academy.

I was both a cadet and later an instructor at Sandhurst. It has always been a tough place but tempered by good humour, team spirit and an uncluttered sense of what is important in officer training. No one really minds if a cadet gets vertigo on the Academy's formidable assault course, or if he or she is a little slow stripping and assembling a fiendishly complicated and oil-soaked rocket launcher. Those who march awkwardly (some people never quite get the hang of it) are humanely hidden away at the back of major parades.

But it has always been a harsh place in its moral standards – completely uncompromising. It's not a matter of the inculcation of manners as at Modena where the cadets are taught to ride, dance and kiss hands. Or of a written honour code as at West Point. It's a more basic but also more demanding standard – knowing what the right action is instinctively and then having the moral courage and drive to carry it through.

Nearly everything you see at Sandhurst has a symbolic meaning designed to uphold these standards and values. Cadets are formed into companies named not after commercial sponsors but British actions.

In 1980 I was in Normandy Company. Other names in use are Amiens after the decisive 1918 battle, Dettingen after the 1743 engagement which was the last to see a King of England (George II) take the field, and The Falklands. Rather charmingly, the rehabilitation platoon to which cadets are posted if they sustain an injury is called Lucknow after the gruelling siege of 1857.

Just in case anyone should forget what Sandhurst is for, the academy's motto appears on the cap badge of each cadet – Serve to Lead.

The most moving and powerful symbol on campus is the statue outside the chapel - a bronze group of three soldiers resting on arms reversed. The base is inscribed 'To the Glory of God and In Proud Memory of All Other Ranks Who Gave Their Lives In Two World Wars 1914-18. 1939-45'.

What example or lesson is provided by the King of Bahrain, whose security forces (often under the control of members of his own family) have killed and tortured to maintain his despotic rule?

Where exactly does his name fit into this austere iconography?

The Ministry of Defence can't see the problem and issued this bureaucratic-Orwellian statement on Monday: "All donations to Sandhurst are in compliance with the UK's domestic and international legal obligations and our values as a nation.”

But the officers currently running Sandhurst, by tradition the cream of their generation, surely must. Whatever the obstacles or difficulties, it is their duty to do the right thing - set an example to both past and future generations. As the current custodians of its 200-year-old good name, they should now reject King Hamad's soiled donation – whatever the consequences for their comfort or careers.

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Agree 100%

Never have I agreed with you so much. The disgrace is that it is even under consideration! O tempora, o mores.

I am absolutely astonished that this was even considered, I wholeheartedly agree with Crispin Black