The military grooming rules that still apply today

Spit and polish, men. Close attention to appearance and order is in order. Look sharp, even in battle.

They dry shaved in the trenches. They mustered enough bravado to give a nod and wink to the lens as, all around them, chaos reigned.

They cut a dash for the studio photographs taken on snatched moments of leave to send home as mementoes.

The soldiers of World War I have a thing or two to teach us.

There's the heroism and the tragedy, the band playing Waltzing Matilda, wretchedness that we're reading so much about this week. But there is also a far less worthy, more practical lesson that crosses the generations with all the intrigue of a Frank Hurley photograph.

The message may be applied directly to you and to anyone setting foot in an executive environment.

No matter the circumstance – whether you're feeling crook or facing a long day or an unpleasant task – presenting yourself well can go some way to making the situation better for everyone concerned.

Morale booster

For the soldiers of 1915 it was about morale. It was also to reassure loved ones at home. Look at me: cutting such a fine figure in my slouch hat and neat uniform. All is well  – no worries here, Mum.

For the corporate warriors of today, good grooming is about confidence. It also about making it on the work front. Look at me: so effortlessly and sharply turned out as I handle the latest crisis with aplomb. All is well - no worries here, everyone.

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Of course there was a poignancy to the soldiers' efforts at grooming because, in the end, they constituted an attempt to feel human in harrowing circumstances of great deprivation.

The photographs of the battlefield, even though often staged or, in Hurley's case, layered into artistic montages, inevitably masked the reality of the conditions.  

Behind the lens

Margot Riley, the State Library of NSW's cultural historian, says when we look today at the century-old photos of the war, we are not getting a true perception. "Black and white hides a multitude of sins,"  the curator says. "It masks a lot of the dirt, the filth, the blood. We don't get that stench and that feeling of being constantly uncomfortable."

Appearance counts, she says. It was part of army discipline to have short back and sides and to be clean shaven, and the soldiers managed this even in the trenches when there was little water.

"It was one of the few things they could do to humanise themselves," says Riley.  "Some might have been able to boil a kettle and had small amounts of hot water, but most had no access to water so they would have been dry shaving."

Keeping clean in the trenches

For the soldiers at Gallipoli who could not get down to bathe on the beaches, washing in a pint (half-litre) of water was the only way to keep clean.

A senior officer once came upon a soldier with some water in a mess tin. On asking if the man was about to take a bath he got the reply –

Riley says that being able to change their socks - wearing one pair and being able to wash another  - was hugely important to the soldiers.  

The Age on September 10, 1915, reported that soap and toothbrushes were among the "useful gifts" that the mayoress of Melbourne "and many suburban mayoresses" were collecting to send to Egypt for distribution to troops "behind the firing line at Gallipoli for delivery before Christmas Day". (Other "personal comforts" collected were tobacco, mouth organs, candles and chocolate).

Riley says there was a great sense of occasion to being photographed and every effort was made to look one's best for the studio portraits taken on leave in France and Egypt. The soldiers would have had baths, had on new uniforms and "be looking spiffy".

"The attitude was, turn out as smartly as you can, with as much flair as you can muster," says Riley. "Cut a dash."

It is an attitude that can also achieve results today.

Do you find scrubbing up well for the office helps? Does it improve your performance? Or do such notions belong in a bygone era along with Kitchener moustaches?

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