Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Robert Baden-Powell

Lord Baden-Powell R. S. S. (Robert) Baden-Powell, 1857-1941
(Later Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell)

Lord Baden-Powell (left) is remembered chiefly for the ingenuity he showed in keeping the Boers at bay during the siege of Mafeking and, after 1907, for founding the Boy Scout movement.

According to the potted biography in my edition of Scouting for Boys he seems to have been used to an active and outdoor life from an early age.  More surprisingly, for someone who, it must be admitted, does sometimes come across as rather priggish, he was also an accomplished entertainer and artist, again from early age.

On page 32 of Scouting for Boys he recommends play-acting to his Scouts and also reproduces an African chorus requiring a certain amount of musical skill.  (His talents in this direction were an important resource during the Mafeking siege).  Had I more space, further discussion on the contrast between this quirky, faintly anarchic side of him and some of his more strait-laced sentiments would be very interesting.

He attended Charterhouse public school and then entered the Army, serving first in India where he became expert at 'pig-sticking'.  This entailed chasing wild pig or boar on horseback before spearing them - something which (whatever we may now think of its morality) must have required considerable skill and agility.

Later he served in Africa, first against the Ashanti, Matabele and others, then against the Boers against whom he successfully defended the town of Mafeking.  The outcome of this siege made him a national hero and brought him promotion to Major-General.

During the Mafeking affair and elsewhere he had often used boys (being small and agile) as scouts to spy out the land or the enemy's movements.  Once back in England his mind turned towards adapting this for his home country as a way of sharpening-up and invigorating the nation's youth.  He allowed the idea to germinate for several years before taking an experimental group to Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour in 1907 and publishing the first edition of Scouting for Boys in 1908.

An example of Baden-Powell's artistic skill (although some might find the caption slightly priggish). All or nearly all the cartoons in 'Scouting for Boys' were drawn by 'B-P' himself, and enhance the book considerably.The idea spread like wildfire, and although the Scouts have their faintly ridiculous side (jokes about silly shorts, 'woggles', etc - the justification for various uniform items is given solemnly and at some length in Scouting for Boys) the movement clearly plugged into an otherwise unexpressed need.

Although Baden-Powell claimed the aims of the Movement were not militaristic, the skills taught include some which might be useful in conflict, there are a number of references in Scouting for Boys to mediaeval knights and chivalry, and there is a fairly heavy patriotic overlay.  For instance Scouting for Boys begins with this sentence: 'I suppose every boy wants to help his country in some way or other'.  These aspects of the Movement, together with its firm moral code, undoubtedly formed an important part of its appeal (but possibly also would have made a few parents run a mile, even before 1914!).

On the matter of B-P's sexual orientation (sometimes raised) I have to admit that as I have not studied his life in great depth I find a verdict difficult.  He obviously had an affinity for or a 'way with' young males which might, in our rather paranoid age, be regarded as suspect, and he did carry on a somewhat emotional correspondence with a young fellow-officer during his India days.

On the other hand he did eventually marry even if rather late, was apparently devoted to his wife (who founded the Girl Guides) and also raised a family.  So if there was ever a homosexual relationship or interest, perhaps it was just a passing phase.  I cannot see that this issue detracts from his achievement in founding a popular and enduring youth movement.


1.Baden-Powell R (1932) Scouting for Boys, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd., Tower House, Southampton St., London WC1. (34th edition, first edition pub. 1908)

2.Reader W J (1988) At Duty's Call - A Study in Obsolete Patriotism, Manchester University Press.

3. TV biography of Baden-Powell, Channel 4, Antelope Productions (unknown date but certainly several years ago).  Brought the correspondence with the other officer in India to my attention.

Picture Credits:

Drawings by R S S Baden-Powell himself in Scouting for Boys

Dust jacket of Scouting for Boys (picture of Baden-Powell himself)

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Related site: Baden-Powell, Chief Scout of the World

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

An Armlet was a cloth band worn around the arm to identify a particular duty or function.

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Minor Powers