Five more go through the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs)
‘The test has now begun.’
These five words, which have struck fear into the hearts of many, seem oddly out of place in the Wellcome Collection’s impressive Reading Room. It’s not just the location, rather that all participants including five from the IWM’s Second World War Galleries team, are wearing false moustaches. How better to get into the mind-set of a would-be British Army officer in 1942?
To celebrate the opening of the Tavistock Institute Archive papers on the War Office Selection Boards or WOSBs (pronounced wos-bees) at the Wellcome Library, a series of innovative workshops have been created to allow visitors to undergo the same military psychology tests that were used over 70 years ago. Although never kept a secret during the war, it has only been through the doctoral research of Alice White, and the meticulous cataloguing of the Tavistock Institute Archives by Elena Carter, that a wealth of information about the creation and development of the WOSBs testing programme has been uncovered. Co-created with Matt Gieve of the Tavistock Institute, these workshops will no doubt run for more than the initial four sessions planned.
What were the WOSBs?
From January 1942 onwards, approximately 140,000 men went through these selection boards. Created in response to a perceived crisis in officer recruitment, they used psychological testing to determine if ‘ordinary’ men displayed officer-like qualities. ‘Ordinary’ in this case meant not from wealthy families or privately educated, which prior to these tests had been the only real requirements for achieving officer status. Despite Churchill’s own vehement mistrust of this method, it proved to be hugely influential and was soon being used in officer selection across the Commonwealth.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that some of these tests feel familiar. ‘We are much more used to being psychologically tested nowadays’ explains Alice White whose innovative research is why we are all here. She’s right; logic and reasoning tests to pass secondary school entry exams, team-building exercises in the workplace, and word association games on long car journeys – despite no one knowing the rules. I’m sure the list goes on. ‘It’s important to remember that these men would have had very little exposure to it’ Alice stresses, and so to even get into their state of mind seems an almost impossible task.
This raises the question; why should we want to? Although the first time psychological testing was used to determine military rank, would these tests have pulled in the same crowd had they been in relation to the Franco-Prussian war, or Napoleonic wars? I suspect that the success of this project lies in its ability to ask you to think through some of the anxieties that an ‘ordinary’ soldier in 1942 would have felt. To imagine living through one of the most mythologised periods of British history.
Despite occurring over 70 years ago, the connection felt to the Second World War and the curiosity that still surrounds that conflict is very much alive. The workshop is a means by which to connect and learn about a pivotal stage in our history, whilst asking whether psychologically we would have been up for the challenge. What makes these tests so striking is that while you try your best, you still don’t really know what they are looking for. And if you want to find out, you will have to go to the Wellcome Collection’s reading room and put on a false moustache.
For more information visit the Tavistock Institute website.
IWM’s Second World War Galleries are scheduled to open in 2020