Saturday, December 17, 2005

Tribes 2: Light Infantry Boogaloo

Interesting story here.

I don't know what the impact, beyond a lot of emotional hurt, the army's reorganisation is going to have. The arguments in favour of it are not unpersuasive with regard to the demands of modern warfare, jointness etc, but nor do I consider them exactly watertight and conclusive. I think the cultural backdrop is interesting, though.

Arguably the binning of the Light Infantry does mark the end of centuries of tradition, in the we've had Light Infantry in a recognisable form since at least the 18th century. On the other hand, the proud regimental tradition that we know and love has, in fact, undergone several seismic upheavals since the birth of the modern British Army, most notably in the 1880s and the 1960s but also in the early 1990s.

Take my grandfather's old regiment, the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. A proud name, now sadly no more. But for soldiers of a couple of generations before that of my grandfather it would have been a name to be cursed to just as great an extent as we now brandish our fists at something as vulgar as "The Rifles" (which is pretty vulgar actually - where's the romance?).

Prior to the Cardwell/Childers reforms, British foot regiments (foot, mark you, not infantry...)were numbered, although these numbered regiments did often enjoy geographical links and would sometimes be referred to in these terms [eg. the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry]. In the 1880s the system was replaced, in the face of violent opposition, with the various "county" regiments the like of which we tend to hark fondly back to today.

Servicemen of the time were horrified. As Richard Holmes noted in his "Riding the Retreat", the general attitude was "damned names mean nothing" and one officer wrote that under no circumstances would he "come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental Dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.".

The 43rd (Monmouthshire) and 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiments were merged to form the Oxfordshire Light Infantry (doubtless officers of the 43rd were especially apoplectic). In 1908, the regimental name was expanded to become the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

In the 1960s further reforms (for "reforms" read "cuts") were made, involving several regiments being disbanded and others being merged. The Somerset and Cornwall, King's Own Yorkshire, King's Shropshire and Durham Light Infantry were merged to form the Light Infantry. The Ox and Bucks became the 1st Battalion of another amalgamated regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, which drew its heritage from the Rifle tradition (which is related to, but not analogous with, light infantry), it's second and third battalions being drawn from the King's Royal Rifles and the Rifle Brigade.

In the early 1990s the RGJ was reduced to two regular battalions and it was the nominally Ox and Bucks bit of its heritage that got dumped.

So, what's the point of this timeline? I suppose to illustrate that, although it would be going far too far to claim that the regimental system as it currently exists is a nonsense tradition and that those who are passionately dedicated to preserving it are deluding themselves (on an emotional level I agree with them entirely - and some regiments, such as the Black Watch, have been far less messed about with over time than others), to some extent we are talking about preserving an imagined tradition that has actually been in a fairly regular state of flux over the past two centuries.

Black Mafia

As far as I can tell, from my position as an outsider, the change seems to be generating more than the usual resentment by the fact that those driving it are perceived as being those who will suffer least. The CDS comes from the Anglians (who are already effectively a super regiment) and will be replaced by an Air Marshal when he retires. The CGS came up by way of the Paras and the Intelligence Corps and his deputy is a gunner. The British Army (and, perhaps, all armies) has a reputation for going through phases during which, for whatever reason, officers from certain branches tends to dominate the higher echelons of command and arguably to have a disproportionate impact on the direction the army takes. In the late mid to late 19th century, gunners and sappers tended to dominate. In the Great War years there is the old chestnut about the dominance of the cavalry officer.* In the 1980's there was a common perception that the higher levels were dominated by the "Black Mafia", Green Jacket and Gurkha officers who eased the path up the promotion ladder for their tribal peers and undertook elaborate plotting, Byzantine in complexity and quite possibly Satanic in nature, to guard their parent regiments from cuts. In recent years there seems to be a popular perception (perhaps not entirely legit) that the route to the top is increasingly via the Paras, preferably with a stint in the Regiment along the way. One way or another I think it's fair to say that the "bog standard" infantry types are feeling fairly hard done by right now.

*Heavily overplayed by post-1945 historians. In reality, most senior British officers were infantrymen - though cavalry arguably enjoyed disproportionate representation given the size of the cavalry arm. Additionally, there is little empirical evidence that generals drawn from the cavalry proved any less competent, by and large. than their infantry counterparts.** The most underrepresented branch, especially given that it was the most important, was the artillery - though Horne, who commanded 1st Army from 1916-1918, was a gunner.

**Anybody who cherishes iconoclasm, controversialism and general purpose pain in the arse cussedness might productively consider spending some time constructing the argument that cavalry officers in the Second World War were actually less able to deal with modern warfare than their supposedly arme blanche-obsessed counterparts 1914-1918.


Anonymous Dave Collins said...

Artillery officers commanding on the Western Front - Foch, Nivelle?

I suspect that any historian making the argument about the unsuitability of cavalry officers is unlikely to use those two examples! Or that Joseph Joffre was an engineer.

There's a wider point here, as you mention earlier in the post - are these type of rivalries unique to the British army, or are they universal? There's a table of WW1 commanders by arm of service in John Terraine's Smoke & the Fire. I've never seen an equivalent for any other country, apart from an almost offhand list of panzer generals in one of Bryan Perrett's books.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

I think the rivalries are universal but not necessarily the groups who do the rivalling. The British army has always enjoyed regimental cap badge politics, with an extra layer of Household Division/Real Army class distinction, and more recently the meatbomber/craphat thing - and it also certainly used to do artillery and sappers vs. infantry and cavalry, with the first lot being convinced that They were biased against them, and unfairly so because "we are scientists!"

In France up to the end of WW1, the really big distinction in the army was the Freemason/Catholic thing, with the split between the de Grandmaison CHAAAARRRGE! school and the more-bigger-forts-now folks overlaid onto it. Strange that the sapper Joffre should end up presiding over the CHAAARRGE! people putting their theory into practice and departing this life in very small pieces, but thar ye go.

The Americans used to have the opposite before the Civil War; the elite were those who graduated in engineering at West Point, so the sappers and gunners were the overdogs. One might even make out a certain continuity today..certainly Westmoreland with his obsession with how many deep-draught shipping berths his Seabees had built and how many refrigated containers he'd deployed reminds one of those early Civil War sapper generals.

Presumably the analogous elite today (similar to the railway experts on the Prussian/German General Staff) would be the IT people; it's astonishing, reading Not A Good Day To Die, how much the top commanders were fascinated by pretending to be corporate IT directors/business process analysts. Maybe the next military elite will provoke a Scaleybacks vs Grunts falling out?

5:01 AM  

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