So long as you drub the foe

Geoffrey Best

  • Military Identities: The Regimental System, The British Army and The British People c.1870-2000 by David French
    Oxford, 404 pp, £45.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 19 925803 1

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’
‘Chuck him out, the brute!’,
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns
begin to shoot.

Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘Tommy’ in order to call attention to a couple of questions that were not new then and are with us still: what sort of an army do we need, and how do we regard and use the one we’ve got? To these questions, there are two conventional approaches. The more familiar and tractable appears under the heading of civil-military relations. Of greater social and moral interest are the relations between armed forces and society.

Civil-military relations have not been much of a problem in Britain since they were put on a satisfactory footing about the end of the 17th century: as small a regular army as was indispensable, paid for by annual vote of the House of Commons, and an officer corps drawn so largely from the same class of gentlemen as filled Parliament as to be untroubled by its obligation to obey the civil power. Other countries with more uppity armies have been troubled in this respect. Even today it can be risky in some Latin American states, as also in Turkey, to be thought to impugn the ‘honour’ of the army. And nearer home, in Spain, we recently witnessed a gasp of the old militaristic spirit when an unreconstructed general heavily hinted that the army would not take kindly to the government’s proposed settlement of the national claims of Cataluña. He was promptly and properly sacked, as had been the generals who tried to get an anti-parliamentary coup going in 1981. How different the case of Britain, where nothing of that sort has been heard of for ages, unless it was Cecil King’s attempt in 1976 to interest some officers at a Sandhurst dinner to ‘stand for Britain’ against Harold Wilson and the political class generally. His reception was so frosty that he went home early. Civil-military relations in Britain are no problem.

Army-society relations are another matter, and one that has long been as important to the British as to any other people in Europe. The small regular army of the 18th and 19th centuries might be enough for normal domestic and imperial purposes, but how to raise a large enough force to secure the British Isles against threat of invasion? Such a threat – always and only from France – was real enough between 1793 and 1805, and was thought to be real again when the extraordinarily excitable Victorian public thrice whipped itself into a frenzy between 1846 and 1859. Numbers were made up from two sources, the Militia and the Volunteers. On the Napoleonic occasion their total turnout was impressive enough to present that picture so agreeable to patriotic military theorists: a nation in arms, their ideal of an army-society relationship.

The Militia was an age-old part-time institution meandering back through history via Falstaff (see Henry IV Part 2, Act III Scene ii) to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. Service in it was nominally universal but actually determined by ballot and, on account of the perks that came with it, not unpopular among the lower classes. Probably less efficient but rather more fun were the infantry Volunteers and their cavalry counterparts, the Yeomanry. A.J. Youngson described the passion for volunteering that hit classical Edinburgh: ‘Every able-bodied man was in some regiment or corps, and the sparkle and spectacle of uniform became a part of the life of the city. Brougham served with the same gun in a company of artillery as Playfair, and Francis Horner walked the streets with a musket, being a private in the Gentlemen Regiment. As for Sir Walter Scott, he became the life and soul of the Edinburgh troop of the Midlothian Yeomanry Cavalry.’ The Northern Athens was classier than most British cities but, mutatis mutandis, much the same happened in all the other populated places: among them, Meryton, where Lydia Bennet’s seducer, the gentlemanly-looking Mr Wickham, was a Militia officer.

Such military zeal does not strike one as surprising, given that the French had been the popular enemy for ten years, that by 1803 the enemy was terrifyingly personified in Napoleon Bonaparte, and that Britain was still far from being a mainly urban and industrial country. What is more surprising is to find the same enthusiasm for volunteering half a century later, when Britain had become ‘the workshop of the world’ and the supposedly pacific attitudes of its burgeoning middle classes held much greater sway. But the British of the 1850s were just as worked up about the French as their grandfathers had been. Bands of Volunteers formed themselves all over the place with hardly any official encouragement or subsidy – and somewhat to the consternation of a notoriously conservative War Office. Leech and the other cartoonists of the age depicted stout and spectacled bourgeois figures in fancy Volunteer uniforms disporting themselves under canvas and at the rifle butts. Surtees placed Mr Sponge’s reluctant host, Mr Jawleyford as an officer in the Bumperkin Yeomanry. Tennyson urged them on with his vehement verses ‘Riflemen, Form!’ in the Times. Their historian Ian Beckett prefaces his book with a verse from the more popular poet Martin Tupper.

Cannot we see them? – impatiently waiting,
Hundreds of thousands, all hungry for spoil,
Breathing out slaughter, and bitterly hating
Britain and all that is born of her soil!
Jesuit priests and praetorian legions
Clamour like hounds to be loosed on the prey,
Eager to devastate Protestant regions,
And to take vengeance for Waterloo day!

It is with this soldierly ferment in the mid-century decades of the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the wars of Prussian expansion that David French picks up the story. It was evident to the more thoughtful that army and society were not well related to one another, and that the British army, which remained, to an alarming degree, a body apart, contrasted painfully with the efficient citizen armies of France and Germany. British officers still purchased their commissions, a practice abhorrent to believers in the new gospels of competitive examinations and promotion by merit. On the other side of an unbridgeable social divide were the other ranks, drawn from ‘the lowest stratum of the population, the denizens of the slums and out-of-the-way corners of our great cities’: a polite paraphrase of Wellington’s ‘scum of the earth’. They were unwelcome in all but the most vulgar places of entertainment, they drank too much and sometimes fought each other in the streets (Kipling’s ballad ‘Belts’ exactly parallels an incident on French’s page 249), and about a third of them at any one time had venereal disease. So gentlemanly a character as Sergeant Troy, out to catch recruits in Wessex, was altogether exceptional. On the other hand, the troops’ steadiness and courage in battle was unquestioned and when they could be represented as ‘Christian heroes’ punishing the mutinous ‘heathen’ sepoys, or performed such heroic feats as the defence of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War there would be an outburst of popular admiration. The fact remained, however, that until the 1870s they were socially unacceptable, and in their marginal situation absolutely unrepresentative of the population in whose name they fought. Some thoughtful compatriots thought that a pity, besides wishing there were more of them. It was embarrassing that when it was suggested to Bismarck that Britain might land an expeditionary force in Pomerania, he responded by saying that if it did, he would call the police.

Enter the reformers Edward Cardwell and Hugh Childers, secretaries of state for war respectively in Gladstone’s first and second administrations (1868-74 and 1880-1885). Their ideas ran well beyond the improvement of the regular army itself, much though they achieved in that respect, abolishing the practice of purchasing of commissions, for example, and introducing compulsory retirement of mediocre officers; for the other ranks, shorter service, better conditions of service and an end to the last vestige of discipline by flogging. Their biggest idea – what French is most interested in, and what makes his book indispensable for military historians – was a county-based regimental system by which army and society might be organically bonded at local community level. French points out that the Cardwell-and-Childers ‘quest to create a cheaper yet more efficient and militarily effective army was part of a wider political and social programme’ to ‘integrate the working classes into the political nation as respected members of the community’. Not just respected but, from the upper class point of view, safer. He cites an infantry colonel as writing in 1876 that the new-style army would ‘render military training a powerful instrument of popular education, so that the same process which renders a young man an efficient soldier shall also improve his character, and develop his bodily and mental capacities, rendering him in every respect a more perfect man and a better citizen.’

Childers confided to his constituents his ‘wish to see the people of England in the best sense military, but not warlike’ and his ambition to create ‘a system under which a much larger proportion of the youth of the country might, if they wished, voluntarily spend a short time . . . in the ranks. In an army really representing the average intelligence and right feeling of the country, such a short experience of military service would benefit our youth of every class, whether in town or country, whether artisan, mechanic or peasant.’ No one yet talked of conscription on the German pattern, but no one needed to: the regular army, the Militia (by now, voluntary) and the Volunteers together held open three gates through which the nation’s manhood could offer military service and, in the last two cases, did so with satisfactory enthusiasm. Evidence that the bonding of the three military organisations had not been unsuccessful came when the voluntary organisations provided substantial reinforcements to the regular army in the Boer War.

Had the later Victorians, then, succeeded in bringing army and society comfortably together? Compared to the relationship in our own days, it certainly looks like it. How far the later Victorians and the Edwardians after them may be characterised as ‘military’ or ‘warlike’ is a nice question. It is true that an unmilitary, pacifistic body of opinion, the Cobdenite, internationalist main stream of Liberalism, was still strong enough in 1914 to hold Asquith’s cabinet away from war until the latest imaginable moment; a way of thinking curiously consistent with insistence that the Pax Britannica should be maintained by the biggest navy in the world. On the other hand, there was an unquestioning acceptance of the fact of war, general contentment that Britain had an army to conduct it on the nation’s behalf (in other parts of the world), and no blinking the fact that war meant kill-or-be-killed. French notes en passant the ‘militaristic patriotism’ and ‘pervasive popular militarism’ of the period, a mood to be distinguished from, though it obviously edged into, the intemperate ‘jingoism’ that flourished before the Boer War. Charles Pooter of Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, was not a jingo, but he gladly took his beloved Carrie to the East Acton Volunteer Rifle Brigade ball.

French demonstrates with a wealth of fresh-dug detail how the Cardwell-Childers reforms fell short of many of their military aims, but their net social effect over the years up to 1914 was to make the regular army more respectable and military service, in its three forms, familiar and acceptable: a process assisted by the Volunteers’ conversion into the Territorials in 1907. Local communities took a close interest in their regiments while a growing tribe of war correspondents helped the nation at large to follow the army’s achievements and experiences, some of them painful, around the empire. Military bands played in the parks and at public ceremonies, companies in uniform marched to church parades, regimental colours hung in the established churches, the British Red Cross geared up for war. Public schools evolved ‘army sides’ to supply candidates for the military academies of Sandhurst and Woolwich, lower class boys’ organisations took on a soldierly air. Battle and battleship pictures were commonplace at each year’s Royal Academy show. The music hall famously rang to songs about empire, conquest, heroism and death, but so did the drawing-room, traversing the gamut from ‘Home they brought her warrior dead’ (Tennyson) to ‘Yes! Let me like a soldier fall’ (W.V. Wallace). My mother, born in 1893, said that the lines she best remembered from the songs her photographer father lulled her to sleep with were, ‘What’s the odds if you lose your legs, So long as you drub the foe.’ I myself remember the old man humming something in the mid-1930s about ‘fighting with the Seventh Royal Fusiliers’ and going to ‘death or glory’.

The Royal Fusiliers was one of the regiments in the system whose rise and fall French has made it his business to map. He specialises in military history and the (controversial) purpose of his book is to demonstrate that the regimental system, long proclaimed to have been the strength of the British army, was not all that it was cracked up to be. For example: the locally-titled regiments more often than not were made up with men from outside their counties; the Royal Welch Fusiliers acquired the soubriquet of ‘the Birmingham Fusiliers’; more Englishmen than Scots served in the Black Watch. Nor was identification with the regiment and loyalty to it necessarily what gave men esprit de corps and the will to fight well. French describes in much detail the many ways in which the army sought between the 1880s and the Second World War to make the regiment constitute a ‘family’ and a society with a glorious past (often manufactured to order), but he also shows how little morale might be affected when losses were made up by outsiders. What mattered to fighting men, in Montgomery’s experienced judgment, was not how well ‘their ancestors fought at the Battle of Minden two centuries ago’ but simply ‘devotion to the comrades who are with them and the leaders who are in front of them’.

To that may be added the satisfaction of knowing that they had the backing of the society in whose name they were fighting. Nothing produces a better army-society relationship than conscription to national service in a war universally understood to be unavoidable and virtuous. The First and Second World Wars – the Second somewhat more so than the First – were so understood. That understanding survived for a few years after 1945, but then began a series of shocks and changes (well summarised by French) that have tended to push the army back towards the place it occupied when Kipling wrote his ballads on its behalf. With conscription for national service a thing of the past, civil society as demilitarised as can be, and Tommy scarcely visible in mainland Britain but, as at present, all too visible in overseas operations about which his parent society is less than wholly enthusiastic, there has developed a gulf between army and society and a magnification of civil society’s normal difficulty in understanding the differences there must be between the army’s ethos and values and its own. It is something new, too, for Tommy to find himself sent to save, not his own country, but someone else’s: a mission for which he cannot feel so naturally suited. Assuming that such missions, preferably in future free from doubts concerning their legality, will continue to be part of the army’s work, the question of how to make sure they are not launched without society’s backing becomes one of pressing importance.