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December 20, 2004

Slaughter of the Regiments

In a previous post, I talked about the Perils of Transformation for the people trying to implement it, and those going through it. In the case of the British Army, with it's long and storied history, the contraction inherent in trying to shift from an Army designed to fight battles of attrition to an Army designed to fight battles of maneuver is particularly painful, as there are more regiments with long and distinguished histories than there are companies of infantry to assign the lineages to. The US Army has had similar experiences, but as I noted in the previous bit, since the Regulars are recruited nationally, the issues of regional identification don't intrude as much as they do for the County regiments of the British Army.

As part of the US Army Transformation process, in order to keep the designers and implementers from falling into old mental habits, we renamed things. We threw out Corps, Division, Brigade and replaced them with new verbal constructs, the "Unit of Employment," or UE, and the "Unit of Action," or UA - in order to make it easier to create new organizational constructs. We have made other changes to keep people from using 'outmoded' mental models, as well - "Fires Brigade" instead of Division Artillery, "Maneuver Enhancement Brigade" instead of Engineer Brigade. And for a purpose other than getting some clever Lieutenant Colonel his Legion of Merit. As we really are trying to change how those units are built and employed, it actually does serve a purpose to keep people from slipping into old habits - especially the old farts in charge. The young ones are growing up with these changes - for them, it is business as usual.

Still - history matters. And that shows up when after units pass through the Transformation process, we go back to historical designations - UA's become brigades again, as there aren't too many Colonels running around who really want to call themselves a "Unit of Action Commander." They want to be Brigade Commanders. Especially now that in the new structure, Brigades are mini-divisions and more independent and deployable. And even fewer Generals want to tell their friends they are a "Unit of Employment X Commander" hoping to get promoted to 3 Stars so they can become a "Unit of Employment Y Commander!"

The point is - names and history matter, especially to the direct combat branches of Infantry and Armor. The artillery, like it's Brit counterpart, tends to take it's identity from the branch, rather than the regiment. My regimental affiliation is the 3rd Field Artillery regiment - but I really think of myself as an Artilleryman, or Redleg. Part and parcel of our descent from the British Royal Artillery Regiment, the all-encompassing organization for British Artillery.

Cohesion and sense of community are important, as this little vignette shows:

W est Belfast in the autumn of 1982 was a bad place to be a British soldier. Booby-traps, like the one which destroyed Corporal Leon Bush, aged 22, of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, were routine, decidedly not news. Corporal Bush’s death, like most soldiers’, was quickly forgotten by everyone except his family.

It was, therefore, an enormous consolation to Corporal Bush’s blood relatives when they discovered that he had two families who wanted to keep his memory alive: themselves, and the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters. ‘They came to stay with the regiment at its base in Germany,’ remembers Patrick Mercer, a captain in the WFR at the time, and later its commanding officer. ‘We had a little silver statuette made. We called it the Leon Bush Memorial and we presented it each year as a prize for regimental competitions. Whenever we could, we had members of the family over from England to present the trophy, and it meant the world to them.’

These discussions and concerns are not just academic. They hit at the heart of why men fight - not what gets them to the battlefield, but what keeps them together when they are at that battlefield, and the bees are buzzing around overhead. What gets them to do this: Die for each other. These two pictures show soldiers trying to rescue a wounded comrade.

They will eventually succeed - but not until one of the rescuers dies in the attempt.

To a bean-counter, that's a bad trade: 1 guy dead and one wounded for what could have been only one wounded, possibly dead. For unit cohesion, that level of commitment, "Leave No Man Behind," is a combat multiplier that over time saves lives, and kills the enemy.

How units gain and maintain cohesion is much more than history. For the actual units, it's leadership and shared experience (especially tough experience, first in training, then in action). If this were not so, then the US Army throughout it's existence should have been a execrable force, unable to fight it's way out of a paper bag, as we've never had a system with the tentacles through it that the British Army has had - not even in the Guard. Due to the nature of the Regulars in US experience, we're more branch oriented in our internal politics, and to a lesser extent this last 100 years, Division-oriented.

A case in point, 60 years ago today, Bastogne was surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge, trapping the 101st Airborne inside, in the "Bastion of the Battered Bastards of the 101st." While the 101st had existed as a division in WWI, it was demobilized after the war, and raised again for WWII. The Parachute Infantry Regiments were also newly-raised. Yet there is no doubting their fighting capability - which was attributable to the leadership, troop quality, and forging process of shared experience. An excellent series of books on the 101st and what I'm talking about were written by Donald Burgett, I recommend them heartily. If you only want to get one (but you should read the whole series) get "Seven Roads to Hell" which covers the Battle of the Bulge.

By contrast, the line infantry divisions, many also with storied pasts, were kept in the lines and replacements fed into the meatgrinder. Their efficiency dropped measurably as the war in Europe progressed and units became composed of people who had little in common except the shoulder patch, excepting in those units where extraordinary leadership manifested itself.

With the British system - the risk is not so much with the units as it is with the recruiting base and popular identity with the Army. And if you think that's silly - you should go visit England - and see the Regimental museums that almost literally dot the countryside. The Brits will continue to build fine units that will fight well, just as we do. What they stand to lose is the connection to the people of the nation that they have via the Regimental system, a connection that in many ways the US Army does not, though certainly the National Guard does. We are an insular institution, and we and the nation suffer from that. It would be sad to see the Brits go the same way.

The whole article by Andrew Gilligan from the Spectator is in the Flash Traffic (extended entry).

Slaughter of the regiments
Andrew Gilligan

W est Belfast in the autumn of 1982 was a bad place to be a British soldier. Booby-traps, like the one which destroyed Corporal Leon Bush, aged 22, of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, were routine, decidedly not news. Corporal Bush’s death, like most soldiers’, was quickly forgotten by everyone except his family.

It was, therefore, an enormous consolation to Corporal Bush’s blood relatives when they discovered that he had two families who wanted to keep his memory alive: themselves, and the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters. ‘They came to stay with the regiment at its base in Germany,’ remembers Patrick Mercer, a captain in the WFR at the time, and later its commanding officer. ‘We had a little silver statuette made. We called it the Leon Bush Memorial and we presented it each year as a prize for regimental competitions. Whenever we could, we had members of the family over from England to present the trophy, and it meant the world to them.’

This week the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, and every other traditional, single-battalion county regiment in the British army, effectively ceased to exist. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that worthy successor to Liddell Hart, announced that all will be either abolished or merged into what Mercer, now a Tory MP, calls ‘Starbucks regiments’, big, multiple-battalion regional franchises designed to uplift employee productivity, downsize overheads and deliver a more economically priced forward offer to key stakeholders in major war-fighting markets. The WFR will become part of a ‘Mercia Regiment’ covering the whole of the Midlands, from Hereford to Chesterfield. The fate of the Leon Bush Memorial is not yet known.

For sophisticates, the idea of the ‘family regiment’ is faintly amusing, an idea as dated and sentimental as the avuncular Dixon of Dock Green-style British bobby. But those who devised the Leon Bush Memorial, and other such gestures, were acting not out of sentimentality or kind-heartedness. They are making a shrewd calculation about the signals it sends to the other soldiers: we care about you, we will look after your family if you die, we are an outfit worth fighting for.

This sort of thing is not, of course, impossible in a Starbucks army. But it is much easier to pull off in a small, intimate regiment where some, perhaps many, will have known each other before they joined, and most will have shared experiences once inside. In a multi-battalion regiment with soldiers constantly moving around from battalion to battalion, half of them might not even know who a Leon Bush was.

As the opposition to the changes has built up, Mr Hoon and the chief of the general staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, have laid down a devastating barrage of covering speeches, bombarding the newspapers with slightly less than precision-guided interviews. The message has been mixed: at times they have emphasised the radicalism of the change, at others they have been at pains to suggest that nothing at all is being sacrificed. Over the next few months a great deal of PR nonsense is likely to be talked about how cherished regimental identities have been ‘saved’ by the use of a daring secret weapon: brackets. So the new, say, third battalion of the new, merged Royal Regiment of Scotland will be allowed to place after its name the words, in brackets, ‘the Black Watch’.

For a time, 3 Royal Regiment of Scotland (the Black Watch) will indeed be an approximate facsimile of The Regiment Formerly Known As The Black Watch, as will many of the others. Each of the battalions in the new super-regiments will retain a good deal of autonomy. But as the ‘Black Watch’ starts to receive new drafts of recruits from all over Scotland, and as soldiers move around between Scottish battalions more often, its identity will be diluted and its distinctiveness will wither.

The experience of those English counties which lost their regiments in return for a set of brackets in earlier reorganisations is instructive. The Royal Anglians, perhaps the prototype for the mergers now happening everywhere, used to have lots of bracketed battalions naming the eight old county regiments they had absorbed. But the brackets, and indeed most of the battalions, lasted less than 15 years. No prospective 18-year-old soldier from, say, Leicestershire would now realise that the county ever had a regiment of its own. Regionalised battalions with no particular local identity will be much easier to cut when the next round of economies comes along in a few years’ time.

The tragedy of this week’s changes is that several of them are admirable. The ending of the ‘arms plot’, where units rotate between roles and home bases every few years, immensely disruptive to family life and military efficiency alike, is opposed by almost no one. Even the Starbucks units have their adherents. But the entire process has been contaminated by the need to make actual cuts to the infantry at a time when it has seldom been busier. The decision that has caused the greatest ill-feeling of all is the choice of which three or four infantry battalions — out of the total of 40 — are to be axed altogether. (Officially, these doomed battalions will also be ‘merged’ with others; but in practice theirs will be mergers only in the sense that Czechoslovakia ‘merged’ with Germany in 1938.)

General Jackson has said that one of the key factors in the abolition decision is a regiment’s recruiting performance: how undermanned it is. But in the run-up to the cuts announcement, the MoD has curiously blocked all attempts by MPs and peers to get the figures. On 7 September a defence minister, Lord Bach, told Lord Astor of Hever in a parliamentary answer that information on regimental shortfalls was ‘not held centrally’ and ‘could be provided only at disproportionate cost’. This, The Spectator has learnt, was untrue.

Information on shortfalls by infantry regiments is, in fact, held centrally and is produced in a monthly report by the Directorate of Infantry, the last two months’ worth of which have been leaked to The Spectator at the disproportionate cost of a 26 pence stamp. The reports show that nearly all infantry regiments are undermanned to some degree. But they also show pretty clearly that some of the regiments in line to be axed
including the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, the second battalion of the Royal Anglians, and one of the Gurkha battalions — are, in fact, among the best recruited and the least undermanned in the entire infantry. The RGBW is undermanned by only 18 soldiers out of 530. The 2 Royal Anglians is one of a handful of infantry units which are actually in surplus.

By contrast, some of the few units which are to be saved entirely untouched are, in fact, among the worst recruited and the most undermanned in the infantry. The Scots Guards, according to the document, are undermanned by 12 per cent, the third worst of the entire 40 infantry battalions. The Irish Guards is undermanned by 8 per cent.

There has been persistent suspicion that the Parachute Regiment, another unit which will survive unscathed, has benefited from friends in high places. General Jackson is a Para. And indeed, the leaked figures show that the three Para battalions are undermanned by up to 6 per cent — worse than 15 other battalions which will be abolished or merged, including the Black Watch.

‘The deck has been stacked in favour of the best-connected regiments, regardless of the actual merits of their case,’ said one officer in a doomed battalion this week.

To be fair, there is a little more to it than this. The army has taken a ten-year rolling average of recruitment, not a snapshot — although in this analysis, sources say, the Paras come out even worse — and recruiting is not the only factor. General Jackson has stressed that every regiment, including his own, has been thoroughly looked at.

Nonetheless, after a busy few years’ bailing the Prime Minister out of the fuel protests, the firemen’s strike, Iraq and other self-inflicted wounds, the army feels a little aggrieved at seeing 1,500 of its men packed off to the Jobcentre. ‘It’s all so pointless,’ said one serving infantry officer. ‘Don’t they realise how little an infantry battalion costs? All you need is a Nissen hut, some boots, rifles, and a few functioning radios.’ Well, perhaps not, then.

Philip Hope-Wallace, the drama critic of the Guardian, famously warned that one should never work for a liberal newspaper, because they always sacked you just before Christmas. As the British army learnt this week, the same principle clearly applies to those working for a liberal imperialist.